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If You Weren’t Here Before 1971, You’re Not a Citizen

A new policy in India displays imperialism's disastrous aftershocks—but also the way in which legal language is increasingly used, around the globe, to mask what is in fact ethnic cleansing.

Biju Boro/AFP/Getty Images

If “these people” don’t return home “like gentlemen,” a provincial legislator in India said Tuesday, “they should be shot.” T. Raj Singh, from India’s dominant and right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, has a seat in Telangana province. The “illegal Bangladeshis and Rohingya” he thinks deserve to be shot are almost all Muslim.  And Muslims, in the BJP’s Hindu fundamentalist view of things, have no place in contemporary India.

In the United States, the Trump administration has drawn fire for its “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, which includes a new office investigating previously naturalized citizens for evidence of fraud and then stripping them of citizenship. India, however, is leagues ahead. Earlier this week, the country unveiled a new draft of its “National Register of Citizens,” a controversial citizenship audit which identifies whom the BJP considers true citizens. According to the project’s novel mechanics of exclusion, some four million Indians along the Bangladeshi border, most of them Muslim, will be stripped of Indian citizenship for having insufficient proof that they resided there prior to Bangladesh’s independence. Cloaked in legal language of treaties and cutoff dates, it’s just the latest measure toward an all-Hindu India. “Only then,” Singh said Tuesday—i.e. once the Muslims have gone home—“will our country be safe.” 

India was not always this way. In a speech given soon after Partition, Jawaharlal Nehru of the Indian National Congress, the party instrumental in Indian independence, declared: “There is no doubt, of course, that those displaced persons who have come to settle in India are bound to have their citizenship. If the law is inadequate in this respect, the law should be changed.”

No such liberal concern seems likely to prevail in India at the moment. Even as opponents of the BJP have tried to fight the law in Parliament, its enforcement looks set to continue. The imminent banishment of the four million newly minted non-citizens, mostly Muslims, is likely to yield electoral benefits for the hardline BJP in upcoming elections. If the imagined hordes of arriving migrants can be used to scare American voters into mute xenophobia, similar effects can be counted upon in a Hindu fundamentalist India.

The “imagined” aspect of migrant crises deserves emphasis, not least because it is tied up in the American and the Indian proclivity for imagining invading phalanxes of migrants in the face of questionable evidence to this effect. In the United States, that means talking about a border “crisis” when in fact apprehensions along the border are at a historic low. In India, as argued back in 2000 by political scientist Anindita Dasgupta, “the constant political refrain in this pivotal state of the Indian Northeast [Assam] is said to be the ‘inundation’ it is facing from East Bengali and then Bangladeshi migrants.” Politically useful, this “myth of inundation” was also pulled out before India’s 2001 Census in an effort to separate “indigenous” from “non-indigenous,” giving the “indigenous” population a superior catalog of rights and claim to belongings.

The current onslaught brought by Hindu nationalists and the state’s Assamese hardliners is largely seen by critics as a naked attempt to shut out Muslims. This would demographically strengthen the Assamese hardliners, delivering a solid electoral constituency to the BJP. The new requirements reflect this; to satisfy the National Registration of Citizenship, applicants must show that they were in the state prior to 1971 when Bangladesh was created. It seems simple enough, but in Assam it is hardly that. The Muslim Assamese are abjectly poor; they are relegated to subsistence living and a precarious existence. Having the “right” documents is highly unlikely in these circumstances, and the demand for these documents seemed to be imposed precisely because the Indian state, and the BJP that controls it, knows it cannot be fulfilled.

As with so many issues in the region, today’s problems can be traced back to imperialism: specifically, the British—those previous overlords whose arrival marked the sub-continent’s disastrous loss of innocence. Long before the current nation-states of India and Bangladesh and Pakistan existed, the British, in their global quest for their favorite beverage, noticed the tea-producing value of the Assam lowlands. By 1826, Assam was incorporated into a new “Bengal Presidency.” More legislation soon arrived in the form of the “Wasteland Act,” which allowed for a massive land grab for tea-production, leading to what would be called the “Planter Raj.” Muslim peasants from surrounding areas were re-settled in Assam by British planters looking for cheap labor. 

In the nearly two hundred years that have passed the since the first slicing and dicing of Assam, the cruel politics of inclusion and exclusion have persisted. In 1905, Bengal Viceroy Curzon again carved up Bengal into administrative units that would best suit British interests. Then Partition came along in 1947, with the Pakistan Muslim League trying to get more bits of the state included in the ill-fated East-Pakistan that was created along the Eastern border with India. With the arbitrary lines overseen by British diplomats and the last British Viceroy, a good bit of the Muslim population found itself, on the eve of Partition on August 14, 1947, in India instead of East Pakistan. That should have been the end of the story, but it wasn’t. In 1971, when war broke out between the two halves of Pakistan on the eastern and western sides of India, Bangladesh was born out of the mayhem. India, then gleeful at the slicing away of a chunk of Pakistan, took in refugees from the eastern portion, now Bangladesh. Then Assamese politicians backtracked as they had before, protesting alleged inundation by Muslims in 1985; another accord was signed, deeming the post-1971 arrivals forever illegal.

On the other side of India, Pakistan, petulant at having had a portion given to them by the British taken away by the Bangladeshis, arranged their own architecture of exclusion. Following the conversion of East Pakistan into Bangladesh in March 1971, 300,000 Urdu-speaking migrants chose to go to the part of the subcontinent that was still Pakistan, instead of staying in the new country in which they found themselves. Pakistan never took them back—they remain stateless and stuck in camps in Bangladesh even today. They are called “stranded Pakistanis,” many of the younger ones never having been to Pakistan.

With India’s new list of those who belong and those who do not, four million more are at the cusp of being thrown to the precarity of statelessness. In a world where powerful states assign and deny citizenships and belongings, this new episode is an example of the cruelties imposed by the gathering of names, the dividing into citizens with rights and non-citizens with very few if any of those rights.

The history of the subcontinent—still reeling from the lines the British drew, the people they divided then added up and divided again—may differ from the history of Middle Eastern-European migration, or that of the United States, in a perpetual state of confusion about its immigrant-nation identity. But what is striking in this new millennium is how legal procedures continue to dress up what is essentially ethnic cleansing—giving it the veneer of civility and the justification of history. These are but the latest casualties of a world in which states repeatedly declare the poor and the wanting ineligible for the protections conferred on their neighbors—and hide, when the immorality is pointed out, behind pieces of paper.