Why Hindu Nationalists Trialed India’s Citizenship Law in Assam

Biplov Bhuyan/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

A protester against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act being detained outside a government office for the state of Assam, New Delhi, India, December 23, 2019

Assam, India—In this northeastern state of India, a plague of documents is afflicting nervous citizens. Home to around 30 million people, Assam is a kind of cartographic anomaly wedged between India’s neighbors China, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. The oppressions of bureaucratic record-keeping owe much to the country’s former colonial government, but today the malignant paperwork serves a different ideology, that of saffron-hued Hindu nationalism.

The governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has forced all residents of Assam to prove they are citizens, or face incarceration, deportation, or drastic marginalization. It is here in Assam that the BJP’s process of legal harassment of Muslim Indians began—harassment that has set off a wave of protests nationwide, in which dozens have died, thousands have been jailed, and mobs have attacked minority communities.

For Joynal Abedin, the process of trying to prove his citizenship became too much. Last year, Joynal left his family’s semi-permanent dwelling on a remote sand bar in the Brahmaputra River, one of many that form and re-form as silt washes down from the Himalayas, to go cut wood. He never returned. Joynal’s teenage son found his father’s lifeless body hanging from a tree. Today, the shadow of his loss hangs over the courtyard of their modest dwelling, witness to the isolation and exclusion that India’s rulers are inflicting on some of the country’s poorest, most marginalized people—in particular, the Bengali Muslim community, Muslims comprise about a third of the population of Assam.

Joynal and all his family were born in India and had never left the country. As Joynal’s older brother, Abdul Khalid, told me when I visited a few weeks ago, they even had “documents showing our father and grandfather on the electoral register in 1962 and 1965.” Yet the family belonged to a group of residents of Assam 1.9 million-strong who were left off a new so-called National Register of Citizens (NRC), which has now become the state’s official record of a person’s “Indian-ness.” Assam’s dispossessed now stare into the abyss of statelessness. And the cruel absurdities abound: while Joynal’s name was left off the list, by no apparent logic Abdul’s was on it.

The hounding of Assam’s Bengali Muslims is one of the most systemic, albeit chaotic, manifestations of the various nationwide efforts by the ruling party to remake India as an exclusively Hindu state. This community has been among the first in India to experience the effects of the new classification system that embodies the hardline nationalist ambitions of the BJP. But with the recent passage of national citizenship laws that allow non-Muslims naturalization, secular India has now awoken to the realization that, on the 150th birth anniversary of its great liberator, Mahatma Gandhi, the vision of a multi-ethnic, democratic India bestowed at independence is fast eroding. Assam’s Muslims seem set to be only the first group to be deprived of their rights.

Thousands have already been detained in protests against the citizenship laws across the nation, with police responding on occasion with deadly force. The very act of protesting, along with certain religious identities, have seemingly become anathema to the country’s rulers in what was once the great liberal hope of South Asia.


Assam has experienced decades of communal conflict, including, at times, violent insurgency. The region is home to an array of ethnic groups, many of which never willingly acceded to an independent India. In Assam, “history is not confined to the past,” said local historian Professor Binayak Dutta. “Rather, the past is part of a contentious present.”

Bengali Muslim migrants arrived here in large numbers during the period of British rule, and were encouraged to do so for the benefit of the economy, since Assam was then considered remote—distant from the advanced markets of West and East Bengal, lowland colonial provinces with vital access to ports and trade. At the British handover of power in 1947, Partition not only scythed religious communities apart, but also arbitrarily divided indigenous communities—often according to lines based on watersheds drawn by colonial cartographers. “Upland” or “tribal” communities were thus “at the stroke of a pen,” as Dutta says, separated from the more connected lowland peoples. These were groups popularly imagined to be distinct, but which Dutta contends were symbiotic.

Bengal was one of the Indian states most dramatically affected by Partition: West Bengal was incorporated into the new India as a Hindu-majority state, while East Bengal became East Pakistan, part of a Muslim-majority nation that was split into two entities divided by thousands of miles of Indian territory. This unstable settlement lasted only until 1971, when East Pakistan declared independence after a harrowing war with the army of West Pakistan and became Bangladesh.


India helped the Bangladeshi independence struggle to become a constitutionally secular state. The young country has largely remained so, despite the emergence of homegrown jihadist movements and majoritarian lurches by politicians’ pandering to religious conservatism. During the 1971 war, however, an estimated 10 million refugees—a large proportion of whom were Hindu—poured into India fleeing genocidal attacks by the Pakistani army and their local paramilitary allies. Although only a few of these Hindu refugees stayed, settling in India, and the majority returned to the newly created Bangladesh, that flight has sustained a popular myth in India of Bangladeshis’ swarming over the border.


Very few Bangladeshi nationals were, in fact, discovered when the most recent NRC survey was conducted over the last few years. Instead, the NRC list had the consequence—no doubt unforeseen by its BJP sponsors—of ensnaring more than a million Hindus in Assam, some of whom had origins in other parts of the country, others who simply were too impoverished and socially marginal to handle the bureaucratic burden of proving their citizenship status.

Hindus originally from other parts of the vast country included people like Nirmal Singh, whose father moved from the western state of Rajasthan to Assam in the 1960s to work on a tea estate. Nirmal’s wife is on the NRC and is fine, said Nirmal, but because his documents came from his father’s employer, a private business, the bureaucrats who compiled the list chose to disregard them. Nirmal’s brother had to make a 1,500-mile journey back to Rajasthan, where neither brother has ever lived, to haggle with officials and seek out distant relatives in an effort to provide proof of citizenship acceptable to the NRC officials.

Sam Panthaky/AFP via Getty Images

A Muslim man at a protest against the citizenship law, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, December 15, 2019

Despite causing such mayhem, Home Minister Amit Shah has promised to take the NRC process piloted in Assam nationwide—in order to rid the nation of its largely imaginary “infiltrators” before the next general election, scheduled for 2024. Hindutva, the exclusionary vision of India as a Hindu nation, has been a driving force of the BJP’s citizenship legislation. Shah has driven home the Modi government’s position on Assam and citizenship. He has fomented anti-Muslim sentiment, claiming that there are millions of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in the state, calling them “termites.” For Angela Saini, author of the recent The Return of Race Science, the BJP’s evocation of ethno-national belonging with incendiary language like Shah’s is “a dangerous counter-intellectual trend, deliberately countering facts to serve nationalist agendas,” which is “about projecting modern-day political narratives onto the past to consolidate power.”

In tandem with the NRC effort to exclude Muslims, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, welcomes “correct” foreigners: non-Muslims from neighboring countries. “All the indigenous people of northeast India oppose the [CAA],” said Anup Chetia, a former militant with the United Liberation Front of Assam, elements of which continue to fight a violent secessionist struggle against the Indian state. I met him shortly before the bill passed into law, in December 2019. “Because the government of India is trying to give citizenship to the Hindu Bangladeshis,” he explained, “most of these Hindu Bangladeshis will migrate mainly to Assam.”

The “indigenous” Assamese have enjoyed some legal protections in the past. But the idea that such privileges might be under threat from incomers, either Hindu or Muslim, has now made Assam fertile ground for the BJP’s anti-Muslim drum-beat. The party formed alliances with nativist local parties, and co-opted key local politicians, playing on the folk memory of phantom hordes of Bengali Muslim interlopers. Yet the NRC has not found the numbers of “illegal Bangladeshis” they expected, according to a disappointed Somujjal Bhattacharya, of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU).

For decades, the student organization Bhattacharya leads has been one of the most vocal agitators against immigrants in the state. There is a sense in which no effort would find enough “illegals,” such is the group’s animus. Tellingly, the BJP’s current chief minister for Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, was himself a president of the AASU back in the 1990s.

While much of the state is up in arms over the CAA, the drive has also ushered in a reported wave of attacks against Bengali speakers around the state. The trouble has spread elsewhere in the country, particularly to Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state and part of its conservative heartland—run by a fiercely chauvinistic BJP minister named Yogi Adityanath. There, police have fired on anti-CAA protesters, killing around twenty people in days of tumult.


Dalipaul, a forty-seven-year-old Hindu woman living in the dusty village of Rangapani in Assam, said that her father migrated to the Indian state of West Bengal from Mymensingh, now in Bangladesh—though she claims it was before 1971 “when all the Hindus came.” She then moved to Assam “for marriage,” but has found herself left off the NRC list. She, at least, is likely to resolve her status, since the citizenship legislation offers potential amnesty for most non-Muslim religious groups. In effect, a Hindu Bangladeshi who immigrated illegally can still get Indian citizenship under the CAA even if she is found to have been making a false statement about being part of the pre-1971 wave to get documentation under the NRC. Muslim petitioners, on the other hand, can be thrown in jail for five years for falsifying documents.


Beside its manifest injustices toward Muslims, the new law’s absurdities have left many Hindus just as bewildered. Roughly a third of women in Assam are illiterate, and many Hindus have struggled to submit the correct documents. For the forty-year-old Bharati Das, a Hindu widow from another isolated fishing community, the fight to navigate the process has only been possible with the help of her nephew, since her husband died last year. Just as for their Muslim neighbors, the costs of lawyers, travel, and arranging documents have been punishing.

The appeals process for the citizenship register automatically announces its bias with its label “Foreigner Tribunals,” said Aman Wadud, a busy lawyer in the state capital of Assam, Guwahati. Interviews to recruit those who run the closed tribunals are verbal, unrecorded, and heavily discretionary; officials seek to ensnare as many “illegals” as possible to appease those higher up the political food chain. As a result, said Hafiz Rafiqul Islam, a local politician, very few of the tribunal officials are Muslim.

In the market town of Bahari, a small jute-trading center, where buffalo and horses still compete with mechanized vehicles on market day, I met Saburan Nessa, a Muslim woman of about sixty (she was unsure of her exact age). Virtually broke, she was begging on the street to help pay for her legal expenses. The next day, she was due to attend her fifth “Foreigner Tribunal.” She has never been to school and has already spent 15,000 Rupees (about $210) trying to find her way through the NRC thicket.

“People keep asking for money,” Nessa lamented of the process. She feared she could lose government benefits, such as discounted basic food items, not to mention her voting rights. That would push her and her husband beneath the bread line, to join India’s large group of people struggling not to starve.


Sajjad Hussain/AFP via Getty Images

A gallery of protesters against the government’s new citizenship law wearing traditional Assamese scarves, Guwahati, Assam, India, December 14, 2019

Despite what Minister Shah has claimed, there seems little real inducement for immigration from Bangladesh, of either Hindus or Muslims. Bangladesh’s rate of GDP growth has overtaken India’s—and Modi’s claims of producing an economic miracle were gravely undermined earlier this year by revelations of fake official statistics. This point was obliquely made by Bangladesh’s High Commissioner to India, Syed Muazzam Ali, who quipped that Bangladeshis “would prefer to swim in the Mediterranean to Italy, than come to India.” As James Crabtree, author of The Billionaire Raj (2018), writes: “India’s economic mess is born almost entirely of domestic neglect and incompetence.” A recent report suggested that Assam’s rural poverty rate rose by over 5 percent since 2011–2012. On top of this, women’s participation in the formal economy has fallen. Today, India’s rate of growth trails Bangladesh’s by some margin.

Back in 2005, the Indian historian Romila Thapar warned that the country’s growing integration into the global economy could create fertile ground for the Hindutva movement to capitalize on grievances. “Greater inequalities of wealth even within the middle class fuel the aspirations and frustrations of the large number who have failed to grow rich,” she wrote. “This in turn results in intensified competition, insecurity, aggression and unemployment, and inevitably an attack on the enemy within.”

With the NRC and the Citizenship Act, the process of vilifying a vague other that was germinated in Assam is being spread by the BJP to deflect and mobilize a vast, restless nation. On the outskirts of the town of Goalpara, huge blood-red walls of a new detention center are rising—one of about ten new facilities planned for the state. This is where Hindutva’s strangulation by documents leads: to either detention and deportation, or—as it did for Joynal Abedin—death.

New York Review + Paris Review covers

Save $168 on an inspired pairing!

Get both The New York Review and The Paris Review at one low price.

Already a subscriber? Sign in