To Be or Not To Be (A Citizen): The Curious Case of Assam

To Be or Not To Be (A Citizen): The Curious Case of Assam

by Padmini Baruah

In March 2003, in the idyllic town of Digboi, blasts rocked the oilfields near my home, rousing my family from its slumber. I remember the terror in my ten-year-old eyes as I watched 70-foot flames rise through the night. I did not know it then but the insurgent group, the United Liberation Front of Assam, had blown up four oil tanks, just another in their string of spectacle targets that characterized the ’90s-’00s.

This childhood story is anecdotal, but symbolic of the conflict that has raged throughout northeast India for as long as I can remember. The rise of this insurgency stems from the issue of citizenship. In 1979,  a student-led mass agitation  took its toll on the region for over seven years around the issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. The issue was that these migrants had been given voting rights, and this supplemented the additional paranoia that they were encroaching lands, taking over jobs, and slowly planting roots in Assam.

Multiple demonstrations and one tragic genocide later, in 1985 the incumbent Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed the Assam Accord with the political leadership of the Assam movement. It provided for the detection and deletion from electoral rolls of foreigners who came into Assam from 1966 onward and promised the regularization of all those who emigrated before 1966. However, despite the Accord, no significant push for implementation materialized, which led to the emergence of a devastating insurgency movement with far-reaching socio-economic consequences. It has led to the rise of a divisive, xenophobic culture that has produced multiple incidences of violence against Bengali Muslims, who are often (incorrectly) conflated with being illegal immigrants. This insurgency has only begun to die down in recent times, with multiple interventions by the military, who continue to have the right to commit essentially any act of violence without consequences.

So why is this issue important? In 2018, this ugly risk of communal divide reared its head again with the introduction of the National Register of Citizens. The Citizenship Act, 1955, and the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity cards) Rules, 2003 set up a document-based process to identify who would be considered a citizen in Assam. This was a complex and lengthy procedure (see image).


On 30 July 2018, the authorities in charge of the NRC released a first draft of this register with seismic consequences. The draft classified 28.9 million residents as citizens, leaving out an astounding 4 million (including, as an aside, a very xenophobic aunt of mine in an ironical twist of fate). Most of those left out were from minority populations, particularly Bengali Hindus and Muslims. While this is by no means a final list, it is worrying that people who lived in the province for generations suddenly found their very identity as Indians questioned.

In January 2019, the Indian government followed this up with amendments to the highly controversial Citizenship Bill. This included provisions for making Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians from the neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan eligible for Indian citizenship. This has been heavily critiqued on multiple counts – it violates the fundamental tenets of secularism by making religion a criteria for citizenship, ignores minorities from non-Muslim countries, creates an artificial distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims, and feeds into the problematic rise of Hindu, right-wing politics in India. Protests rose up all over the northeast, resulting in the bill lapsing before Parliament could ratify it.

2019 witnesses the 17th round of general elections in India, and it is expected that the same Bharatiya Janata Party who floated this Bill will return to power under the aegis of Mr. Narendra Modi. However, it cannot be denied that failure has characterized his regime on multiple fronts, with rising incidences of communal violence, slowing GDP growth rates, high unemployment rates, and a failed demonetization initiative, among others. Hence, it is but natural that strategy dictates that the BJP utilizes emotive tactics to achieve electoral gains. It is critical to frame the Citizenship Bill debate against this context. Despite the Bill failing, the effects on the ground have been worrying. Eviction drives have escalated in Assam since the BJP won state elections and the NRC has increased fear and uncertainty around the question of deportation.  

Assam’s is a tale that is oft-seen in any strategically-located area with a strong surge in migration. It is easy to fall for a rhetoric that categorises one group as victimised and posits a vulnerable minority as an ‘other’. Yet, as famously stated, these elections are not merely about governance – they are about whether “India can remain India”. It would not be an overstatement to say that the electoral outcomes will reflect what the body politic want their nation to look like. Thus, the Assam issue becomes a crucial indicator of the future of democracy and remains one on which we must stay vigilant.

Image: Voting Ends

Courtesy of Al-Jazeera English / Flickr


Padmini Baruah is a first year MALD student at the Fletcher School who focuses on gender, migration and political Islam. She is a lawyer by training from the National Law School of India University.

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