Since the outbreak of violence in western Assam this summer, some commentators have cited census figures to bolster their argument that “illegal immigration” of Bangladeshis to Assam is a myth. But others have inferred from the same set of data that illegal immigration is out of control, and that the Bodoland violence is its effect. However, the binary opposition between myth and reality that frames this discussion is problematic. Myths and reality tend to be more intertwined in human affairs.
Most commentaries on the Assam crisis seem to be incapable of seeing through the foundational myths of the post-Partition Indian state. Terms like “Bangladeshi” and “illegal immigrants”—and the assumption that the meaning of these terms is obvious—tend to focus on one part of the story of cross-border migration. Willingly or unwillingly, it ignores another equally important part: the persistent confusion about the people who cross the Indo-Bangladesh border without documentation.
By now it is clear to most observers that the Partition of 1947 did nothing to reverse the logic of Assam’s historical predicament as a frontier region with ample unclaimed land available for cultivation. The insertion of an international border could not suddenly turn off the flow of people from one of the subcontinent’s most densely populated areas to a relatively sparsely populated region. But that is only a part of the story.
What is less explicitly recognised is that significant migration of Hindus also continues to take place across the Partition’s eastern border, along with the migration of poor Muslims as also the circular migration of seasonal workers. Unlike the post-Partition border with Pakistan on the west, where an ‘exchange of population’ amidst extraordinary brutality more or less ended in the years immediately following the Partition, across the eastern border it has remained an open-ended process.
Indian citizenship laws may reflect the ground realities of the Partition’s western borders, but they do not take cognisance of the population flows across the eastern borders. However, there has been ex post facto acceptance of the ground realities of the east through amendments of our citizenship laws. The reason is not far to seek.
The official rejection of the two-nation theory means that Indian law cannot distinguish between Hindu and Muslim arrivals from Pakistan or Bangladesh except in the context of the immediate post-Partition years. Yet many in India believe that Hindus from Pakistan/Bangladesh have an implicit right of return. The international legal principle says that a person has the right to return to his or her “country of origin”. While Indian law does not recognise such a right of return, politically speaking, post-Partition India has never been in a position to close its doors to Hindus coming in from East Pakistan/Bangladesh. What this has meant is that the state has had to take the same attitude towards everyone else crossing the border since its secular ideology inhibits keeping the doors open to one set of immigrants and shutting them to another.
Certain peculiarities of our citizenship practices have made it possible to live with this ambivalence. Like in order to acquire Indian citizenship, legally speaking, a cross-border migrant from East Pakistan or Bangladesh has to go through a formal registration process—which is not a requirement for exercising voting rights. Voting rights in India are based on proxy citizenship papers. As a Task Force on Border Management constituted following the Kargil war puts it, “irrespective of the legal niceties, passport, election card and ration card are treated as evidence of citizenship”. But such proxy documents, said the Task Force, are “easy to get by providing an illegal gratification of just a few hundred rupees to the concerned functionaries in government departments”. It was dismayed by this state of affairs and called it a “disconcerting aspect of our national life”.
Whether this ‘aspect of our national life’ is ‘disconcerting’ or not, it has served our national mythology rather well. For all practical purposes, for the first three decades after independence, almost any adult in Assam could get his or her name included in the electoral rolls, allowing officials to simply sidestep the thorny problem of differentiating those immigrants that are legally entitled to Indian citizenship from those that are not.
Post-partition india was never able to close its doors to Hindus coming from Pak/Bangladesh...And its secular ideology kept it from keeping doors open to only one set of immigrants.
It was only after the Assam movement of 1979-85 that India’s Citizenship Act of 1955 was amended to give retrospective recognition to a new category of citizens—specifically taking the ground realities of Assam into account. In 1986, Article 6A was inserted into the Citizenship Act extending Indian citizenship to those who came to Assam before January 1, 1966, from East Pakistan, and had been ordinary residents of the state. Those who came on or after January 1, 1966 but before March 25, 1971, and have been residents of Assam would enjoy all rights of citizens except the right to vote for 10 years (the so-called ‘D’ or doubtful voters of Assam today), though it is far from clear how the distinction is being maintained in practice.
These are rather strange clauses to have in a country’s citizenship laws. Indeed a date that now became a central part of Indian citizenship law thanks to this amendment—March 25, 1971—resonates more in Bangladesh than in India. For that was the day when the Pakistani military crackdown on the liberation struggle in East Pakistan began, initiating a massive exodus of refugees—Hindus as well as Muslims—to India. According to an agreement signed with India in 1972, Bangladesh took responsibility for those who moved to India during the liberation war. However, Bangladesh did not take responsibility for the migrants from East Pakistan who entered Assam before that. It was only because of this that Indian citizenship laws had to be amended to legitimise the status of all Hindus and Muslims who migrated from East Pakistan during the quarter century following the Partition. However, there was no public declaration of conferral of citizenship as such. As a result, while thousands of cross-border migrants were accepted as citizens through an amendment of the citizenship law, there was no effort to publicise the move in order to change popular perceptions at the grassroots.
The Way Out
To address the crisis of the institution of national citizenship at the heart of Assam’s political turmoil, Indians must accept that the Partition’s vision of two, and subsequently three, bounded nation-states does not quite match the subcontinent’s ground realities. But no one should expect that to be easy. After all, the idea that only citizens should vote and have a say in national policy is foundational to the contemporary global political imaginary. Whether India should recognise some version of a right of return like Israel or Germany should be debated as well. While it would be hard to grant such a right, an open debate can only serve the public interest, especially in Assam.
Meanwhile, India will have to find a way of having a meaningful conversation with Bangladesh on the cross-border movement of people. While there is a lot of talk in Indian society and polity about illegal immigration, Bangladesh flatly rejects the notion that there are any illegal Bangladeshi citizens living in India. Be that as it may, the two countries will have to find a way to talk about cross-border population movement rationally. If that were to happen, at least for a start an Indo-Bangladesh protocol on labour movement could take some of the pressure off from the circular migrant who now has to find proxy citizenship papers and participate in elections in order to find security. That could in turn reduce some of the strain on Assam’s legal and political institutions.
It is also incumbent upon the government to increase popular awareness of the amendments to Indian citizenship laws that has turned many formerly unauthorised immigrants into citizens, and to build grassroots political support for those laws.
(Sanjib Baruah is Professor of Political Studies at Bard College, New York.)