The Citizenship Question Should Also Interrogate the Insider-Outsider Binary

The National Register of Citizens in Assam has brought to the fore long-standing concerns over who the state recognises and who it deems foreign. 


Borders mark a physical separation and a boundary between an inside and an outside, between those who belong and those who do not. At the physical level, such borders are often policed, guarded, and contested. At the conceptual level, anxieties over their physical manifestation and ideological implications provoke urgent questions on the ideas of belonging and community.  

Most recently, these anxieties became evident in the formulation of the NRC in Assam, that is, a list of all Indian citizens residing within the boundaries of the state. To be recognised as citizens, residents of Assam are required to provide physical documentation that they or their families lived in India before 24 March 1971. While Assam is currently the only state to have its own register of citizens, other state governments including those of Uttar PradeshManipur and Meghalaya have expressed a desire to conduct a similar process. 

The quest to establish “legitimate” citizens of Assam has a long history, which was reinvigorated in the early 1980s in a campaign spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union (AASU). This culminated into the Assam agitation, which saw protests—some peaceful, others violent—against immigrants and those perceived to be immigrants, primarily from Bangladesh. 

On 31 August 2019, the government published the final list of the NRC that excluded 19,06,657 people. Leading up to the deadline, the government scrambled to create the Foreigners’ Tribunals for people who wanted to establish their citizenship. 

This reading list interrogates systems of knowledge production and processes of othering to better understand how the dualisms of outsider–insider and citizen–refugee are constructed and maintained.  

1) Reproducing Colonial Forms of Classifying and Knowing

Sanjib Baruah details that after independence, elected officials, state bureaucracy, and even activists continued to rely on colonial forms of classification and knowledge to make claims of indigeneity and over territory.  

[T]he politics of territoriality and indigeneity often becomes an exercise in defending the fences and walls that colonial rulers had erected. The continuing hold of colonial knowledge is reflected in both official policy discourse, and the political imagination of local activists … Activists in North East India often allude to memories of ancient kingdoms in support of their contemporary territorial claims. In appealing to the past, however, they show little awareness that colonial rule involved a profound break in spatial and cultural dynamics. 

Manasjyoti Bordoloi adds that even common terminologies such as “tribe,” “tribal,” and “Excluded and Partially Excluded Area,” had been introduced by the colonial administration during the 19th century. Bordoloi quotes Nicholas Dirks who argued that anthropological information about Indian societies was important to sustain British rule in the post 1957 period. 

The ethnographic state was driven by the belief that India could be ruled using anthropological knowledge to understand and control its subjects, and to represent and legitimate its own mission. Throughout the nineteenth century, the collection of material about castes and tribes and their customs, the specification of what kinds of customs, kinship behaviours, ritual forms, and so on, were appropriate and necessary for ethnographic description, became increasingly formalised and canonic.

2) Conceptualising Citizenship at the Individual or Group Level

Rajesh Dev argues that in the Indian context, a palpable tension exists between “individualised” political and juridical instruments, such as citizenship and community-based practices. Reconciling this tension has been a long-standing challenge to India’s democracy. 

The postcolonial Indian state, as a means of protecting its relatively communitarian social structure, intended to overcome the ‘assimilationist individualism’ of a homogenising liberal conception of citizenship by ‘recognising’ and ‘prioritising’ the sacredness characteristic of certain groups through the enactment of a relatively ‘differentiated citizenship’ and creation of federal states on ethno-linguistic terms … Undoubtedly when group claims are premised on cultural terms, the competition usually leads to resurgence in the (re)invention of the symbolic repertoire and ‘mechanisms of boundary-maintenance’ that gives cultural significance and political primacy to groups. The resulting ‘dichotomisation/complementarisation’ has often led to the construction of exclusive and rigid boundaries that forecloses possibilities of dialogue and transformation of the conflicts between social groups in the region.

Dev qualifies that the  “genealogy and dimensions” of group-based assertions need to be examined with nuance, rather than be homogenised as seeking exclusivity and rigid boundaries. Yet, Dev maintains that underlying all groups are concerns over citizenship and rights. 

3) Constructing the Outsider, the (Il)legal Citizen

EPW’s editorial on the NRC points out that the intention behind the exercise could have been to address multiple conflicts between communities and an “atmosphere of mutual suspicion.” Specifically, the editorial observes that methods that encourage reconciliation could have been used rather than methods such as the NRC that entrench and weaponise the binary of "insider/outsider."

 Statements of the leaders in the context of the NRC are replete with terms like ‘ghuspethiye’ (infiltrators) and ‘termites,’ and claims of a large number of unfair inclusions from particular communities. These are definite signs of the attempts to maintain and perpetuate social divides. Reconciliation and closure are inconsistent with the politics of permanently manufacturing the fear of the other … Considering that migration has been a historical fact of human civilisation as such and its prevalence has been increasing manifold in our times for various reasons, the idea of citizenship and the corresponding rights needs to be human-centric rather than state-centric.

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