Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 65, 8 April 2020

India: Assam's Foreigners Tribunal Struggles to Sift through Ethno-Religious Faultlines  
Monish Tourangbam

In the news

On 4 April, a report 'Muslims Are Foreigners': Inside India's Campaign to Decide Who Is a Citizen published in the New York Times (NYT), alleged that the central and the state government have been "illegally" influencing and pressurizing the Foreigners Tribunal lawyers in Assam while carrying out their duties. The Foreigners Tribunal lawyers, under the National Register of Citizens (NRC), have been in the job of registering citizens and documenting foreigners in Assam. This process, as the report and many other writings, suggest has acquired nationwide relevance and added layers, since the passage of India's controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

The NYT report made its position preferring to call the pro and anti-CAA protests as "India's citizenship wars". The report was categorical, in blaming the government for being responsible for "stateless" Muslims in Assam, and alleging that the Modi government was pulling "the country away from its foundation as a secular, multicultural nation and turn it into a more overtly Hindu state." 

Issues at large

This is indeed a volatile issue simmering in the State of Assam and elsewhere in India, as the whole country has gone for a lockdown amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. Irrespective of the points and counterpoints of those who vehemently oppose and those who strongly support the intentions of the Indian government relating to the CAA, this issue is steeped in the complex geography of Assam, owing to its porous borders with Bangladesh and the history of identity politics in the State. Beyond the grand narratives and counter-narratives of the government's alleged pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim sentiments lie the history of the politics over who is an Assamese, and who is not and the demands for Inner Line Permit (ILP) to preserve the culture and rights of the indigenous. 

The agitations over the influx of illegal immigrants into Assam over different periods of its modern history has been mired in the politics of centre-state relations, political parties, and electoral vote banks, student and civil society bodies, insurgent groups, and their factions. 

In perspective

The issue of illegal immigration in Assam and ways to address it is inseparable from the story of the formation of modern state boundaries in the subcontinent, more particularly the creation of Bangladesh, and the dynamic definitional parameters of who is a native, and who is a foreigner. Ethnicity, religion, and the demographic compositions in different areas of Assam are acutely reflected in how the citizenship law has played out in the Brahmaputra and Barak Valley there.

Moreover, the anti-foreigners agitation in Assam and other states in India's northeast acquires a more complex political and socio-economic undertone, as the idea of a "foreigner" and an "outsider", might not always be a label preserved for illegal immigrants, but also Indian citizens from the rest of the country. Hence, the debate over who is an "insider" and who is an "outsider" here often goes beyond the grand narrative of Hindu-Muslim dichotomy. This story predates the Modi era and will continue in some form or the other after the Modi government is long gone.

So, what the NYT report attempts to shed light on, is part of a much bigger story, playing out amidst the fault lines of a complicated concoction of the complex geography of Assam and the history of the State of Assam and its people.

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