Non-citizens and history

Print edition : August 31, 2018

People line up at an NRC Seva Kendra in Tezpur on July 30 to check whether their names are on the draft list. Photo: PTI

At an NRC verification centre in Morigaon district on July 11. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

It is a shame that our contemporary public discourse on amending citizenship laws aims primarily at containing spatial mobility.

THERE is a wide variety of reasons why a person’s name may not have appeared in the draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. In all, 3.76 million applications for citizenship have been rejected and a final decision has been put on hold in a quarter million cases. However, the final NRC is likely to have fewer exclusions than in the draft.

The complexity of what is involved in updating the NRC deserves close attention. Prateek Hajela, the State Coordinator for updating the NRC, describes the process as “technology-driven, transparent and objective”. But he is the first to admit that “computers only work for submitting the documents to us, and sending it to the issuing authority”. Beyond this, they are of limited use because the identification documents used in the process, except PAN cards, are not stored in any computerised database. The updating of the NRC, therefore, basically relies on paper documents of various kinds and old-fashioned manual verification of such documents by the NRC staff.

The NRC exercise exemplifies the fact that contrary to the talk of a paperless society, the growing use of electronic technologies has actually increased the need for paper documents and underlined their importance in people’s lives. Legacy data are at the heart of the process. To be included in the NRC one has to identify an ancestor whose name appears in either the NRC of 1951 or a pre-1971 electoral roll, and provide documentary evidence of linkage with that person. Even with the substantial assistance available at the NRC Seva Kendras, this can be a challenge for many people.

Consider a person who lives in Assam but was not born in the State. In order to process his or her legacy data, NRC officials have had to make as many as 600,000 requests for “legacy verification” to various State governments. The response from them has been poor and tardy. Some States responded to fewer than 1 per cent of the requests. More than 100,000 requests for legacy verification were made to the West Bengal government, but the NRC authorities received responses only in 6.5 per cent of the requests. The history of the reorganisation of Assam has also complicated the process. The relevant records of some current residents of Assam, for example, could be in an office in Shillong, which was the capital of undivided Assam but is now under the jurisdiction of the Meghalaya State administration. In other words, the verification of legacy data would depend on the cooperation of an office under the jurisdiction of another State government.

The challenges can be especially daunting for poor people with limited literacy. The Assamese graphic novelist Parismita Singh, author of The Hotel at the End of the World (Penguin, 2009), has written touchingly of the experience of villagers near Biswanath Chariali, an area where she grew up. Many in that area spoke to her about a lot of kheli-meli, confusion. A different spelling of a name of a grand parent in a voters list of decades past was sometimes the source of anomaly. Women were particularly vulnerable since “their names almost never appear on land records, or family trees, or school enrolment lists”. A father and a child do not always have the same surname: a woman with the birth-name Khatun may be Bibi after marriage. And for some people in the area “documents have scattered in the vicissitudes of displacement through floods and political disturbances, ethnic clashes, communal riots, violence”.

The updating process, however, has not been reliant on paper documents in every part of Assam. The administrative rules developed for this purpose allows for the use of the category “original inhabitant”. In the case of persons in this category, local administrators were able to determine his or her eligibility for inclusion in the NRC “through field verifications”. At least in the partial draft made public on New Year’s Day, the percentage of people included in it was much higher for areas with large numbers of people identified as belonging to the “original inhabitant” category than for some other areas. The procedure was a source of some controversy. A Supreme Court bench had to address complaints that the label creates and privileges certain groups of people.

Nevertheless, the efforts made by the two-person Supreme Court bench and those in charge of the process to make the final NRC complete and accurate are impressive; and they are likely to pay off. But it is crucial that we focus attention on those whose names will not appear in the final NRC.

The complexity of the process involved in the exercise should alert us to the fact that the burden of exclusions might fall disproportionately on the poor. The pernicious rhetoric of “infiltrator” being used by powerful politicians in Delhi underscores the urgency of the task.

While the NRC exercise may be a Supreme Court-directed process, the fate of those excluded from it will ultimately depend on our lawmakers. We need an informed public debate on policies regarding those who will be excluded from the final NRC.

Comparative lenses

It may be useful to place the long history of Assam’s political turmoil around questions of immigration and citizenship in a global and historical context. The language in which we now discuss these issues in India and elsewhere has a more recent historical provenance than generally recognised.

For instance, in the United States it is now common to hear people make a distinction between the supposedly “legal” European immigrants who came to the country before the 20th century and the “illegal” Mexicans and Central Americans who came in the later part of the last century. The contemporary rhetoric surrounding illegal immigration and border enforcement is based on the idea that unlike the undocumented immigrants of today, European immigrants of the past, perhaps blood relatives of the typical Trumpian anti-immigration activist, had entered the U.S. “the right way”. However, even a cursory reading of the history of immigration to the U.S. shows that there was no legal process in place through much of the history of European immigration to the country.

Before the era of modern passports, millions of immigrants from Europe had simply arrived in the U.S., and were allowed into the country after only a cursory check for disease. According to one estimate, of the 25 million immigrants who arrived by steamship in New York’s Ellis Island—the major gateway to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th century—only 1 per cent were refused entry, and it was mostly on health grounds. This, of course, leaves out the exclusions of Chinese, Indians and others on racial grounds. In fact, once we focus on racial exclusions, the idea of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants, says Aviva Chomsky, the author of Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, becomes “instantly darker than its proponents imagine”. To celebrate the immigrant beginnings of the U.S., she says, is to celebrate “settler colonialism and native displacement that made the United States that nation of immigrants—and this has important implications for immigrants today, many of whom are indigenous people from Mexico and Central America”.

Significantly, the most interesting insight on the racial exclusions of Indians comes from nationalist leader Lala Lajpat Rai. Historians of our anti-colonial struggle have long recognised the significance of the Komagata Maru incident of 1914 in faraway Canada. In May of that year, the Singapore-based ship’s 376 Indian passengers—mostly Sikhs—were not allowed to disembark in Vancouver, British Columbia. Only 24 passengers—the ship’s doctor and his family and 20 returning Canadian residents—were allowed to enter Canada.

The Komagata Maru was turned away and when it sailed back and reached India, the passengers faced a hostile colonial administration that viewed their travel to Canada as an act of sedition. In confrontations with the police at the harbour in Calcutta, 19 passengers were killed and many others were arrested. More convinced than ever that Indians will never have the same rights as the other subjects of empire, many of the passengers became lifelong activists in the struggle against British imperialism.

On the 102nd anniversary of the incident in 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologised for the incident in the Canadian Parliament.

Lajpat Rai’s exceptionally prescient observation on the Komagata Maru—made when the ship was still docked in Canadian waters —continues to offer students of the global history of migration a lot to think about.

“A shipload of Indians is not, superficially, a matter of much importance,” he said, “and yet it is not impossible that if we could see the events of our time through the eyes of the historian of 2014” the significance of the Komagata Maru may lie in the “challenge thrown down, not only to the British Empire, but to the claim of the white man to possess the earth”.

Today, it is hard not to see that the incident played a significant role in the dissolution of European colonial empires in the last century. However, a less appreciated exemplary role of the Komagata Maru affair, says legal scholar Sherally Munshi, was in the closing of borders “to exclude Indian immigrants, not just from Canada, but the United States and from white-settler territories across the globe”.

Lajpat Rai’s wise words were perhaps more prophetic than he could have imagined. From the vantage point of today it is possible to see that Komagata Maru was an important benchmark in the global history of immigration controls. While Rai had only racial exclusions in white settler territories such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the U.S. in mind, the proliferation of borders and of illegality regimes that now govern immigration all across the world came to full flourish only with the end of empire.

The other side of decolonisation

Decolonisation carried with it the promise of a transition from colonial subject-hood to citizenship within independent nation states. But while celebrating this aspect of decolonisation it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it also created a new territorial order—with international borders and immigration controls—which ended a period of extraordinary mobility in human history. Indeed “modern citizenship in South and Southeast Asia,” says Sunil Amrith, a historian of global migration, “was built upon the disavowal of migration”. The NRC is an extension of this project that has grown out of the anxiety of incompleteness of India as a normal nation state with normal immigration controls, especially across the Partition’s borders.

The adverse impact of the postcolonial territorial order for Indians living in various parts of the world was quite apparent in the years following decolonisation. In countries in the immediate neighbourhood like Burma (Myanmar) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), as well as in Uganda and Kenya in Africa, Indians became victims of what the historian David Ludden calls “post-colonial reprisals”.

We can better appreciate the adverse effect of post-colonial border controls on spatial mobility if we think of the migrations of the imperial era in more complex ways than simply that of the recruitment of poor Indians to work in overseas plantations. We know from the work of recent historians that the mass migration of Indian labour overseas was more than just the involuntary movement of un-free labour. Komagata Maru is an example of that.

Historians like Crispin Bates have shown that Indian migrants all across the globe “were able to build for themselves a space within the interstices of the colonial labour market, taking the initiative, saving money to support their relatives, resisting or otherwise adapting to their circumstances”.

The migration of Indians across British imperial spaces went well beyond what is conventionally thought of as labour migration. People of different occupations and social standings took advantage of opportunities that were opening up in those territories. Thus, the Myanmar scholar Mandy Sadan has Indian migrants in mind when she speaks of decolonisation being “complicated by the demographic layering of the colonial experience”. The expulsion of Indians from Burma in 1962 has to be seen in this context. The recent expulsion of Rohingyas has affinity with the expulsions of Indians in the past. The roots of some Rohingyas in the Arakan (today’s Rakhine) precedes British colonial rule, yet they came to be portrayed as descendants of colonial-era immigrants from the subcontinent. It is not accidental that the Burmese use the same racial expression “kala” to refer to Rohingyas as they once did to describe Indians.

When viewed from the perspective of migration across British imperial spaces, the history of Assam parallels that of its neighbour on the east. Not unlike many other frontier regions of Asia, Assam’s population density in pre-colonial times was low and the local peasantry was not attracted to wage labour in plantations. It was only with the recruitment of workers from other parts of India that it became possible to produce tea on an industrial scale in 19th century Assam; and as early as 1921, tea workers and their descendants were as much a sixth of the population. When the growing demand for raw jute from Bengal’s jute industry pushed the reclamation of the low-lying areas of the floodplains of the Brahmaputra, migrants from densely populated deltaic eastern Bengal were encouraged to settle there.

And not unlike Burma, opportunities opened up by British colonial rule also brought a large number of educated migrants from parts of India with a longer experience of colonial rule and exposure to English—in this case Bengal—who came to occupy various middle-class positions, including influential positions in the colonial bureaucracy.

Seen from the perspective of migration and empire, Assam’s colonial experience had a demographic layering not unlike that of its neighbour on the east. It is to the credit of India’s political and legal institutions and of Assamese civil society that demographic politics in postcolonial Assam did not take the xenophobic shape of postcolonial reprisals. In the case of the NRC, the wise guidance of the Supreme Court and a professional bureaucratic organisation led by a technically savvy Indian Institute of Technology-educated bureaucrat (Prateek Hajela) has managed to frame the task in strictly constitutional, legal and technical terms. But politicians blinded by the greed of narrow political gains can still mess it up.

Citizenship for our times

The economic spaces of the contemporary world do not correspond with national political spaces any more than it did in colonial times. Ironically, it was the mistrust of the circulation of migrant labour that led anticolonial nationalist intellectuals to believe that only political independence and the introduction of border controls—and stopping their nationals from migrating overseas— would end the exploitation of labour by colonial capital. In Sunil Amrith’s words, they came to associate freedom with “imposed immobility”. This was true of nationalist intellectuals not only in India but in other parts of the world as well—in countries that sent migrant labour as well as those that received them.

It is time we revisited this nationalist consensus. It is a shame that our contemporary public discourse on amending citizenship laws, while seeking to relax immigration controls for certain groups, aims primarily at containing spatial mobility. India, with its many memories of the opportunities and challenges of mobility within imperial space, is in a good position to provide intellectual and moral leadership to a world that badly needs to overcome a highly problematic legacy of decolonisation. We need a prophetic vision for our times not unlike that of Lajpat Rai, who saw in Komagata Maru the harbinger of the end of Empire and the beginnings of immigration control and restrictions on spatial mobility.

Sanjib Baruah is Professor of Political Studies, Bard College, New York.


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