Vol. 42 No. 1 · 2 January 2020

Soon to Be Stateless

Francis Wade on Modi’s plans for Assam

1992 words

Inearly September, footage was shown on Indian media of a mass detention camp being built to house three thousand ‘illegals’ in the north-eastern state of Assam. The camp will be surrounded by a twenty-foot-high wall. Crudely painted signs direct visitors ‘To detention centre’. There are watchtowers. Local officials in the Goalpara district of Assam, on the floodplains of the Brahmaputra fifty miles south of the Bhutanese border, have been keen to insist that the camp isn’t a jail. Detainees will live in hostel-type rooms, they say. There will be a school just outside the walls for the children held inside; there will be a hospital and a communal kitchen; special care will be taken of women with babies. At least nine other camps are being built.

When the state government of Assam released the final version of its National Register of Citizens (NRC) on 31 August, the names of more than 1.9 million people who live there weren’t on it. They are now classed as ‘illegals’, and unless they can prove their right to citizenship to one of the several hundred so-called Foreigners’ Tribunals that have been set up, they face being interned in camps like the one in Goalpara.

The NRC was first used in Assam in 1951 to determine who, among a population of eight million (it’s 33 million now), was entitled to citizenship. The aim was to establish who had arrived from what was then East Pakistan. Under the current criteria, only those who can provide evidence that their family lived within Assam’s borders before 25 March 1971 are protected. (That date marked the start of a war between Bangladesh and Pakistan over the secession of the former, which led to the flight of millions of Bengalis across the border into India.) The remainder, the Assam government has claimed, will eventually be deported to Bangladesh.

The verification process got underway in 2015. When the first draft of the NRC was released in July 2018, four million names were missing from it; in the final version, that figure was reduced by half. Haphazard administration has resulted in strange omissions: sometimes the name of one sibling is on the list while another has been left off; several government employees have been excluded, and so too has a former chief minister of the state. Hundreds of thousands of people, especially the poorest inhabitants, don’t possess papers dating back fifty years. The huge majority of the 1.9 million people omitted from the register are Bengali. The Brahmaputra valley, with its abundant irrigable land, has for centuries attracted migrant agricultural workers, who have moved between Bengal and Assam according to the season. Muslim dynasties ruled much of the delta region – the Brahmaputra and the Ganges both drain into the Bay of Bengal – before the British arrived and granted land rights to Muslim holy men, who came with their followers to form agrarian communities in the Brahmaputra plains. Over time they expanded into the hinterlands of the Hindu and Buddhist states further west along the Ganges. In the early 19th century, wanting to find workers for the tea plantations that had been established in Assam, British rulers in India encouraged workers from East and West Bengal, which lie to the south of Assam, to move there in their tens of thousands. This typically feckless politicking – Bengali was made the official state language and educated English-speaking migrants were given senior administrative posts – led to a resentment among the Assamese which, over time, developed into a fixed opposition to the Bengali population.

Today, Assam is bordered by six other Indian states, with Bhutan to the north and Bangladesh to the south. To the west, a narrow corridor in West Bengal, bordered by Bangladesh and Nepal, provides the only land route to the rest of India. Under the British, this remote patchwork of territories was treated as an area where borders could be moved at will. In 1874 colonial administrators, eager to boost the state’s revenues, decided to transfer the tea-rich province of Sylhet from Bengal to Assam, with the result that the Assamese abruptly became a minority in the new state. Various methods were mooted to restore the Assamese to their former position: during a visit in 1937, Nehru was petitioned to introduce a twenty-year ban on the immigration of Bengalis to Assam, while the Assam Preservation Society sought his opinion on the state’s secession from India ‘as a means of saving the Assamese race from extinction’. In its 1945 election manifesto, the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee warned that ‘unless the province of Assam is organised on the basis of Assamese language and Assamese culture, the survival of the Assamese nationality and culture will become impossible.’ Resentment was sharpened by a sense that the state was viewed by the British merely as an extension of Bengal. The Bengali-speaking Sylhet region, according to the historian Sujit Chaudhuri, ‘was regarded as an ulcer hindering the emergence of a unilingual Assam’.

Growing tension over Assam’s Bengali population – which would increase further as refugees fled the bloodshed following Partition – triggered a referendum in July 1947, a month before Indian independence, to decide whether Sylhet should be returned to Bengal, soon to be East Pakistan. Its tea plantations had brought considerable wealth to Assam, but the campaign for homogenisation resulted in a vote in favour of Sylhet’s return. When millions of refugees fled to India during Bangladesh’s Liberation War in the early 1970s, the demographic make-up of Assam changed once again. The war also provided Assam’s government with a convenient cut-off point for its classification of citizens.

The current vilification of supposed ‘foreigners’ fits with the nationalist politics of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the subject of the country’s ‘illegals’ played a prominent part in the campaign for the May 2019 elections, in which the BJP won nearly two-thirds of seats in parliament. Addressing crowds in West Bengal in April, the home minister, Amit Shah, pledged that a BJP government would ‘pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal’. Since coming to power in 2014, the party – aided by the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) volunteer organisation, which effectively serves as a shadow state – has kept communal tensions at a steady simmer. At campaign rallies and in media appearances it has fed a steady stream of rumour into mainstream discourse.

The BJP, which also controls the Assam parliament, claimed during the campaign that it had finally ‘identified the infiltrators’, those who shouldn’t be on the NRC. But when the final list came out in August, it became clear that a large proportion of the newly stateless were Bengali Hindus. The party, which promotes a Hindus-first ideology, immediately demanded a review of the process, declaring that only Muslims should be expelled.

The intervention typifies Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s use of ideas of national belonging to consolidate his political power. On 11 December, parliament passed a Citizenship Amendment Bill that grants citizenship to immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but only if they are not Muslim. The move sparked nationwide protests, led predominantly by Muslim students, which resulted in mass arrests and several deaths. The BJP responded by shutting down the internet in major cities, as well as in Assam and other north-eastern states. Modi’s split between ‘deserving’ and ‘non-deserving’ groups is stark: an attempt earlier this year to pass the bill – which, had it been successful, would have enfranchised a sizeable number of voters in time for the May elections – was made just as he was attempting to deport forty thousand Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar.

Soon after its election victory the BJP revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, bringing the formerly autonomous state, which has a Muslim majority, under the direct control of New Delhi. One consequence of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, which passed with an overwhelming majority, is that non-permanent residents can now buy land in Kashmir, overturning a prohibition on the settlement of Indians there as well as creating opportunities for Indian businesses. Both Assam and Kashmir are, it seems, in the early stages of large-scale social engineering projects, which take various forms: in Kashmir, assimilation (as Arundhati Roy has pointed out, the prospect of Israel-style settlement building in Kashmir is not unrealistic); in Assam, the disenfranchisement, and possible internment, of a vast number of soon to be stateless people. Modi’s brand of national consolidation – or, to use his party’s term, reorganisation – evidently requires placing Muslims in a legal (and, in Assam’s case, physical) space separate from the rest of the Indian population.

The increasing polarisation of Indian society is evident not only in the tensions between religious communities but between the supporters of the BJP and everyone else. The developments in Kashmir and Assam make clear that the BJP leadership see their aggressive stance as having a stronger mandate now that the party has been re-elected. It may well have been ‘Modicare’ – the party’s healthcare scheme, which has removed hospital fees for millions of poor Indians – as well as increasing public hostility to the Congress Party, which is seen as being elitist, that won it the election. But its action over Kashmir, and the hostile rhetoric of Amit Shah and others, are signs that it is confident of popular support. It has gathered this confidence by testing the public’s response to calculated shifts in language and action. The party’s victory – it won 303 of the 545 seats, in addition to the 50 seats taken by other parties in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, despite a weakening economy and rising unemployment – demonstrated its success in carrying voters with it. There is now no opposition party in parliament strong enough to mount a significant challenge to it.

Addressing a rally in Kolkata in early October, Shah announced that the NRC would soon be extended to West Bengal, and eventually to India as a whole: ‘Each and every infiltrator in India will be shown the door,’ he said. West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, of the centre-left Trinamool Congress party, said at the end of November, after her party won three seats in by-elections, defeating the BJP in all of them, that she wouldn’t ‘allow implementation of the NRC in West Bengal’ and didn’t ‘want it anywhere in the country’.

Meanwhile, the government’s passing of the citizenship amendment bill will reduce the number omitted from the Assam list to nearly a million, all of them Muslims. Hundreds of camps the size of the one in Goalpara would be needed to hold them, and Bangladesh, already having to cope with a million or so Rohingya refugees in the city-sized Kutupalong camp, will not take in any more.

The Modi administration must have known all along that it wouldn’t be able to expel people en masse, and the fact that Assam’s soon to be stateless are likely to remain in India ultimately matters little: the register has allowed the BJP to increase its authority in a region whose remoteness from Delhi has always been a source of unease, just as Kashmir’s has. Though Modi’s own record indicates an antipathy towards India’s Muslims, his party’s manoeuvring is as much to do with maintaining Hindu supremacy as it is a pragmatic exercise in expanding state power. The popular support gained by championing the former provides a useful vehicle for the latter.

The government’s decision to make another attempt at passing the Citizenship Amendment Bill won’t have been popular with the nationalist Assamese, who want all of those considered infiltrators expelled, regardless of religion. But its success will have brought the BJP the support of the hundreds of thousands of non-Muslims who are to be re-enfranchised. On paper this ‘filtering process’, as one minister called it, will save a vast number of people from statelessness, and the BJP will make every effort to ensure its beneficence is known by all.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences