Book Review: Abhishek Saha's "No Land's People" talks about the lack of transparency in citizenship determination in Assam

Print edition : September 10, 2021

At an NRC centre in Morigaon district of Assam on August 13, 2018. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Abhishek Saha’s book captures the lack of transparency in citizenship determination in Assam and exposes the deep inequality in the relationship between the state and its citizens.

In 1949, a seven-year-old girl named Alata Rani and her family fled the Muktagacha region in Mymensingh district of East Pakistan to settle in Bhuragaon, a village in Assam. Alata’s name was included in the 1951 National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, conducted as part of the first Census in independent India. She survived the devastating Assam-Tibet earthquake of 1950 and lived through the 1960 Assam language riots, and later raised a family of her own in Barpeta, Assam. In 1997, however, the Election Commission of India (ECI) marked her as a ‘D’, or ‘doubtful’, voter. This meant that in 2019, 70 years after she had left East Pakistan, Alata Rani Saha was excluded from the NRC in Assam.

Alata Rani Saha’s story forms the heart of No Land’s People, a book that documents the history of the NRC in Assam. Written by her grandson Abhishek Saha, the book documents what is possibly one of the largest citizenship determination exercises in the world.

Abhishek Saha is a Guwahati-based journalist with The Indian Express, and this book brings together his extensive reporting on the NRC.

Alata Rani Saha is one of 3,30,27,661 persons, almost the entire population of Assam, who applied to be included in the NRC, and she is also one of the 19 lakh persons who were excluded from the final list. Abhishek Saha’s clinical examination is, consequently, leavened by confusion and anguish at his grandmother’s exclusion.

Lack of state transparency

Alata Rani’s story is an eye-opener on the opacity that defines the citizenship determination processes in Assam today. From the Quit India notices issued in 1961-66, and the marking of over 3.7 lakh persons as ‘D’ voters in 1997 as part of an exercise conducted by the ECI, to the more recent issuance of reference notices by the Border Police and the NRC, citizenship determination has followed multiple routes in Assam.

However, unlike other forms of state prosecution of undesirables—criminal trials, for example—citizenship determination processes can feel like being looked at through a one-way mirror. Rarely, if ever, does the state provide adequate justification for why it suspects an individual of being a foreigner. ‘D’ voters are never informed about the reasons for which they are marked as doubtful, and many have to wait for years to even receive a notice from the Foreigners’ Tribunal giving them an opportunity to defend their citizenship.

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Abhishek Saha’s Right to Information (RTI) query on his grandmother’s ‘D’ voter tag was returned with the response: “Not available in this office”. As of February 2018, there were 1,25,333 ‘D’ voters in Assam, and the vast majority of them, including Alata Rani Saha, had never received notices from the state.

Similarly, much of the NRC has been conducted through modalities and mechanisms inaccessible to the public or by relying on documents of doubtful and indeterminate authenticity. The Supreme Court’s supervision of the NRC has relied on sealed cover reports and private Powerpoint presentations from Prateek Hajela, former NRC State coordinator, much of which was not accessible to the affected parties. Both the ‘D’ voter process and the NRC process highlight how deeply unequal and precarious the relationship between the citizen and the state has become.

The citizen is compelled to present before the state all of her documentation and every single detail of her life that the state may find relevant to her citizenship status, but the state is not obligated to practise transparency in return. Today, two years after the publication of the final list, excluded persons such as Alata Rani Saha are no closer to finding out the reasons for their exclusion or, for that matter, the consequences.

Piecing NRC together

Abhishek Saha’s book succeeds in reducing this informational disparity to a certain extent by painstakingly piecing together the NRC process.

A chapter on original inhabitants (OIs) explains how an applicant’s surname determines the level of scrutiny her NRC application will be subjected to: a person with an identifiably Assamese Hindu surname is categorised as an original inhabitant and exempted from having to produce rigorous documentary evidence. On the other hand, non-OI women are not only denied such procedural benefits, but in many instances they are doubly disadvantaged because of the lack of formal documentation that can be used to support their citizenship claims. These and such other details would have remained incomprehensible to non-legal audiences but for the care and precision with which Abhishek Saha explains their consequences for affected persons.

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In all this, his reportage is vital, as is this book, in that it performs the essential public function of informing citizens of the processes being used to disenfranchise them. Further, Abhishek Saha does it from the lens of someone personally affected by these processes—someone who has had to encounter the state’s opacity.

In recognition of his efforts, and that of journalists like him, Abhishek Saha’s name was included in a document titled “NRC: The Other Story—Journalists involved in the anti-NRC propaganda”, released anonymously in August 2019. This document mentioned his roots in Barpeta and profiled him as someone bent on destroying the reputation of the NRC. No Land’s People is possibly one of the first accounts, and certainly the most comprehensive, of the NRC by someone directly affected by this mass disenfranchisement. What the 2019 dossier identified as a liability is perhaps Abhishek Saha’s strength—being the grandson of Alata Rani Saha, who, in her eighties, will have to now defend her citizenship.

The book also highlights an important fact to contextualise citizenship determination processes in Assam—that there is no consensus on the number of undocumented migrants in the State. Abhishek Saha dives into the various competing estimates of migration and documents how official figures, including those quoted by Lt General S.K. Sinha, former Assam Governor, are not supported by any factual assessment. These figures have not formed the basis for the NRC but are now being used to discredit the entire exercise because the actual number of people excluded is less than the projected number of “illegal migrants”.

A recent application filed in the Supreme Court by Hitesh Dev Sarma, the NRC State Coordinator, asking for a complete reverification of the NRC, illustrates how a satisfactory NRC and an accurate NRC may mean two entirely different things.

In the epilogue to his book, titled ‘The idea of India’, Abhishek Saha suggests that the historically specific basis for the Assam NRC is now being subverted to bring it in line with the ideals of Hindu majoritarian politics. He laments the loss of a moment, not so long ago in India’s history, when the “multitude of identities and histories; ethnicities, languages and religions; nationalist and sub-nationalist movements” could still hope to coalesce into an inclusive national identity.

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While it is true that political rhetoric today unequivocally identifies Muslims as the enemy, to be excised from the body politic of the nation state, Abhishek Saha’s own account of the citizenship determination processes in Assam speaks to an existential crisis of national identity that seems to have plagued us for as long as we have been a nation.

The nation state has always reserved the right to define itself, and its sovereign prerogative to define who is a citizen (insider) and who is not (outsider) is considered largely unassailable. Defining who gets to be a member of its body politic is central to the identity of the nation state, because “a nation-state is a nation’s state”, according to the writer William Rogers Brubaker.

But who gets to be part of that nation, and who remains the interloper, whose mere presence is deemed suspicious? No Land’s People documents what happens when the state decides that everyone is a potential interloper, doubtful and suspicious.

Darshana Mitra is a lawyer and researcher working on issues of citizenship law in India.

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