Skip to content

Ultranationalist Prelude

The long march to exclude India’s largest minority

When Dulal Chandra Paul died on October 13 in government custody in Guwahati, the largest city in the northeast Indian state of Assam, his son, Ashok Paul, turned to people he trusted the most—his jaati, or community. A Hindu Bengali wage laborer, born in Dhekiajuli in Assam’s Sonitpur district in 1965, Dulal had been declared an illegal immigrant or “foreigner” by the state government in 2017 and subsequently arrested. When I visited his home a week before the festival of Diwali in October, members of the All Assam Bengali Youth Students Federation, a civil society body, had come to show their strength and support.

Dulal’s death had become a political row when his family for two months refused to accept his corpse for the last Hindu rites until he was declared Indian by the Assam government. They were sending a message: if he was really a foreigner from Bangladesh, as the government claimed, his corpse should be sent to an address in the neighboring country.

Dulal had been tried in a Foreigners’ Tribunal, one of the many bodies set up in Assam over the past few decades to check illegal immigration into the state. Anxiety over the influx of mainland Indian outsiders and Bangladeshis is not new here. Assam is home to several indigenous and tribal communities, and the immigrant Bengalis are viewed by them as a threat to the local culture. These concerns increased dramatically after 1971, when many Bengalis migrated to the region fleeing the atrocities of Bangladesh’s war of secession. A six-year-long anti-immigrant agitation, spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union, led to the signing of the 1985 Assam Accord, which declared all those who entered the state after 1971 to be illegal.

Since India doesn’t have a repatriation policy with Bangladesh, which does not accept these declared foreigners as their own, people like Dulal rot in detention camps for years on end.

After the accord was signed, the state government set up the Illegal Migrants Determination of Tribunals Act (IMDT) courts and, later, the Foreigners’ Tribunals to decide the status of citizenship of residents in Assam. Established in 1985 and 2006, respectively, their task is to investigate and prosecute illegal migrants in quasi-judicial proceedings. While the since-repealed IMDT courts required the state to produce credible evidence against a person suspected of being a foreigner, the Foreigners’ Tribunals put the burden of proof on the accused. Until the Supreme Court repealed the IMDT Act in 2005, on a petition filed by the present Bhartiya Janata Party chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, the Assam government could only prove 24,021 residents (as per official government sources) to be foreigners over a span of twenty years. Once the Foreigners’ Tribunals were set up, that number has increased fourfold in just fourteen years.

Though technically considered opinions, the rulings in these courts are legally binding. Any person declared to be a foreigner is stripped of their citizenship rights, including the right to vote, and are confined to detention centers until deportation. So far, one hundred twenty-nine thousand have been declared “foreigners” through this process and so far more than five hundred thousand have been identified for trial.

Since India doesn’t have a repatriation policy with Bangladesh, which does not accept these declared foreigners as their own, people like Dulal rot in detention camps for years on end. Despite a recent high court order allowing detainees who have served at least three years to be released on bail, 988 persons are still lodged in district jails, per official figures. A data-based investigation by Vice News found that most of the people declared foreigners were poor, unlettered, Muslim, and Bengali speakers.

Dulal’s case speaks both to the suffering wrought on the most marginalized people by the tribunals, and to the arbitrariness of the rulings. His sons have been struggling to survive since both their parents received notices from the Foreigners’ Tribunal; they have had to sell off their cattle and take loans from moneylenders. “We got no land of our own, and I’ve not had any steady work since the last two years,” Ashok told me. The family estimates they have been drained of about $1,500 in legal expenses for the cases. To put that in context, as wage laborers, the sons make less than $3 a day. While their mother managed to prove her citizenship, they do not have the resources to take their father’s case to the Supreme Court. “My mother, in fact, did not have as many documents as my father did,” Ashok noted.

In addition to the tribunals, the Assam Accord also called for a reappraisal of the state’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) in order to weed out illegal or “doubtful” voters through an investigation of their paperwork. This mammoth and oft-delayed process, which was finally completed on August 31, left out more than 1.9 million residents from the 33 million applicants in Assam. Yet this list was still felt to be insufficient by the BJP-ruled Assamese state government and AASU, who both rejected it. They contended that a large number of illegal foreigners, particularly from the Muslim-majority border-lying districts, had incorrectly remained on the list.

Both have taken the legal route to repeat the exercise in Assam even as India’s Home Minister Amit Shah announced a nationwide NRC, which would include the state of Assam. As of this writing, the existing, more limited NRC has not been officially retracted.

It is in this broader context that we must try to understand the planned implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in Assam. The bill, which became law on December 12, automatically grants citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from Muslim-majority neighbors—Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh—who came to India before December 31, 2014. These migrants do not have to prove they are facing “religious persecution,” although Shah has claimed that they are. On the surface, it might seem like a transparently sectarian attempt to satisfy Modi’s local Hindu voter base at the expense of the rights of Muslims. Yet this binary overlooks the older Assamese grievances over immigration. In any case, the matter is not so simple, even for Hindus. “To avail citizenship, Bengali Hindus will have to first declare that they have crossed over from Bangladesh,” Shyamal Sarkar, a resident of the Morigaon district, told me in October. “Who will say that and why should they, when generations have been living here for many years?”

The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) stirred up massive protests across the country. However, the fire started in Assam. For four long days from December 9-12, flash protests erupted all over the city; mobs formed every fifty to one hundred meters, blocking the road before they were driven away by cops, only to be replaced by other groups. At least five protestors were killed by police fire; to date, more than a thousand protestors have been picked up, according to news reports. The violence, it should be stressed, has almost entirely been committed by the state.

The motivations behind the protests have been complex. For one thing, the civil response has been largely leaderless and spontaneous, unlike the Assam agitation of 1979-85. “People came out on their own in groups,” former Assam Police Director General Harekrishna Deka told me. “There is so much frustration and anger that it burst out and spread everywhere. People came out defying the curfew.”

Some of the anger seems broadly directed at the opportunism of the central government, which has communalized an older, legitimate local grievance. “We want to show Modi and Amit Shah that we have Bir Lachit Borphukan’s blood running through our veins,” I heard one protestor declare as he carried on with arson and blocked one of the main roads of Guwahati city. Borphukan was the commander in chief of the erstwhile Ahom Kingdom army that famously fought the battle of Saraighat against Mughal accession in the year 1671. The BJP was being cast as latter-day invaders.

But the agitation wasn’t entirely secular. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the political ideologue of the Hindu nationalist BJP, was eager to communalize a movement that was already linguistically majoritarian. In Lower Assam, the Muslims, who speak a Bengali-inflected Assamese, were made out to be the infiltrators.[*] Although Assam has “indigenous” Muslims residing in Upper Assam districts, many of who trace their origins to the Mughals, the battle of Saraighat is also portrayed by the Hindu right wing as a victory against “Muslim invasion.”

Parveen Sultana, an academic based in the Bangladesh-bordering district of Dhubri (lower Assam), says that although the government has been trying desperately to communalize the protests, the people on the ground have resisted this interpretation. “For ten days almost, there was no information coming in due to the internet shutdown. But what we’ve been hearing is that Bengal origin Muslim migrant laborers in upper Assam districts have been targeted, not only by the police but also by protestors,” Sultana told me. “This kind of ultra-nationalism has been happening since before the protests and seemingly has social sanction.” The website Scroll reported that in the upper Assam district of Tinsukia, CAA protestors targeted Bengali businesses and an indigenous man was burned to death.

Yet not all locals are against the CAA. Firecrackers were set off to greet the act in the Barak Valley, an area dominated by Hindu Bengalis who migrated there after the Bangladesh war. Basudeb Sharma of the All Assam Hindu Bengali Association felt that Hindu Bengalis should have no qualms about saying that they face religious persecution in Bangladesh. “Those who have been in detention camp or are excluded from the NRC will also be granted citizenship under the new bill,” he told me. Sharma agrees that the northeastern states should not have to bear the burden of accommodating Hindu Bengalis. “It’s good that the tribal states were exempted to preserve their culture and language. Bengalis can go and settle anywhere else,” he added. “Now that Section 370 is removed, even Kashmir is open to us.”

Barak Valley has seen several flare ups between Hindus and Muslims over the decades and is the most communally sensitive area in the state. Generally, Hindu Bengalis in the region are the most bankable electorate for the BJP, since most indigenous and tribal communities do not vote on religious lines, tending to favor the party in power, given that they are almost entirely dependent on central funds for welfare and development.

The new NRC process—once a register is finally accepted—will require people to prove their citizenship before one of the state’s two hundred Foreigners’ Tribunals. The justice handed out there, already rough and inconsistent, is sure to grow more aggressive with the passage of the CAA. “Earlier, there was some balance with Hindu Bengalis in the mix,” Aman Wadud, a lawyer who has fought several citizenship cases in the Assam High Court, told me. “With only Muslims, the government will pressurize them to declare all of them foreigners.”

He also noted that the state’s infamous detention centers will now “become exclusively for Muslims.” The six centers in Assam—whose very existence Modi recently denied in a typical display of dishonesty—are essentially cordoned off sections of district jails. They have come under heavy criticism from human rights activists and groups like Amnesty International. Former detainees have complained of overcrowded, cramped cells, food below nutritional quality, and inadequate medical and mental health facilities. A current detainee’s son told Amnesty International that the food served inside was so bad that his mother “rinses off the potatoes from the curry and then eats it.” The Ministry of Home Affairs is building a vast detention center in the Goalpara district of Assam meant for three thousand detainees—complete with a school, hospital, dining area, and a recreational area inside.

It is only since last year that “progressives” started accepting indefinite detention in district jails as cruel on humanitarian grounds.

In sharp contrast to the mass opposition to the CAA, there’s been little discussion about these draconian courts and detention centers among the Assamese public. Most Assamese in fact remain ignorant of or apathetic to the anomalies—variations in the spellings of people’s names in different IDs or non-acceptance of Gaon Panchayat certificates for underprivileged women who have neither a birth or school certificate to prove linkage to their parents—in the NRC process itself. (A special category called “Original Inhabitants” was created exempting tribal groups and Assamese communities considered “indigenous” from the arduous process of proving their own citizenship. Nevertheless, many Assamese have found their names excluded from NRC.)

It is only since last year that “progressives” started accepting indefinite detention in district jails as cruel on humanitarian grounds. Many are now in favor of work permits for those declared foreigners, an idea that was first floated by the writer Sanjoy Hazarika.

Hiren Gohain, one of Assam’s most noted intellectuals, was critical of the violently exclusionary streak of Assamese nationalism during the earlier agitation. Although he is concerned by the influx of foreigners, he admitted that the process of detention by the Foreigners’ Tribunals leaves a lot to be desired. “The short time in which someone is declared a foreigner appears to be unjust. The process should be reviewed,” he told me.

On December 20, Sonowal announced to the media that not a single person from Bangladesh will come to Assam due to CAA. Abdul Mannan, a former professor of statistics at Gauhati University who has previously busted the myth of inorganic decadal Muslim growth in Assam, believes that migration figures have dropped in recent years as the Bangladeshi economy has improved. Still, he fears leaders on the other side could use the law to polarize sentiments further. “Mischievous elements there might use this to compel people to leave, disturbing the entire subcontinent as a result,” he told me. This possibility, he says, stands to threaten the Assamese identity and culture.

Even if this doesn’t happen in the current BJP term, the stage has been set for a Hindu Rashtra (the land of Hindus) in which non-Indian Hindus are accommodated as eternally grateful vote banks—as they are now in Assam, Tripura, and West Bengal. By then, Muslims would probably be indefinitely detained or reduced to second-class citizens clutching work permits. When that day comes, the BJP will be indebted to Assam for developing the NRC and the Foreigners’ Tribunals, instruments which have helped, however unwittingly, to make all of this happen.

[*] Correction: An earlier version of this article described the accent of a group of Muslims living in Barak Valley. It has been changed to reflect that this group resides in Lower Assam.


Read our other coverage of the CAA.