Features | Politics | South Asia

The NRC and India’s Unfinished Partition

The ongoing ideological struggle over Indian nationhood surfaced with Assam’s National Register of Citizens.

Grant Wyeth
The NRC and India’s Unfinished Partition

In this Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, file photo, villagers check their names in the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and take out prints at an internet shop in Pabhokati village in Morigaon district, in the northeastern Indian stat of Assam.

Credit: AP Photo/Anupam Nath, File

Over the past six years the Indian state of Assam has been scrutinizing the citizenship status of each of its 33 million residents. The goal of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has been to identify those people residing in the state who can be designated Indian, and those who the government would prefer to identify as Bangladeshi. At the end of August the final list was published with 1.9 million people in the state unable to prove their Indian citizenship. Yet due to the complicated cultural, political, and structural forces of South Asia’s history, being able to clearly define exactly who is an Indian is not such an easy task. In attempting to do so, the NRC process instead highlighted the persistent complications of the 1947 partition of India, and brought to the fore an ideological struggle over Indian nationhood.

In order to fulfil the requirements of the NRC, the people of Assam were asked to prove their presence — or that of their ancestors — in Assam or in any part of India on or before March 24, 1971. The date chosen is one day before East Pakistan declared its independence and the civil war between East and West Pakistan began. The war was concluded that December, with East Pakistan formally changing its name to Bangladesh on January 11, 1972. It is believed that many people crossed into Indian territory during and following the war.

One of the array of complex features of the partition of India was that it also partitioned two ethno-linguistic regions: Punjab on its western flank and Bengal to the east. The historical and cultural region of Bengal currently finds itself distributed between four jurisdictions: the country of Bangladesh, the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura, and Assam’s Barak Valley. The international boundary created in 1947 attempted to carve out an area of Muslim majority from the region’s population. 

Unlike the new border created with Pakistan to the west, the border with East Pakistan/Bangladesh was not initially heavily fortified. It was unencumbered by significant obstacles until the mid-1980s when the Indian government began putting up barbed wire fencing. Despite this, the border remained highly fragmented, darting in and out of neighboring villages and random plots of land in its attempt to map religious affiliation. Due to the historical religious integration of the region, this form of border designation created a number of geographical absurdities, including Dahala Khagrabari, a third order enclave: An area of India within an area of Bangladesh within an area of India within Bangladesh. In 2015, India and Bangladesh agreed to an exchange of enclaves in order to create a more workable situation.   

While these incoherent border features created ample confusion as to exactly who lived in India and who lived in Bangladesh, this uncertainty was further compounded by the previously highly informal nature of South Asian societies. With large numbers of people existing outside of any state structures, the documentation on birth, ancestry, or residency needed to meet the requirements of the NRC may be rare and difficult to obtain. Documents — if obtained — could also often be destroyed in a region prone to flooding. People who may, in fact, have qualified as Indian under the NRC stipulations may still not be able to provide the required proof. 

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This social informality is also tied to an understanding of the multitude of overlapping identities that have been historically present in South Asia, and that were further complicated by the partition. For most of the 20th century the vast majority of South Asia did not have access to new technologies that made communication and disbursement of information easy. India famously leapfrogged fixed-line telephones and moved straight to mobile devices, televisions were rare until recently, and while radio had some penetration, it was far from universal. This maintained a highly localized worldview, where people’s regional, cultural, linguistic, ethnic, or caste identity would precede an Indian one. Indeed the concept of India itself may not have even been fully understood by some isolated groups even up to the 1970s. This combined with low levels of education and literacy may have prevented knowledge of exactly what — despite the unheavels of partition — the creation of a new country actually meant in practice, and what an international boundary suddenly appearing within an area of cultural, familial and trading networks would dictate.

New borders don’t automatically erase these linkages. The borders defined upon India’s partition were not able to establish neat and tidy packages of administrative certainty, they merely created impediments to traditional areas of movement and exchange. This is especially the case when a cultural region like Bengal is divided between two countries. Bengali art, literature, and entertainment still transcends the border, marriages are still arranged across it, and through local knowledge and ingenuity cattle can still be smuggled into Bangladesh in order to circumvent laws preventing the slaughter of cows in several Indian states.

All this interwoven complexity makes designating exactly who is Indian and who is Bangladeshi very difficult. However, for the ruling-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) there is an over-arching lens that makes this designation easy: religion. While Pakistan — including today’s Bangladesh — was created as an explicitly Muslim majority state, India at the time remained steadfastly committed to the idea of a plural society, one in which all religions were welcome and respected. This was an idea of India defended by the Indian National Congress, the party of India’s independence movement and the party who governed the country for most of the post-1947 period. 

However, the rise of the BJP — from a fringe movement three decades ago to today the undisputed dominant political force in the country — has changed this. The BJP’s political doctrine of Hindutva forms the delayed other side of the coin to the Muslim League’s agitation for a separate Muslim state in the 1940s. It sees India as a Hindu nation-state, not a religiously plural one, and fosters a particular disdain for Islam, which it sees as an invasive force on the entire subcontinent. 

During the campaigning for May’s federal election, this perspective was highlighted by Amit Shah — the current Home Minister — when he stated “We will remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddha (sic), Hindus, and Sikhs.” As Dharmic faiths developed on the subcontinent, Buddhism and Sikhism get a pass in Hindutva’s blood and soil religious nationalism. 

The BJP has attempted to consolidate this religious conception of the Indian nation with an amendment to India’s citizenship laws. The legislation is aimed at providing a pathway to citizenship for non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Although the bill passed the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) in January, it was stalled in the Rajya Sabha (upper house) where the BJP and its allies currently lack a majority. While the bill lapsed due to the end of the parliamentary term, the passage of the bill was a prominent commitment within the BJP’s election manifesto and the party remains under pressure from its ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to reintroduce it by December (although if passed the bill may still be deemed unconstitutional).

This particular amendment to the country’s citizenship laws is designed to provide a get-out clause to outcomes of the NRC that the BJP does not like. While the party had become an enthusiastic supporter of the NRC, it was not its original architect — its present iteration in Assam was launched with a pilot program by a Congress-led government in 2010 — and the process has been conducted by the Supreme Court of India along the lines of India’s current jus sanguinis citizenship requirements. Yet this has led to a number of Bengali Hindus being excluded from the final NRC list, a situation the BJP hopes to change. 

Despite the theoretical judicial independence of the NRC tribunals, their operations haven’t come without political pressures. Alongside its large federal majority, the BJP governs in Assam in coalition with the Asom Gana Parishad, a party that was formed specifically to agitate against Bengali migration into the state. The political priorities of the two parties has provoked a culture of suspicion within the Assamese public which in turn created performance pressure on the work of the 100 tribunals dispersed throughout the state. This generated some perverse operational incentives within these bodies as they acted in competition to declare the highest number of foreigners; an aggressive approach has produced a series of nasty and disturbing results including the division of families, the harassment of children, and a number of suicides

The 1.9 million people excluded from the NRC have been given 120 days to present their cases to these tribunals, with the ability to appeal to the High Court of Assam, and the Supreme Court of India. The Indian government has begun construction of detention centers to house those whose appeals are unsuccessful, yet without any process to allow these people to be formalized into Indian society this is only a temporary solution. It is also a solution that is unduly harsh toward people who could be easily deemed casualties of larger political and historical forces beyond their control. Those political forces are now making these people pawns in a present-day ideological battle over Indian nationhood.

The ideological battle and additional policies surrounding the NRC are also being played out within the ruling-BJP itself, with a struggle over what measures should be taken toward those people excluded from the NRC. Indian Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar informed his Bangladeshi counterpart that India will not attempt to push these now stateless people into Bangladesh. At the recent United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tempered concerns from Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina by stating that the NRC would have “no impact” on Bangladesh. However, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah has repeatedly stressed that the government will seek to deport those not included on the NRC, and the Assam state government is strongly advocating for the same. 

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This contrast within the BJP highlights the necessity for Modi to to find a balance between the agitated passions of the ideologues he requires to maintain his authority within the party, and the calculations of responsible governance and regional stability necessary for a prime minister. Should the former prevail and shift the government toward deportations this will not only create widespread personal disruption, but would have highly destabilizing regional consequences as well. At best, this action would put significant stress on India’s friendly relationship with Bangladesh, and at worse it has the potential to create a redux of the violence of India’s partition.

Shah has also promised to expand the NRC from Assam to the rest of India, beginning with West Bengal; setting up a serious conflict with the state’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, who opposes the process. At a recent rally in the state capital, Kolkata, Shah informed the crowd that “The chief minister says she will not let NRC happen in West Bengal, but I am assuring you, each and every infiltrator in India will be shown the door.” Police in Uttar Pradesh have also been instructed to start identifying people considered to be Bangladeshi, creating fear and uncertainty throughout both these states. 

The longevity and the rippling of this personal and regional destabilization could create serious ramifications not just for South Asia, but the wider Indo-Pacific as well. Bangladesh is already struggling under the weight of an intractable refugee crisis — the Rohingya fleeing violence in Myanmar — any added people movement would be beyond its capacity to facilitate and require a significant international response. This makes the NRC a process that other countries in the Indo-Pacific should be paying close attention to. 

Since winning re-election in May, the BJP’s ideological impulses have exhibited a much greater influence on government action than the sober considerations of rational statecraft and the region’s delicate security balance. With the NRC working in tandem with the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, the BJP is seeking to establish a new set of parameters for both Indian citizenship and national belonging, hoping to bring its religious conception of what it means to be Indian into further prominence. This is being done either without fully understanding what increasingly insecure conditions for the country’s estimated 200 million Muslims may create, or in spite of it. 

There is a strong sentiment within the party that is unwilling to engage with the internal make-up of India as it is, and is instead seeking radical actions to reshape the country — and its history — toward its own ideals. When BJP politicians speak of a “Congress-mukt Bharat” (Congress-free India), this is not simply a democratic aspiration to remove India’s party of independence from political office, but a desire to eradicate the Congress Party’s initial vision for a pluralistic India from the public imagination. It is an ambition for a dramatic reconfiguration of India’s character, something that may lead to a shift in India’s overarching foreign policy, and that in turn may alter the country’s existing international relationships. 

Rather than facilitating a separation of religious communities, the partition of India persistently highlights the realities of the subcontinent’s interconnected past; a past that the creation of new borders has not been able to eliminate.  Yet the BJP’s resentful religious nationalism sees India’s partition as unfinished business; an event that should have created a much neater segregation of the subcontinent’s religious communities. How the party now approaches those excluded from the NRC will give an indication of how far the party is willing to go to try and finish the job.