Clashing nationalisms in north-eastern India

Who decides who remains?

Radha Sarkar

Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Asia, South Asia

25 January 2019

Changes to citizenship laws in India have pitted the BJP-led government against protesters in Assam, Radha Sarkar writes.

In early January 2019, the lower house of the Indian parliament passed the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill – a decision that has been met with widespread opposition in India’s north-eastern state of Assam.

The Bill articulates a religious notion of the Indian citizenry, relaxing the requirements for citizenship by naturalisation for Hindus, Buddhists, Parsis, Sikhs, Jains, and Christians from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Protestors in Assam have disrupted the movement of trains and have held several strikes, with 70 civil society organisations declaring an indefinite state-wide economic blockade.

Assamese protestors argue that claims to citizenship and residence in the state ought to be judged in terms of one’s original settlement in the state. In other words, past presence – specifically before 1971 – can be the only reason to legitimise current presence.

The religious vision manifested in the Bill, alongside the articulation of Assamese nativism, highlights the multiple – even clashing – conceptions of nationalism at play in contemporary Indian politics.

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The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill seeks to qualify the Citizenship Act, 1955, which prohibits illegal immigrants from acquiring Indian citizenship. Where an applicant is typically required to have lived in India for 11 of the preceding 14 years, the Bill relaxes this requirement to six of the past 14 years for the groups mentioned above.

By basing one’s eligibility for citizenship on their religion, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is furthering its agenda of religious nationalism that envisions India as a Hindu nation.

Here it is important to note several points. The definition of ‘Hindu’ offered by the founder of the right-wing social organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is an individual for whom the fatherland, or land of birth, and holy land, or land of worship, are one and the same. The RSS is also the BJP’s ideological mentor and the head of Hindu nationalist organisations known as the Sangh Parivar.

According to this definition, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains – whose faiths originated within India’s borders – fall within the extended Hindu family.

While the Bill also includes provisions for Christians and Parsis, the population of Christians in these countries is very small and Parsis do not appear among the demographics at all. Christians constitute 1.6 per cent of Pakistan’s population, less than 0.5 per cent of that of Bangladesh, and – along with Hindus, Sikhs and Bahais – only 0.3 per cent of that of Afghanistan.

Extending the provisions of the Bill to these religious minorities encourages a veneer of secularism, and in fact places little burden on the state apparatus or citizens. Ultimately, it does little to impact the realisation of a Hindu nation.

By contrast, the Bill does not include Ahmadiyas, Ismailis, and other Muslim minority sects who face persecution in their home countries. This is telling of the BJP-government’s anti-Muslim stance, which often manifests in a largely fabricated – yet politically expedient – narrative of ‘invading’ Muslim ‘oppressors’ and ‘resisting’ self-righteous Hindus.

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The myth of the Muslim ‘other’ has been a feature of Indian politics for decades. For instance, one RSS leader argued that the cow constitutes the only grounds for general unity and harmony among Indians, consequently alienating Muslims as ‘cow killers’. Then there was the BJP-supported demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992 and the BJP-government’s alleged involvement in the anti-Muslim Gujarat riots a decade later.

Most recently, the BJP appointed a Hindu right-wing firebrand, who has been accused of inciting violence against Muslims, to lead India’s most densely populated state with the country’s largest Muslim population.

For their part, Assamese protestors are challenging the presence of any non-national in Assam – regardless of religion. In a region long-marginalised in the Indian polity, people are articulating their claims to the nation by rejecting the claims of others.

Protestors cite the Assam Accord, and in particular Clause 5 – Foreigners Issue. The clause is undeniably hostile to immigrants, promising that “foreigners who came to Assam on or after 25 March 1971 shall continue to be detected, deleted [from electoral rolls] and expelled in accordance with the law. Immediate and practical steps shall be taken to expel such foreigners.”

The Assam Accord and recent protests are a poignant example of nativism, or the politics of promoting the interests of ‘native’ inhabitants against those labelled as ‘immigrants’.

Nationalism has been defined by scholars as a theory of political legitimacy which requires that ethnic boundaries overlap with political ones, or as the creation of “an imagined political community.”

What is left unsaid in these definitions, however, is that nations can be imagined in competing ways, with clashing ideas of nationalism, ethnicity, and community. These differences can be deployed simultaneously across the same territories and groups.

This is precisely what the Assamese case illustrates. On the one hand, religious nationalism defines the relevant ethnic groups in terms of religion. It is relatively elastic, limited only by the dimensions of the religious community and not by any geographic or temporal standards.

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The flexible or expansionist dimensions of religious nationalism are illustrated by RSS’ aspiration for akhanda bharat (undivided India) – a territory that extends from Afghanistan to Thailand.

In contrast, nativism defines ethnicity in overlapping spatial and temporal terms. That is, one has to have been present in a particular geographical location for a specified period of time to have a legitimate claim to the political community.

Nativism is inward-looking and inelastic, with a much smaller, predetermined membership. Both ideas of nationalism espouse different theories of legitimacy and define different ‘imagined communities’.

Who will lose from these clashes between ideas of the nation? First and foremost, Bangladeshi Muslims in Assam will face persecution, since both the central and state governments can agree on ejecting them. Already 21 Bangladeshis have been deported from Assam, although their religions were not disclosed.

But since citizenship in the absence of documentation can be difficult to prove in a region with historically porous borders, wrongful deportations of Indian Muslims might also follow.

And just as the slew of beef bans shortly after the BJP-government’s intervention in 2014 emboldened cow-related vigilantism that took aim largely at Muslims and other minorities, so too might the religious vision of the Bill combine with the current of nativism in Assam to produce another ugly form of violence, this time to protect the nation’s borders rather than its bovines.

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