India’s far northeast is beautiful, friendly and one of the most ethnically, religiously and linguistically diverse places on earth. Multiple distinct ethnic groups share the hills, dales and great valley of the Brahmaputra River with indigenous tribes, tea garden workers originally from central India, ethnic Nepalese, and Bengalis — both Hindu and Muslim — from the Gangetic delta.
As in other heterogenous parts of the world — think of the Balkans — old grievances have festered and new ones have been found over the years, leading to a sad succession of separatist movements, anti-’outsider’ agitations and ethnic massacres. Now, the Indian government has decided that almost two million residents of the northeastern state of Assam may not be Indian citizens, and the state, region and India itself confront a crisis of their own making.
At issue is the National Register of Citizens, or NRC — a list that decrees officially which residents of Assam are legitimate Indian citizens and which aren’t. After an expensive, multi-year process, the register has excluded nearly two million people the government claims are illegal immigrants, many of whom supposedly migrated to India from Bangladesh after the latter declared independence in 1971.
If the only unifying narrative on offer is the BJP’s attempt to forge a unitary Hindu identity, defined conveniently against “outsiders,” then it is hard to see how India will emerge unscathed.
The result seems to have pleased nobody — not even the NRC’s original supporters among Hindu nationalists and Assamese ethnic hardliners. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules in both New Delhi and Assam’s capital of Guwahati, is furious that the list is not composed entirely of Muslims whom they could attack as Bangladeshi “infiltrators”. The “grave threat” posed by a supposed flood of Bangladeshi Muslims may never have been reflected in Assam’s census data, and has now been exploded by the NRC, but it remains politically vital for the BJP.
Assamese hardliners, meanwhile, are concerned that so few people — only 7 per cent of Assam’s official population — have been excluded. They remain convinced that “outsiders” number in the tens of millions.
Injustice of the process
Liberals from the rest of India are appalled at the injustice of the process, which placed an intolerable burden on poor and marginal residents of Assam to provide paperwork proving their families lived in India prior to 1971. This has led to predictable chaos. Mothers have seen their children left off the list. Wives have found husbands excluded; one sibling has been declared Indian, the other not.
The end result is a needless crisis. What will India do with the two million people left off the register? Some can apply now to citizenship tribunals, but these are notoriously unfair, particularly to Muslims. Bangladesh will not take them, and India’s foreign minister has in any case told Dhaka that the NRC is an “internal matter”. Will they be put into giant detention camps, with families split apart and their basic rights taken away? Will a permanent underclass of the disenfranchised be created? An India that would countenance such an outcome would be unrecognisable as a liberal democracy.
Ethnic tinderboxes need to be governed with the greatest of care. In the northeast, so distant from the corridors of power in New Delhi, the state has rarely been kind but has usually been careful. Separatist insurgencies and violent movements have been met not just with brutal repression but conciliatory moves meant to bring their ideas and leaders into the liberal democratic mainstream. The central government has generally played for time, hoping resentments would become less sharp and new solidarities emerge.
While the process hasn’t worked perfectly or prettily, the country was held together. Successive Indian governments recognised that where identities are fuzzy or intertwined, drawing black-and-white boundaries is a dangerous exercise.
But today’s Indian state is harder and less hypocritical — and infinitely less wise. The BJP, always quick to conjure existential threats to its notion of Hindu India, recognises that the fear of migration from Bangladesh is a potent political tool. It imagines even now that it can salvage the NRC politically by passing a law that would make it easier to grant Indian citizenship to the hundreds of thousands of non-Muslims excluded from the official register.
That solution, however, has been angrily rejected by the BJP’s uneasy allies among Assamese nationalists, who are resentful of all “outsiders” — whether Hindu or Muslim, whether originally from Bangladesh or not. . So two forms of exclusionary identity are competing in Assam and it is not clear which will win.
Either way, India loses. Sub-nationalism is already growing in India’s southern and eastern states, which fear the demographic weight of the northern plains that most strongly support Prime Minister Narendra Modi. If the only unifying narrative on offer is the BJP’s attempt to forge a unitary Hindu identity, defined conveniently against “outsiders,” then it is hard to see how India will emerge unscathed.
And remember, too, that Bangladesh today is doing better than India, so its residents have no need to move. What happens when the 300 million Bengali-speaking residents of the Gangetic delta, the most densely populated place in the world, face massive loss of land due to rising sea levels, and of agricultural fertility thanks to growing salinity? Where will they go? An India obsessed with drawing boundaries might want to consider exactly how high a wall it will need if and when a climate emergency hits.
Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.