Home / Opinion / Views /  Opinion | A registry of citizens that could warp the original idea of India

The central premise of the Assam agitation of the 1980s rested on the fact that the state was overwhelmed by illegal outsiders. The Assamese felt genuinely anxious about the “influx" of outsiders, refugees from the then East Pakistan, and later Bangladesh, as well as Bengalis who were Indian citizens, as that disrupted the demography of Assam. Nobody had an accurate estimate of how many foreigners had come and the National Register for Citizens was meant to provide clarity.

The fact that the now revealed actual number —1.9 million—is far lower than earlier alarmist figures should allay anxiety and reduce xenophobia, even though it is not the outcome that everyone may have wanted. If the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) saw an opportunity in the Assam movement to advance a Hindutva campaign, it will have found that only about 6-7% of the state’s population did not qualify for the NRC and that many among them are Hindus. The figure might halve after the appeal process.

There appears to be a difference between what the Assamese want and what the BJP wants. The Assamese don’t want their culture and demography to change drastically and their agitation was against all outsiders regardless of religious identity. As Suketu Mehta, the US-based author of This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto, said in a recent interview, “I understand the economic and cultural anxiety of the Assamese. Assam should be getting resources from the rest of the country to deal with… influx. But we can’t alienate Indian Muslims the way the government is doing right now. If Indian Muslims are alienated, the country will never recover."

Few had considered what would happen to those identified as foreigners. They would have to leave, some said. But for where? Was India going to jail them? Evict them? Would Bangladesh take them in? Why should it and how was anyone going to prove that an individual being called a foreigner was a Bangladeshi or an Indian? Was it smart to implement the exercise without thinking of its consequences on India’s ties with an ally like Bangladesh?

What constitutes citizenship and what documents establish it? How is a poor woman from Himachal Pradesh living in Assam going to obtain documentary evidence that she is an Indian? The process shifted the burden of proving citizenship on the individual, who often lacked the means or comprehension to even prove her existence. As Chinmay Tumbe’s recent book, India Moving: A History Of Migration shows, the number of Indians on the move is large. By some estimates, as many as 180 million Indians live in places or states in which they were not born. How would they establish, through legacy or lineage documents, who they are?

Consider the people being identified. They are poor, distressed, bewildered, and scared. Many of them are not literate and do not possess papers as proof. There are stories of families where some have been accepted as local and some not, suggesting flaws in the system. Some harassed individuals have taken their lives out of desperation. Some are so afraid of speaking to authorities that they’ve ignored documents sent to them that were full of legal jargon they didn’t understand and which asked them to present their case in Guwahati, which, in a flood-prone state with a limited transport network, was far from easily done.

Nobody could claim that an overwhelming majority of the affected people are a security threat. However, marking them otherizes them in the name of security. Accentuating the anxiety of many of the affected, some BJP leaders have said that Hindus among the 1.9 million need not worry. That makes outsiders of Muslims and others, and suggests that being an Indian means being a Hindu (and vice-versa).

Indian leaders have said that refugees from other countries in the South Asian region who are Sikhs, Buddhists or Hindus would qualify for citizenship, implying that Muslims would not. India’s largest neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh, are majority Muslim, and politics there has resulted in the repression of many people—such as Baluchis, Ahmedias and Shias in Pakistan, and gays, lesbians and atheists in Bangladesh—who won’t fit this criterion. Their fears of persecution, the basic condition for seeking asylum, are well-founded. However, since 2014, India’s refugee policy seems to have changed.

What gets reinforced is the so-called “two-nation theory" on which Pakistan was founded and which India had rejected as a principle but accepted as a practicality. However, the two nations were not meant to be a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan—remember, that was the Muslim League’s slogan, not of the Indian freedom movement.

India was meant to be the bigger nation, and not only geographically. It was meant to be a home to all those who saw themselves as Indian, regardless of divisions of religion, language, gender, and caste. An extension of the registry all over India would be seen as an endorsement of another interpretation of the idea of India, one that envisions the state as majoritarian and allows residence not as a matter of right, but as a privilege granted by the state.

Is that the new India we want, a divided, narrower, shrunken land?

*Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at

Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Never miss a story! Stay connected and informed with Mint. Download our App Now!!

Edit Profile
My ReadsRedeem a Gift CardLogout