No Land’s People: The Untold Story of Assam’s NRC Crisis

Published 25 November 2021 / By Abhishek Saha

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In 1949, my paternal grandmother, then aged seven, moved to India’s border state of Assam from East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh. She, her family and millions of others had to leave their homes as religious riots swept the subcontinent following its Partition. My grandmother’s Indian identity was settled – not a thing one thought of.

Yet, seventy years later, she failed to make it to a list of Indian citizens – the National Register of Citizens (NRC) – that Assam drew up. NRC was an unprecedented and complex exercise asking 33 million residents of the state to prove their citizenship. As many as 1.9 million people were excluded from the list. Their identity as an Indian is precarious now. The excluded – many of them are poor and unlettered – are expected to fight tooth and nail to prove their Indian citizenship and claim inclusion into the NRC.

My book, No Land’s People: The Untold Story of Assam’s NRC Crisis, published in India by HarperCollins this year, begins with my grandmother’s story and segues to the humanitarian crisis caused by the citizenship determination processes in Assam. It follows my three years of reportage for The Indian Express, an influential national English newspaper. The book draws from the research historians and political scientists have done on Assam, located in northeast India and famous for its tea and the one-horned rhinoceros, and its longstanding issues related to migration, identity and citizenship.

Assam, my home, is diverse. Cut across its length by the mighty Brahmaputra river, the state’s history is of migrations. Hindu and Muslim migrants from what is now Bangladesh posing demographic, political and cultural threats to indigenous communities has been a longstanding discourse in Assam. By leaving out non-citizens, the NRC was supposed to reach closure on citizenship and identity after decades of conflict.

Towards the preparation of the NRC, around 33 million people, clutching over 66 million documents, attempted to prove that they or their ancestors had been residing in Assam or in any part of India before the midnight of 24 March 1971— a unique cut-off date for identifying an Indian citizen in Assam. In this citizenship determination mechanism, decades-old documents and oral statements converged to establish a person’s lineage and citizenship.

No Land’s People is divided into four parts. The first, Finding the ‘foreigners’, examines the historical roots of the NRC by analysing questions of migration, citizenship, identity and belonging in Assam. It documents how a register of citizens was first prepared in Assam in 1951 and the debates over ascertaining who is an Indian citizen in Assam that emerged during the six-year long anti-‘foreigner’ movement in Assam from 1979-85. This part explains how and why 24 March 1971 was fixed as the cut-off for determining Indian citizenship in Assam and critiques the lack of authentic official data on irregular migrants. The second part, Chronicles of statelessness, has several case studies – including my grandmother’s – to document how citizenship determination mechanisms in Assam (including but not limited to the NRC and all marked by systemic flaws) have wreaked havoc on the poor, unlettered and marginalised. Here, I study the functioning of the quasi-judicial Foreigners Tribunals (FTs) in Assam that have the power to ‘declare’ a person non-citizen. Assam is the only Indian state – it has 28 – to have such tribunals. This part also documents the plight of people lodged for years as ‘illegal foreigners’ in carceral facilities in Assam after being declared non-citizens by the FTs, even as their legal appeals for Indian citizenship remain pending in higher courts. The third part of the book, Preparing the NRC, details how the mammoth exercise was executed bureaucratically and technologically. It questions the NRC’s humanitarian cost, the trail of suffering, suicides and deaths it left behind. Case studies presented in this part examine journalistically how the distress caused by the citizenship determination processes in Assam was aggravated by poverty, illiteracy and red tape. The fourth part, Political gamesmanship, traces the politics associated with the exercise both at the regional and the national level. It discusses the 2019 amendment to India’s citizenship laws and analyses the politics behind the ruling dispensation’s now-stalled proposition of an NRC for the entire country.

No Land’s People has been reviewed by major Indian media publications including Hindustan TimesThe Indian ExpressThe TelegraphFrontlineOutlookFinancial Express and Biblio. Outside India, the book has been reviewed by Al Jazeera, Turkey’s national public broadcaster TRT World, and Bangladesh’s leading English daily The Daily Star. The book was featured by the New York-based research and journalism platform The Polis Project.

Assam’s citizenship crisis is a complex intersection of issues related to borders, migrations, nationalisms and politics in the Indian subcontinent – and that’s where my academic interests lie. I am currently reading the MSc in Migration Studies programme, offered jointly by the Department of International Development and the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, at the University of Oxford. I believe this interdisciplinary programme will help me study migration and citizenship through a variety of academic prisms. It will guide me in learning the skills and tools necessary to conduct relevant research in future.

Abhishek Saha is a journalist covering Northeast India for the Indian Express. He is currently undertaking the MSc in Migrations Studies at the University of Oxford. His book, No Land’s People: The Untold Story of Assam’s NRC Crisis (2021) is published by HarperCollins India.