The Making and the Un-making of Citizens
The Making and the Un-making of Citizens
‘Citizenship and its Discontents’ was the first in a series of conversations curated by filmmaker Subasri Krishnan as part of her project ‘Facing History and Ourselves’. Subasri’s project was conceived as an exercise in foregrounding oral testimonies in order to excavate an alternate contemporary history of Assam and its inhabitants, beyond national-bureaucratic paradigms of ‘citizenship’ and ‘statelessness’. This primary conversation moved through multiple deconstructions of the meaning of citizenship alongside interrogating the production of the citizen as a set of processes and complex articulations of social relationships, morality and biopolitical interpellations. Introducing the subject, Subasri Krishnan spoke of recognizing ‘presence’ as a mode of belonging in itself, a framework alternative to the legal regime of citizenship that renews and sustains itself through violence and exclusion. This idea of ‘presence’, however, must also go beyond the spatial, ‘physical’ realm. The speakers at the online event – Malini Sur, Abdul Kalam Azad, Rupali Samuel and Sahana Ghosh – ‘zoomed in’ from 4 different countries, across 3 continents – while often articulating (albeit in critical and varied terms) their belonging to an identity broadly construed as ‘Indian’. The conditions within which this discussion took place, then, themselves reflected the complex conditions of belonging – what Michael J. Shapiro (2000, p.79) has called the “continuous negotiation of co-presence among those with diverse ways of being in time”.
This understanding of citizenship as continual and processual rather than as a condition acquired at a specific moment in time, was a basis for much of the ideas explored by the panellists. Sahana Ghosh reminded us that citizenship-as-process begins before the legal procurement of citizenship and continues to unfold after. Besides a legal set of conditions, citizenship is produced at a familial-social and affective register. Borders, erected with the explicit purpose of creating distinctions between the licit and illicit movement of people, have succeeded neither in reifying the complexity of belonging nor in the maintenance of stable, fixed nation states. Malini Sur makes this argument in her book Jungle Passports: Fences Mobility and Citizenship (2021). For this discussion, she returned to its subject – Northeastern India-Bangladesh border and the history of her own belonging to India. The point of departure for her talk was an old tin trunk of her grandmother’s – a photograph of which Sur shared with the audience. Sur’s grandmother, Rani, packed 5 similar trunks in 1945 as she left, with her husband and children, her hometown near Dhaka for Kolkata. As with many others whose homes were forever closed off to them after the Partition of the subcontinent in 1947, Rani and her family could never return. By the time Sur was born, Rani’s trunks – carrying the memory of that hasty and painful departure – stored her winter shawls during the warmer months.
Years later, Sur left for the Northeastern islands of the Brahmaputra (known as chars) that border Bangladesh. Here, she planned to do her fieldwork among the Bengali-speaking Muslim labourers of the region, who build their lives against violent suspicions regarding the legitimacy of their presence in India and the threat of detention or deportation. At the first mention of Bangladesh, the labourers would present Sur with land and identity documents which they produced from carefully kept tin trunks exactly like Rani’s – only with contents that told another story of borders, migration and identity. The ancestors of the Bengali-speaking, labouring population of Assam were part of migrations from East Bengal from the 1830s onwards brought about by the colonial administration and its growing need for labour to cultivate the difficult char lands and establish Assam’s plantation economy. These histories of migrations into Assam, of populations linguistically and religiously different from the indigenous population of the region severely complicated questions around belonging, cultural identity and claim to land. Complicating matters further was, as Sur put it, the “shape-shifting” landscape of the chars – the Brahmaputra swallowing up the islands even as it deposited silt elsewhere to form new ones. Tensions rose around the tangle of these factors in the lead up to the Partition when the question of Assam’s national identity was still being contested. Several decades later, Assam has been incorporated into the territory of India but continues to occupy an uneasy position in the Indian imaginary and viewed with suspicion – a highly militarised “border state”. In 2015, the BJP led government began updating the National Register for Citizens – a roster first begun in 1951 which consolidated patchy data from the first census conducted in independent India. The NRC was to resolve the issue of “foreigners” in Assam by including only those persons who had entered the state without authorization before 24th March 1971. The 2018 final draft of the NRC was found to have left out 1.9 million people. Those cast in suspicion must now navigate the muddled procedures to prove their claim to Indian citizenship through (unequally accessible) paper documents that evidence descent from those deemed legitimate citizens. The NRC exercise has been widely criticised as an insufficient tool that exposes the state’s lack of understanding or lack of will to understand the complex histories of belonging in Assam (Sur, 2018). During her presentation Sur acknowledged how distant these concerns of one’s claim to nationality and the social reverberations of Partition seemed while she was growing up in Kolkata. It wasn’t until her work in Assam that she realised the extent to which one’s linguistic identity, relationship to cattle and claim to land could be scrutinised.
Abdul Kalam Azad’s talk – drawn from his experience growing up Muslim in Assam – revealed how borders come to be embodied, both in resistance to and oppression from the powers that enforce them. Azad’s grandfather came to Assam around 1920 and set up a home in the rural lowlands, where much of the land remained submerged in water for 6 months in a year. A particular delight of living in this area was the abundance of Azad’s grandparents’ favourite fish – the golden koi mach. Ecological changes, escalated use of pesticides and fertilizers have meant that koi are no longer found in plenty around Azad’s family home. His belonging to this landscape, to Assam, was first called to question on a trip to Guwahati to visit his uncle. As a 12 or 13 year old, Azad travelled to the state capital with his father intending to write an essay about his experiences to show his teacher back home. After a minor dispute on the street, Azad witnessed his family be verbally abused, called ‘Bangladeshi’ and hurled Islamophobic slurs at. Azad foregrounded this moment as the first time he became conscious of the oppressive forces that sought to brand him as other, to deny him an Indian/Assamese identity. Despite large scale efforts towards linguistic and cultural assimilation, life in Assam as a working-class person of Bengali origin involves confrontation with various forms of exclusion, marginalisation and violence. Azad brought the audience’s attention to a new genre of poetry that has emerged from this community in the last few years – Miya poetry. Reclaiming the word ‘Miya’, which is often used pejoratively in Assam, this is a form invested in bearing witness to the quotidian oppression of the Muslim peasant. Miya poetry refutes both marginalisation and assimilation, investing instead in the assertion of a new, autonomous identity for this community. Azad read a few translations of his favourite Miya poetry, annotating the parts he found particularly powerful. Among them were the opening lines of Write Down I Am A Miya by Hafiz Ahmed:
I am a Miya
My serial number in the NRC is 200543
I have two children
Another is coming
Will you hate him
As you hate me?
(Translated by Shalim M. Hussain)
Besides being a powerful protest against the continual dehumanization of Muslims in Assam, Miya poetry is an instrument of radical hope – an assertion that the new generation of Muslims in Assam, educated and self-reliant, will no longer accept suffering at the hands of their oppressors.
Before beginning with a history of the bureaucratic, judicial construction of citizenship in India, Rupali Samuel reiterated that the social modes of belonging that rang so powerfully through Azad’s memories – those generated through kinship to land and people – have been deliberately rendered invisible by the law. Evidence of belonging through oral testimony is inadmissible in the foreigner’s tribunals. Citizenship by birth or jus soli was strongly contested at the time of the drafting of the Constitution. While jus soli was ultimately deemed legitimate (thereby separating the question of religious and national identity on paper), ad hoc provisions made regarding persons crossing the Indian border with Pakistan were coded in ideas of belonging that heavily premised religious lineage. After the succession of East Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh, anxieties regarding ‘foreigners’ led to agitations by student unions across the state. These ended in an agreement known as the Assam Accord of 1985 – the provision for anyone resident in Assam on or before 24th March 1971 to be recognized as a citizen. This provision has taken on the character of an “Assam test” of citizenship, where large scale document forgery has led to even birth certificates being rendered insufficient proofs of belonging. In 2003, the loosely defined term “illegal migrant” formally entered citizenship law. Those deemed illegal migrants were denied citizenship through naturalization and their children were excluded from the procurement citizenship by birth. In 2015, this category was further defined when non-Muslims entering India from its Muslim majority neighbouring countries were declared exempt from citizenship law and thereby from being classified as illegal migrants. Religion, then, formally became a factor in the processes of granting and denying Indian citizenship.
The presentations were followed by a brief discussion and Q&A with the audience around the implications of legislation and institutions that distance themselves from the emotional registers of belonging,. The violence of borders, Partition, the NRC, Sur explained, seeps into individual relationships, fissures communities. This event was an exercise in rethinking citizenship as a series of ‘becomings’ produced through the forces of joy, pain, trauma, care. Alongside this was an acknowledgement of the necessity of resisting the hollow and inadequate judicio-legal understanding of citizenship. Citizenship and belonging must be radically reconceived, the panellists reminded us, as a relationship forged, expressed and reclaimed through affective forces – like those contained within the memory of an old tin trunk, the taste of a favourite local river fish and the sound of poetry.
Sur, M., 2018. The Story of Atabor the Bandit, or How the NRC Reinforces Divisive Narratives. The Wire. Available at: <https://thewire.in/rights/assam-nrc-bangladesh-border>
Sur, M., 2021. Jungle Passports. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Shapiro, M., 2010. National Times and Other Times: Re-thinking Citizenship. Cultural Studies, 14(1), p.79.