Ambivalence of Citizenship in Assam


Anupama Roy ( is with the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

The process of identifying “citizens” through the preparation of the National Register of Citizens for Assam, coupled with changes in the Citizenship Act, 1955 that apply specifically to Assam and allow for a “hyphenated” citizenship– “Indian” and “Assamese”–continues to be troubled issues that have not abated since the 1980s.

The author would like to thank Sanjeeva Kumar, Prateek Hazela, Akhil Datta, Banasmita Bora, Santana Khanikar and Ankita Datta for their help and support

The foreigners’ question that festered in Assam in the 1980s endures today. However, its resolution is no longer sought in the violent elimination of the non-Assamese-speaking outsiders or solely through the legal mechanisms of the Foreigners Act, but through bureaucratic intervention, pushed by a political consensus on identifying those who belong. Towards this end, Assam has seen over the past two years an unprecedented bureaucratic exercise of identifying “citizens” to prepare a “National” Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam.

National Register of Citizens: 67 lakh forms filed, Assam gears up to verify citizenship claims

The history of identification of citizens and sifting out non-citizens goes back to the Assam movement and the Assam Accord. The present moment, however, is significant for its coalescence with the changes made in 2003 in the Citizenship Act, 1955, which eliminated citizenship by birth and gave precedence to descent. The absence of a “political” contestation in Assam over the NRC, and the approval it has among people across Assam, is symptomatic of the continuing appeal of an “authentic” Assamese identity, which is currently being officially debated in the state, and of trust in an “efficient” mechanism of identification of citizens, painstakingly developed by the NRC commissioner of Assam.

The Assamese Exception

“It is a register of Indian citizens,” an eminent journalist from Assam, who has reported and written extensively on the preparation of the NRC, corrects me, when I ask him about the preparation of the NRC for Assamese citizens. The register being prepared in Assam is indeed of Indian citizens. But the pedigree of Indian citizenship is traced to an Assamese legacy, which makes the NRC a register of Assamese–Indian citizens or Indian citizens who are legitimate residents of Assam. The identification of Indian citizens simultaneously as Assamese recognises a hyphenated citizenship, hitherto alien to the political vocabulary of citizenship in India. Significantly, the cohabitation of what was a conflicting relationship in the 1980s has been achieved by marking out the illegal alien (“Bengali-speaking, Muslim, Bangladeshi infiltrator”), as the constituent other. Indeed, the conceptual apparatus of citizenship summoned by the components of the hyphenated citizen— “Indian” and “Assamese”—iron out the multiple layers and corresponding contestations within each.

The citizenship question in Assam has a long postcolonial history fraught with conflicts, and is reflected in the manner in which the citizenship law in India has responded to the contests over citizenship in Assam. The Citizenship Act, 1955 was amended in 1986 to inscribe an exception in the law in recognition of the extraordinary conditions prevailing in Assam. The 1986 amendment came in the wake of the Assam Accord, and pertained to the identification and sifting out of foreigners and illegal migrants from Bangladesh. While migration into Assam from Bangladesh has a long history, it was in 1971, in the course of the liberation war in Bangladesh, that several lakhs of Hindu and Muslim refugees fled to Assam. On 8 February 1972, the Prime Ministers of India and Bangladesh issued a joint declaration in which the Government of India assured “all possible assistance to the Government of Bangladesh in the unprecedented task of resettling the refugees and displaced persons in Bangladesh” (Baruah 1999: 119). Not all refugees returned, and Bangladeshi migrants continued to cross the border into Assam and other parts of India in search of livelihood. Within Assam, the presence of large numbers of “foreigners” instilled a sense of unease at the change in demography, language and culture, and pressure over resources. A powerful popular movement erupted in the 1980s, led and steered by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) demanding the ouster of foreigners. The movement lay claim to a distinctive Assamese identity and based on this, differentiated citizenship. Grounded in the principle of “different yet equal,” difference was articulated in the initial years of the movement in terms of the linguistic/cultural identity of Assamese people, and later with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) taking over the struggle, in terms of unequal development and discrimination. At the root of both was a powerful sentiment of crisis in citizenship in Assam.

Vector design of Assamese family showing culture of Assam, India

Yet the model of citizenship that the Assam movement invoked replicated the universal form that it was seeking to roll back in its own relationship with the Indian state. These contradictions played out in the articulation of citizenship at the national and state levels and within the state between the “ethnic” Assamese and the Bodos, the Assamese and the Bengalis, the Assamese and the tribals, etc. The accord reached between the leaders of the movement and the Indian government in 1985, and the amendment in the Citizenship Act following the accord in 1986, put in place a template of graded citizenship in Assam, and shifted the chronological boundary of citizenship for the state to 25 March 1971, from 19 July 1948, which was the constitutional deadline for the rest of the country.

The Assam Accord, signed on 15 August 1985, included the promise by the central government that it would ensure “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards…to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people” and the “all round economic development of Assam.” On the question of “foreigners” in Assam, the accord evolved a graded/differentiated system, categorising them on the basis of the date of their entry into Assam. It legitimised the citizenship status of those who had entered Assam from the (then) East Pakistan before 1 January 1966. Those who had entered the state between 1 January 1966 and 24 March 1971 were to be legitimised in phases, that is, they were to be disenfranchised for a period of 10 years from the date of identification, while others who had come after 24 March 1971 were to be deported as illegal aliens.

Sixth Category of Citizenship

In November 1986, Parliament amended the Citizenship Act, 1955 by adding Section 6A which introduced a sixth category of citizenship in India along with birth, descent, registration, naturalisation, and by incorporation of foreign territory into India. This new category of citizenship was to apply exclusively to Assam. The amended act laid down that all persons of Indian origin who came to Assam before 1 January 1966 from a specified territory (meaning territories included in Bangladesh) and had been ordinarily resident in Assam will be considered citizens of India from the date unless they chose not to be. It also added that persons of Indian origin from the specified territories who came on or after 1 January 1966 but before 25 March 1971 and had been resident in Assam since and had been detected as “foreigner” in accordance with the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 and Foreigners (Tribunals) Orders, 1964, upon registration will be considered as citizens of India, from the date of expiry of a period of 10 years from the date of detection as a foreigner. In the interim period they will enjoy all facilities including Indian passports, but will not have the right to vote. All other persons who entered the state on or after 25 March 1971, upon identification as illegal migrants under the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) (IMDT) Act, 1983, will be deported.

With the signing of the Assam Accord, we can see the confirmation of a hierarchised model of citizenship constituted by the universal “we,” the Assamese people, whose claim to citizenship was beyond any legal dispute. The universal “we” was superimposed on residual citizens, whose citizenship was rendered ambivalent by their linguistic identity and their religion. The government sought to resolve this ambivalence through law, by conferring deferred citizenship onto some, through the determination of their legality by the Foreigners Act. The rest, that is, those who arrived in India on or after 25 March 1971, were illegal aliens, confirmed as such by the IMDT Act, and deported from India. In actual practice, however, since both the Foreigners Act and the IMDT Act applied simultaneously, and prescribed different modes of determining citizenship, in a context of continuing influx of immigrants from Bangladesh the residual citizens occupied a zone of perpetually indeterminate/liminal citizenship and suspect legality. Moreover, as far as the mode of identification of “illegal migrant” or “foreigner” was concerned, the IMDT Act was more protective of the interests of the immigrant, since it shifted the responsibility of producing evidence from the person identified as an “illegal migrant” to the “prescribed authority,” and demanded a locus standi from the applicant identifying the illegal migrant as such.

The Supreme Court scrapped the IMDT Act in 2005 removing what was largely perceived in Assam to be an anomalous and unfair exception. In its judgment, delivered on 12 August 2005, in response to a petition seeking its repeal by Sarbananda Sonowal, a former president of AASU, former member of legislative assembly and member of Parliament from the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and currently the chief minister of Assam, a three judge bench declared the IMDT Act unconstitutional. While the grounds for declaring the act unconstitutional were specifically questions of legal procedure, the general principles articulated in the process had ramifications for the way in which citizenship was defined and interpreted. The Court described immigration from Bangladesh not only as illegal entry, but as an act of aggression. Arguing within a notion of bounded citizenship, the Court stated that buttressing national territorial boundaries and protection of its population from infiltrators who posed a threat to national security was an essential function of state sovereignty.

In the recent past, the contest over illegal migration and citizenship has played out yet again in the orders given by the Supreme Court in two sets of public interest litigations (PILs) questioning the constitutional validity of Section 6A of the Citizenship Act. One of these, brought before the Supreme Court by the Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha, Assam Public Works, and All Assam Ahom Association (in Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha and Others v Union of India and Another, 2014) focused on the provision in Section 6A that granted Indian citizenship to those Bangladeshis who entered Assam between 1 January 1966 and 24 March 1971. The second PIL filed by the non-governmental organisations Swajan and Bimalangshu Roy Foundation in 2012, which is still being heard, focused on that part of Section 6A, which treated all Bangladeshi migrants who entered Assam after 24 March 1971 as illegal for deportation by the state. The PIL brought by Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha and others raised anxiety over the dilution of the legal frameworks of citizenship which, they argued, promoted indiscriminate influx and put at risk the security of the state and people. The second PIL lamented the clubbing of all migrants who entered India after 24 March 1971 as illegal, and asked that illegal migrants be distinguished from displaced persons (primarily Hindu and other minority groups fleeing persecution), who must be given the legal status of citizens.

Questioning Validity of Law

The Supreme Court admitted the PIL filed by Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha and others challenging the validity of Sections 6A (3) and (4) of the Citizenship Act on the ground that it represented the interests of an entire people—the tribal and non-tribal population of Assam—and, therefore, deserved to be admitted. These interests, the judges observed, related to the protection of Assamese culture, but had larger ramifications for the sovereignty and integrity of the country as a whole. The judges left the question of the constitutional validity of Section 6A, particularly its compatibility with the citizenship provisions in the Constitution in prescribing for Assam a cut-off date for citizenship which was at variance with Article 6 of the Constitution, to be decided by a constitutional bench.

Addressing the remaining parts of the petition, they traced the historical trajectory of Section 6A to the Assam Accord, and averred that the legal modalities of conferring citizenship were only part of the Assam Accord. The other and equally substantial components of the accord consisted in securing the international border against future infiltration and the preservation of Assamese culture and identity. In October 2006, the Government of Assam constituted a committee of ministers to examine the implementation of the Assam Accord, and the complex task of defining the “Assamese people.” The committee met with political parties, literary bodies and student groups to deliberate on an appropriate definition. In July 2011, a cabinet subcommittee was constituted by the central government to examine the question.

Leaving it to the government and the Assamese people to deliberate and decide on what constituted Assamese culture, the Supreme Court limited itself to issuing specific directions to the central and state governments for the fortification and surveillance of the eastern border. It also decided to monitor the progress made in this direction by the government, by preparing a road map for its completion. The Court, however, concerned itself also with securing the territory “internally” by expediting the process of sieving out the foreigners from citizens. To this end, it asked the Gauhati High Court to hasten the process of selection of chairpersons and members of the Foreigners Tribunals to ensure that they became operational. The Chief Justice of the Gauhati High Court was to monitor the tribunals by constituting a special bench to oversee their progress. The central government was asked to streamline the process of deportation of the illegal migrants after discussions with the Government of Bangladesh, and to place the outcome of these discussions before the Court. In addition, the Supreme Court laid down a time schedule to be followed for updating the NRC in Assam so that the entire register could be published by the end of January 2016.1 In its administrative guidelines the Supreme Court followed its decision in Sarbananda Sonowal (2005) in construing the “influx of illegal migrants into the state of India as external aggression.” At the same time, however, it broadened the notion of security to include “internal disturbance,” which involved being alert to and eliminating risks to the Assamese people from outsiders. To this end, it directed the attention of the larger bench of the Supreme Court which would examine the constitutional questions precipitated by the petitions, to consider whether the expression “state” occurring in Article 355 refers only to a territorial region or includes also the people living in the state, their culture and identity. For its part, by prescribing a deadline for the updation of the NRC, the Court reinforced the responsibility taken up by the central government through the Assam Accord to update the 1951 NRC in Assam.

The second set of petitions filed in 2012 by Swajan and the Bimalangshu Roy Foundation pleads that Hindus and persons of other minorities from Bangladesh migrating to Assam to escape religious persecution must not be bracketed with illegal migrants to be slotted for deportation. Pointing out that Section 2 of the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950 protects from expulsion any person “who on account of civil disturbances or fear of such disturbances” in any area forming part of Pakistan (now Bangladesh) has been displaced from or has left his place of residence and has been subsequently residing in Assam, the petitioners ask that displaced persons should constitute a distinct category for legal protection, and that Hindus seeking shelter in Assam should be given citizenship on the same grounds that they have been given in Gujarat and Rajasthan between 2004 and 2007 (Telegraph 2013).

After the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power in 2014, its leaders, including the BJP chief Amit Shah, have spoken in rallies in Assam assuring citizenship to Hindus who had fled to India to escape religious persecution in Bangladesh. Indeed, the government has promised to enact a law for the rehabilitation of Hindu refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh, setting up a task force to expedite pending citizenship requests from refugees, and issuing long-term visas of 10–15 years, wherever citizenship requests were taking long to process. At the same time, echoing the campaign speeches of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Shah had been convincing people in Assam that the BJP would get rid of “infiltrators.” Indeed the BJP declared immigration policy a major plank of its campaign in the Assam assembly elections in 2016. On 9 April 2016, speaking in a rally at Sonari, Amit Shah promised to give the Assamese people a Bangladeshi-migrants-free Assam if BJP was voted to power (Kashyap 2016). In an article in the Indian Express, Samudra Gupta Kashyap elaborates on the number of Bangladeshis in Assam, arguing that the numbers remain disputed, with the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) believing that “infiltration” is not as substantial as it is made out to be by the AASU. Yet, since 1985, Foreigners Tribunals have declared 38,000 persons in Assam as illegal migrants, of whom most have either absconded or are in detention in camps. The Foreigners Tribunal is scrutinising over a lakh cases. Nearly 1.5 lakh names in Assam’s electoral rolls are marked “D” standing for “doubtful” to convey their citizenship status. Interestingly, the “D” voters are permitted to apply for inclusion of their names in the NRC, but their registration would ultimately depend on the verdict of the Foreigners’ Tribunals (Kashyap 2015).

Bounded Citizenship

As mentioned earlier, whereas in the rest of the country, the cut-off date for citizenship inscribed in the Constitution is 19 July 1948, with the 1986 amendment in the Citizenship Act, Assam became an exception to the constitutional deadline, with 24 March 1971 becoming the new cut-off applied exclusively to Assam. The NRC in Assam works on the principle of tracing citizenship to a legacy of Assamese descent going back to the 1951 NRC and to next signpost, 1971—the “additional load,” as Prateek Hazela, commissioner and state coordinator of NRC, called it in an extensive interaction with the author.

Yet, the NRC is not only about integration and closure, or even the recognition of an Assamese identity by descent or through affirmation of legal residence in Assam. It is equally about a humongous bureaucratic exercise of identification and enumeration of citizens, of putting in place efficient and effective identification regimes and associated documentation practices, often associated with the exercise of state power, and state-formative practices. A body of scholarship has established that such practices produce the structural effect of the state, whereby the state appears to exist through palpable ruling practices. Fixing territorial boundaries, and making its inhabitants legal are important ingredients of statecraft, which seek to make the citizen a stable and enumerable category, amenable to specific governmental practices. The regimes of national identity systems enumerating entire populations of nation states, make these systems more comprehensive and consequential. In recent years, digitalised and biometric identification systems have made identification regimes more efficient but also intrusive than the older paper-based documentation regimes, for their potential for surveillance of citizens. The diverse components of surveillance such as tools and technologies of survey, measurement, census, etc, have long been used for marking what lies within the purview of the state’s powers of extraction and control, enhancing and entrenching its powers of revenue collection, garnering military service, law enforcement, and policing. Over the years these tools have become more sophisticated, specialised and differentiated, and increasingly more nebulous, not requiring the constant proximity between the law enforcers and the people (Singh 2014: 42).assam-population-polls

It is indeed possible to see the NRC as part of the continuing legacy of governmental practices of the state, and its potential for surveillance and control. In 2003, the amendment to the Citizenship Act brought about two significant changes—the recognition in law of the category of Overseas Citizen of India (OCI), and the constraining of citizenship by birth by confining it to only those whose parents were Indian citizens already or if one of the parents was an Indian citizen and the other was not an illegal migrant. In addition, the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and the Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules of 2003 provided the procedure for the “establishment and maintenance” of the NRC. Section 14A made the registration of all citizens of India, issue of national identity cards, the maintenance of a national population register, and the establishment of the NRC by the central government compulsory.

The preparation of the NRC in the entire country is yet to take off, and the National Population Register (NPR) which is being prepared alongside the Unique Identification (UID) Aadhaar is expected to lead on to the issue of national identity cards based on citizenship (not just residence) and the NRC, after the illegal migrants who may have entered the NPR are weeded out.

The trajectory of the NRC in Assam, however, can be traced to the decisive moment in 2005, when the Supreme Court scrapped the IMDT Act. While delivering the judgment, the Court directed that all persons with suspect citizenship be brought under the purview of the Foreigners Act, 1946. The then Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi proposed that the NRC prepared in 1951 in the state be updated to resolve all contests over the foreigner issue, and also put to rest the apprehensions of the AASU and the AIUDF. A separate directorate was established by the Government of Assam to update the NRC. However, it did not make any progress beyond the computation of available data, partly because the NRC 1951 for all the districts of Assam was not readily available with the state government2 (Kashyap 2007, 2015).

In 2007, the Gogoi reiterated the desirability of having an updated NRC, but also drew attention to the intricacies of the process and the problems accruing from the fact that a large number of legitimate residents of Assam, such as the tea garden workers, may not actually have any documentary evidence to trace their residence in the state to 1971 or 1951. In addition there was no clarity as to where the legal authority of the process of updation would come from—a constitutional amendment or statute of the central government approving the modalities framed by the state government. A cabinet subcommittee was set up by the state government to draw up the modalities, to finalise the procedures and structures of establishing the link of every person to the electoral rolls of 1971, which could then be connected to the NRC of 1951. In 2015, when the Supreme Court issued directions to the state government to accelerate the process and complete it within a prescribed time frame, the central government provided the guidelines and funds for updation and the process was carried out by the state government, under the guidance of the Registrar General of India, as provided in the amended Citizenship Act. A senior IAS officer headed the NRC as its commissioner and coordinator (Kashyap 2015).

Rationality, Efficiency and Trust

Elaborating the complex modalities of updating the NRC, Prateek Hazela foregrounded aspects of the NRC, which are decidedly distinct from the political imperatives of tracing an Assamese legacy. Hazela professes a bureaucratic rationality, propelled by the logic of efficiency, and driven by the objective of developing a foolproof mechanism of identifying Indian citizens resident in Assam. At the same time, since the efficiency of the identification system depended on the active and willing participation of the people of Assam, the technical model had to be made acceptable and comprehensible to the Assamese people as a whole. To be acceptable, a system needs to be made familiar to people. This is possible only after an initial confidence is built. Indeed, in the sequence followed by the NRC commissioner, generating trust for the NRC was the first essential step before the actual process of enumeration could begin. Ajupi Baruah, project manager with the NRC, described the process as akin to invoking a sentiment—of creating a frenzy—which could then be channelled into winning people’s trust, alleviating their apprehensions, and ensuring their participation.

The NRC hoardings and visual promos played in cinema halls and television channels included Bihu songs and dances around the NRC theme. Using familiar cultural tropes, promotional videos were intended to build curiosity, and subsequently anticipation, which could translate into popular acceptance, enabling collective participation in a massive and complex exercise. Indeed, the NRC anthem sung by the popular Assamese singer Zubeen Garg (Jibon Borthakur), wove together pleasing visuals of plurality and cultural diversity, promising the following:

We are the citizens of this country

NRC represents our each and every soul.

We hold each other’s hands

NRC gives courage in our hearts.

Our identity, security, rights,

Peace, progress, and unity together.

The emotive appeal of the NRC anthem lay in the promise of citizenship as a collective national political identity, juxtaposed on an inclusive Assamese identity characterised by cultural plurality. A leaflet issued by the state coordinator NRC, Assam, invoked the spirit of responsible participation, by reminding citizens of their civic role in “standing united and making the NRC a success story for us and our future generations.”

Once curiosity had been generated and anticipation built, the second, and more difficult step was to make people familiar with the complex procedures. The NRC office adopted a range of strategies to make the system comprehensible. These included educational videos and television advertisements, newspaper advertisements, leaflets, pamphlets and posters with illustrative examples of registration of a fictitious family, public meetings, community level meetings and gram sabhas, etc, to build, as the NRC commissioner expressed it, people’s “capacity” to register themselves.3

It may be recalled here, that in the Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha’s petition before the Supreme Court questioning the constitutional validity of the 1986 amendment and consequently Section 6A of the Citizenship Act for being at variance with the Article 6 of the Constitution, the Supreme Court had issued instructions to the state government to expedite the process of preparing the NRC and to the Gauhati High Court to accelerate the process of identification of foreigners and illegal migrants. The entire process of preparation of the NRC was to be monitored by the Supreme Court. The thumb rule for identification of a citizen was to trace his or her pedigree to an ancestor who had resided in Assam on or before the deadline of 24 March 1971, by referring to what the NRC called and generated as “legacy data.” The data of the 1951 NRC and the electoral rolls published in Assam up to 24 March 1971 cumulatively comprised the legacy data. Finding an ancestor in the legacy data to whom a person could trace direct descent was the most common mode of identification for inclusion in the NRC.

Before the process of tracing legacy could begin, the NRC office had to coordinate the compilation of large and dispersed data on the 1951 NRC and the electoral rolls which were available at district levels, into one consolidated computerised database. The statutory publication of the legacy data was done alongside the launch of 2,500 NRC seva kendras (NSKs) on 27 March 2015, marking the inauguration of the process of updation of the NRC. Spread across the state, in districts, and clusters of villages, the NSKs housed the published legacy data, provided access to the digital database, and also served as application receiving centres. After an ancestor had been traced in the legacy data, the computerised database assigned to the applicant an 11 digit number called Unique Legacy Data Code, which gave the applicant a numerical link with the ancestor. The applicant quoted the legacy data code at the time of submission of the application. The legacy code became the basis of the verification of the applicant’s claims and also linked him/her up to others who had the same code because of common ancestry. Apart from the data code providing legacy trace, the applicants furnished a number of “linkage documents” carrying the names of both the ancestor and the applicant, to establish connections with the ancestor appearing in the legacy data.4

Apart from those who could trace their legacy to the 1951 NRC, other categories of persons considered eligible for inclusion were those who came to Assam on or after 1 January 1966 but before 25 March 1971, and had registered themselves with the Foreigner Regional Registration Office (FRRO) and had not been identified as illegal migrants or foreigners, and the “original inhabitants” of Assam and their children and descendants whose citizenship could be ascertained by the registering authority. Subsequent Supreme Court orders permitted Indian citizens and their children and descendants who moved to Assam after 24 March 1971 to apply for inclusion, if they could furnish evidence that they were resident in any part of the country outside Assam on 24 March 1971. As per another Supreme Court order, all the members of the tea tribes are covered under “Original inhabitants of Assam” category provided for under Clause 3(3) of the Schedule of the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules 2003. The project officer with the NRC clarified that in the absence of any proof of residence, and non availability of legacy data code, original inhabitants like the Karbis could be registered through the affirmation of their status by what was called a “speaking order” whereby, the Local Registrar of Citizen Registration (LRCR) could certify that despite no documents, on the basis of their language, food, clothes, etc, it could be assumed that they were the original inhabitants of the state.

After the publication of the legacy data and the launch of the NSKs, the process of actual application began. The forms were distributed to the people at their houses but could also be downloaded from the website. The head of the family was expected to apply for the entire family, including the daughters. All members of the family, who were residing in Assam, or outside in any other part of the country, or abroad, had to be included in the application. In case of institutional homes, like orphanages, old age homes, asylums, etc, the head of the institution would apply for the inmates.5 Photocopies of all documents, showing the names of the persons in the family who figure in the legacy data, and additional linkage documents showing relationship with the ancestor in the legacy document were submitted at NSKs designated for particular localities, whose officials would be responsible for conducting the physical verification of the details by visiting the addresses mentioned in the form.

The NRC updation process is presently at the stage of verification of 68.33 lakh application forms it has received, along with five crore supporting documents.6 Verification is done as per the provisions of the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of Identity Cards) Rules 2013, and consists of two parts—office verification and field verification. Office verification entails the scanned and uploaded copies of all documents being sent to the issuing authority to confirm whether the document was in fact issued by it and whether the details in the document corresponded with the records that existed with the issuing authority. If official verification was intended to weed out forged documents, field verification consisting of house to house visits by the verification team intended to check identity proof, verify submitted documents for validity and establishment of relationship, and collect details of the ”family tree” to match the detail with those submitted by various applicants across Assam. Matching the family tree submitted by applicants with the one generated by the computer software on the basis of forms received was designed to detect false claims.7

Indeed the family tree is an innovation where authenticity of claims to residence and citizenship are affirmed through the kinship network. A family tree form is filled up by the visiting team from the information given by the applicant in the form and to the visiting team. This “manual family tree” is checked against a computer software-generated family tree carrying the details of all the persons who have claimed to be children or grandchildren of the same legacy person.8 The ongoing verification process will be followed by the publication of the draft NRC, and subsequently the receipt and disposal of claims and objections and the publication of the final NRC.


The NRC marks continuity with a notion of citizenship that can be traced to the Assam Accord, the contestations around the amendment of the citizenship act in 1986, and subsequently the Supreme Court judgment in the Sarbananda Sonowal case 2005. The petitions by the Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha and others and Swajan and Bimalangshu Roy Foundation questioning the constitutional validity of Section 6A of the Citizenship Act, have added fresh dimensions to the debate, which became significant in the electoral competition in the state in the 2016 state assembly elections. The widespread acceptance of the NRC among the Assamese people is indicative of a consensus among the Assamese people on the resolution of the question of citizenship. There are different streams in the political consensus, with one strand seeing it as a continuing commitment to the Assam Accord and its potential to alleviate the crisis in citizenship, and another preferring to contest the accord’s capacity to resolve the problem. Thus, while Tarun Gogoi vouched for the efficiency of the tools developed by the NRC office to update the NRC, others have expressed the fear that it may only legitimise the Bangladeshi immigrants.

In the course of the election campaign, Himanta Biswa Sarma who had migrated to the BJP from the Congress, and was now its chief strategist, declared his disagreement with the continuation of 1971 as the deadline for the NRC, reiterating the dominant BJP position that the party is committed to granting citizenship status to Hindus who came to Assam after the 24 March 1971 deadline (Bhattacharjee 2016). In addition, claiming that the Assam Accord provisions pertaining to citizenship are disputed and challenged in the Supreme Court, Sarma has chosen to foreground that part of the accord, which promised that the original inhabitants of Assam and their culture be protected. In line with this, he would prefer to see the citizenship signpost pushed back to 1951, and those who came to Assam between 1951 and 1971 be given refugee status and not full citizenship (Sarma 2016). An AASU member in a political meeting in Sarbananda Sonowal’s constituency Majuli communicated this as follows:

The Tarun Gogoi government has to go. People will have to come out this time if they want the Axomiya jati (the ethnic Assamese) to survive. Or else we will become foreigners in our own land. It wasn’t for nothing that Bhupen Hazarika sang long ago, ‘Aami axomiya nohou dukhia buli santona lobhile nohobo’ [It is not enough of a succour to believe that we Assamese will never be poor in our own land].

An appeal by AASU in the Supreme Court in February 2016, challenging the decision taken by the central government to give citizenship to displaced Hindus from Bangladesh, was withdrawn after the announcement of Sarbananda Sonowal’s name as the BJPs chief ministerial candidate (Pisharoty 2016). Yet, there is a strong sentiment in AASU, often also reverberating in Sonowal’s statements, which continues to support the accord, the 1971 deadline, and its affirmation in the of 2005 Supreme Court judgment (Hindu 2016). Not surprisingly, a day after he was sworn in as Chief Minister Sonowal visited the NRC office assuring complete support to the endeavour. Yet, the doublespeak in the BJP, and its emphasis on the resolution of the “foreigners question,” as evident from the assembly election results declared on 19 May 2016, have resulted in consolidating the Hindu votes in favour of the BJP. Whether it will replace a plural Assamese identity with one rallying around religion, only time can tell.


1 Judgment delivered by Justice Ranjan Gogoi and R F Nariman on 17December 2014 in the case Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha and Others v Union of India and Others (2012): Writ Petition (Civil) No 562. In May 2015, the court appointed a court commissioner to visit the border areas to study and report the progress made.

2 The decision to update the NRC was announced by the Assam government in 2005. A pilot project was launched in the assembly constituencies of Barpeta and Chhaygaon in 2010. While the Chhaygaon updating was successfully completed, the one at Barpeta had to be called off following violent protests by the All Assam Minority Students’ Union. AASU and other groups pressed for a resumption of the process. The Supreme Court intervened and fixed 31 October 2015 as the date for publishing the draft NRC, and 31 January 2016 as the deadline for the final NRC.

3 See Government of Assam, National Register of Citizens,, accessed on 14 May 2016.

4 The following documents are admissible: birth certificate, land documents, PAN card, board university examination certificate, bank account, LIC policy, post office documents, gram panchayat secretary certificate, electoral roll, etc. In case an ancestor’s name was not found in the legacy data, application for inclusion may be made for inclusion in the NRC by providing any of the other admissible documents issued before 24 March 1971 (midnight), namely, (i) land and tenancy records, (ii) citizenship certificate, (iii) permanent residential certificate, (iv) refugee registration certificate, (v) passport, (vi) LIC policy, (vii) government-issued license/certificate, (viii) government service/employment certificate, (ix) bank/post office accounts, (x) birth certificate, (xi) board/university educational certificate, (xii) court records/processes. See (accessed on 14 March 2016).

5 NRC, leaflet on application form receipt, filing and application, 2015 (not numbered).

6 NRC, leaflet on verification of NRC application forms and family tree detail submission for an error free NRC, Leaflet no NRC Assam/leaflet/verification-1/2015.

7 See note 6.

8 See note 6.


Baruah, Sanjeeb (1999): India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality, Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Bhattacharjee, Nilotpal (2016): “BJP, AGP In Migrant Divide,” Telegraph, 6 March.

Hindu (2016): “Sarbananda Unanimously Elected as BJP Legislature Party Leader in Assam,” 22 May.

Kashyap, Samudra Gupta (2007): “Assam Yet to Update National Register of Citizens,” Indian Express, 6 August.

— (2015): “In Assam, An Ongoing Effort to Detect Illegal Bangladeshi Migrants,” Indian Express, 17 June.

— (2016): “BJP Will Rid Assam of Bangladeshis: Shah,” Indian Express, 10 April.

Pisharoty, Sangeeta Barooah (2016): “We will Demand Full Implementation of the Assam Accord from Any Party That Wins,” The Wire, 22 March.

Sarma, Himanta Biswa (2016): “In This Assam Poll, Bangladesh Immigrants Want Their Own CM too,” Indian Express, 15 February.

Singh, Ujjwal Kumar (2014): “Surveillance Regimes in India,” States of Surveillance: Counter-Terrorism and Comparative Constitutionalism, Fergal Davis, Nicola McGarrity and George Williams (eds), London: Routledge.

Telegraph (2013): “SC Mulls Case of Refugees—Apex Courts Asks Centre & Dispur to Respond to PIL,” 26 July, Kolkata.

The Wire (2016): “BJP Pins Its Hopes on Anti-Immigrant Sentiment in Assam Polls,” 4 April, accessed on 16 May 2016.


One thought on “Ambivalence of Citizenship in Assam

  1. In a documented process it is unlikely that anybody can be conclusively proved as a “foreign” national. Also it is unlikely that any migrant can be pushed back from India to his country of origin without violating basic human rights. Moreover granting citizenship only to Hindu migrants as an official pronouncement does not speak well about a mature democracy like India.
    All actions on the foreign national issue in Assam seem to be based on fallacies. But the truth we all readily admit is that the ” Assamese” identity is in danger.

    Liked by 2 people

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