The intertwined politics of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) render visible the tensions between indigeneity, citizenship and border making.

An NRC was first created for Assam in 1951 based on the census. The register was driven by the recognition of Assam’s position as a frontier state amidst the partition, which itself was a product of the colonial strategy of “divide and rule.”

The Bengali other

The NRC in Assam is situated in the context of the question of illegal migration, which forms the backdrop of the “Bongal kheda” (Chase away Bengalis) agitations that began in Assam in the 1940s and continued until the 1980s, giving legal structure to the xenophobic sentiments among Assamese toward Bengalis.

The targeting of Guwahati traders in 1948, the visit of the States Reorganisation Commission to Goalpara district in 1956, and the violence over implementation of Assam Official Language Act in 1959-1960 were driven by an underlying racist politics.

The decade of the seventies was marked by racial attacks in 1972 and anti-foreigners’ Assam Agitation between 1979 and 1985 that left hundreds dead and forced at least 300,000 to move to West Bengal and elsewhere.

Although the anti-foreigners’ Assam Agitation started in 1979 with Bengali Hindus as the target, it largely carried out its violence on the Muslims who were heuristically constructed as "Bangladeshis".

The Muslim other

The Nellie massacre in February 1983 marked the full scale of racist violence that formed the texture of the agitation, leaving 2,191, mostly women and children, dead.

Ongoing agitations have targeted Muslims in Bodoland Territorial Council areas throughout the 1990s and into 2014. The violence has resulted in over 400 deaths and displacement of over 650,000 largely Muslim Bengalis.

The experiences of Bengali Muslims across the Northeastern states of India are comparable to the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, albeit at a different scale.

Increasingly the character of the anti-Bengali agitations across Assam has become anti-Muslim. For the largely upper caste, middle and upper class Hindu Bengalis in Assam, the production of the Muslim other served as a convenient survival strategy. Rallying behind the hatred for the Bangladeshi was certainly a politically expedient position for the privileged Bengali.

Since the 1950s and into the new millennium, the NRC has largely not been implemented in Assam. In the face of political pressure, the Illegal Migrants Act was passed by the Parliament, creating a separate tribunal process for identifying illegal migrants, and was later struck down by the Supreme Court of India as unconstitutional. The Government of India took over the task of updating the Assam NRC, but faced several challenges, leading the Supreme Court to take up the role of directing and monitoring the process in 2013.

NRC and the Hindutva project

The NRC emerged as a strategic resource in the xenophobic politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

With its explicit ideological commitment to cast India as a Hindu nation where Muslims are reduced to second-class citizens, the BJP took up the NRC and turned it into a national issue. The construction of the Muslim as the illegal “other” was now a key political campaign tool of the BJP, drawing out the imagery of the Bangladeshi from the context of the Assam Agitation and placing the illegal migrant as a campaign issue on the national platform.

With its emergence to power in the second term, the BJP has turned the NRC into a national-level issue, enabling it to carry out its Hindutva agenda of reconfiguring the demography of India.

Assam was the first state to implement the NRC. The final updated NRC for Assam, published on 31 August 2019, contained 31 million names out of 33 million population. The NRC process left out about 2 million applicants, resulting in large-scale detentions.

The complexity of the NRC process, including the difficulties of the processes attached to laying claims to ancestry, has systematically rendered citizens, particularly the poor, stateless.

Strategically then, the CAA, offering citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, and Parsis from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, works in tandem with the NRC, serving as an instrument for reinstating Hindus who have been left out of the NRC into citizenship.

Effectively, as complementary tools, the NRC and the CAA work together to disenfranchise India’s Muslims.

The question of indigeneity

How then did a movement carried out as one of indigenous rights to language and culture serve as the tool of a xenophobic project launched by a fascist political party?

To answer this question, let’s closely look at what constitutes indigeneity in Assam.

The geography of Assam, itself a colonial artefact, constitutes multiple overlapping linguistic-cultural communities. Bengalis, who have long lived in the Barak valley, form as much the cultural-linguistic fabric of modern Assam as do the Assamese-speaking communities residing in the Brahmaputra valley. Moreover, the Bengalis living in Barak valley share kinship ties with Bengalis on the other side of the border, often moving fluidly across state boundaries. These movements depict the complexities of lives and relationships that are ruptured by the colonial project and that simultaneously resist its boundary-making.

Contrast the largely poor peasant Bengali communities of the Barak valley with the upper caste, upper class Bengalis that migrated to Assam as part of the colonial bureaucratic and trading structures. These upper caste, upper class Bengalis often reflected the colonial attitude toward Assamese. Ironically, the privilege enjoyed by this class is largely rendered intact as poor Muslim Bengalis are turned into the targets of violence.

The struggle for Assamese sovereignty seeking to protect rights over land, culture, and language, distanced from the politics of colonialism and capital accumulation, has been mobilized into a politics of hate that leaves intact the colonial and capitalist structures, instead casting the Muslim other as the threat.

Who is indigenous to Assam is a complex question that points to the necessity for ongoing dialogues. Questions of land rights for instance need to be situated amidst the expansionary moves of the settler colonial state in the form of extractive development interventions. How do indigenous farmers lay claim to land amidst the new development projects carried out by the state? How do indigenous communities strategically alienated from land by neocolonial policies under the guise of development lay claim to citizenship in a framework that attaches citizenship to land ownership? Consider the indigenous claims that anchor agrarian mobilisation in Assam for security of tenure on forest land that indigenous communities have occupied and cultivated.

Consider the history of Left organizing in Assam that was driven by the politics of land redistribution. In recent years, the organizing of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) has demanded land for landless farmers, erosion-affected people, and poor tea community members, actively targeted by the BJP-led government of Assam. These questions of indigenous sovereignty are situated amidst the ongoing colonization carried out by the state that achieves its hegemony through the reproduction of divisions.

To frame the NRC agitation in Assam, and the subsequent agitation against the CAA as an expression of claims to indigenous right is a simplistic misreading that fails to position the politics of cultural sovereignty amid the interplays of capitalism and colonialism. Worse, this sort of misreading is dangerous because it turns the struggles for indigenous rights into a sad caricature, deploying the language of indigenous rights to prop up a xenophobic project.

The ongoing challenges to land, livelihood and cultural practices experienced by indigenous communities in Assam and across India are constituted amidst the settler colonial project and its developmentalist logic. Obfuscated in the culturalist explanations of NRC as indigenous claims to sovereignty are the ongoing struggles for land rights and rights over livelihood waged by indigenous communities in Assam and elsewhere in India.

The question of indigenous rights, read in terms of right to cultural identity, needs to be juxtaposed alongside the overarching and interpenetrating agendas of colonialism and capitalism. The dominant class interests in Assam mobilized around the question of cultural identity construct a monolithic indigenous Assamese identity, simultaneously writing over the complexities, differences, class conflicts, and contestations in identity. They also incorporate indigenous identity into an Islamophobic project that is directed at disenfranchising Muslims, often through violence. Such hegemonic moves toward incorporating indigeneity strategically render invisible the very processes of capitalist-colonial extraction that expel people, households, communities from their livelihoods, making them refugees.

There is nothing natural about the work of cultural identity formation. Instead, the work of articulating cultural identity is situated in the terrains of political economy. Those with entrenched economic interests profit from the production of the Muslim other, situated as threat to indigenous culture.

Indigenous struggles offer us vast openings for imagining emancipatory ways of being in the world. In doing so, they teach us the possibilities of dialogue through difference, albeit in resistance to monolithic agendas driven by majoritarian vote bank politics.

Ultimately, the decolonizing possibilities in claims to indigeneity offer hope, not in targeting refugees living in poverty and expelled from their livelihoods by the colonial-capitalist project, but in launching radical projects of dismantling the colonial-capitalist hegemony through solidarity. The work of decolonizing the capitalist expansions of an Indian state re-worked in the logics of Hindutva lies in seeing the connections between the struggles of indigenous communities and those of Muslim minorities, including migrants and refugees. What this solidarity looks like is the imaginative work of radical politics.