Arkotong Longkumer is an anthropologist who currently teaches at the University of Edinburgh. His work is based primarily in the northeast of India, focusing on indigenous peoples’ movements at the intersection of religion, politics, and culture. His new book The Greater India Experiment (Stanford, 2020) examines the Hindu right in the culturally rich and increasingly sensitive borderland spaces between India, China, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.
When the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed in parliament in December 2019, there were protests all over India as it was viewed largely as an anti-Muslim act. Perhaps the most resilient and striking of non-violent protests against the CAA are in Shaheen Bagh, a neighborhood in southeast Delhi, led mainly by Muslim women, bringing together communities from all over the city to register their injustice to the CAA. While the CAA as discriminatory is understandable, it is important that we also examine the historical context of the demarcations of Indian citizenship, which leads us to look at the National Register of Citizens (NRC), its relationship to the CAA, and its impact more broadly.
The proposed “amendment” on the 1955 Citizenship Act, introduced by the Hindu nationalist party the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of parliament in India) on July 15, 2016, seeks to provide citizenship to non-Muslim minorities from Muslim-majority countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan: Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, Sikh, and Christians. It says these minorities “shall not be treated as illegal migrants for the purposes of this Act.” This “amendment” was part of the BJP’s election manifesto during the 2014 general election, where they promised to welcome Hindu refugees and provide shelter, with the Hindu labelling the bill as “communally [religious] motivated humanitarianism.’’ To adjudicate citizenship on the basis of religion, however, should not surprise those who are keen followers of Hindutva ideology—that is both a civilizational and a majoritarian assimilation of “India” as equivalent to “Hindu.”
The furor over the CAA must not only be viewed as anti-Muslim, but also as anti-indigenous. And, here, the debate over the CAA needs to be contextualized particularly considering where it began: Assam, a region of India that has now become marginalized in the timescape of the Indian political news cycle. We need to turn to the northeast, and in particular the crucial period in Assam’s history because the CAA is entangled with ideas of citizenship that go back at least a few decades.
On the August 31, 2019, the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published in Assam. News coverage in India estimated that around 1.9 million citizens were made “stateless.” The NRC is a culmination of decades of questions over citizenship around the Assam Movement (1979–1985), related to the complex history of bifurcation by the British into provinces, Indian independence in 1947 and the partition of Assam, and then the formation of Bangladesh in 1971. Following electoral boycott, protest, and violence on the streets, the Assam Accord was signed on August 15, 1985, between the Congress Government led by the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and leaders of the Assam Movement. Central to the movement was the issue of how to deal with “foreigners” primarily from East Pakistan/Bangladesh who entered illegally or who came after a certain date (January 1, 1966 as the base year for inclusion and those who came after and up to March, 24, 1971 [the start of the Bangladesh War of Independence] were to be detected and removed from the electoral rolls). While the accord essentially brought the Assam Movement to a close, it was just the beginning of the complicated ethnic and religious algorithm of Assam. It took another 30 years for the NRC to be released.
The NRC has been a fraught and haphazard process that laid the burden of proof on documents (the Assam model is now to be rolled out all across India through the National Population Register, NPR). What counts as evidence was fashioned by state-institutional frameworks—ration cards, birth certificates, and land records—that required a “certification of citizenship” (Chhotray & McConnell 2018). This method promulgated by the NRC excluded disenfranchised groups like women, who are unable to participate in, what Annelise Riles (2006) calls, the “artifacts of modern knowledge.”
When the NRC was released in 2019, many found themselves excluded. Some were Muslim, others were Hindu, and a few were also those classified as “indigenous” to the state of Assam, challenging the way in which written evidence works against oral narratives of land and belonging. These classifications and particularly religious affiliations were largely considered unimportant in the original design of the Assam Accord. It was simply an exercise in determining citizenship based on dates of entry into Assam and not on religious indices. The CAA, on the other hand, works with the latter, allowing an easy alternative for those whom the BJP deem legitimate. The CAA’s emphasis on religion and promise to include Hindus and other “minorities” undermines the intent of the NRC (and the Assam Accord!) and demonstrates the Hindu right’s larger territorial vision of Akhand Bharat (undivided India) that stretches all the way from Afghanistan, Pakistan, present-day India, to Bangladesh, Myanmar, and parts of Southeast Asia, an idea that is encapsulated in their vision of “Greater India” (Longkumer 2020).
Such a vision however is fraught with territorial anxiety in the northeast due to the large presence of indigenous peoples whose cultural identities are shaped very much across the trans-Himalaya and Southeast Asian regions rather than with those in the heartlands of India. Incorporating indigenous peoples of the region into the vision of Hindutva as an “indigenous principle,” grounded in the soil, not only has implications for their assimilative projects of envisioning a Hindu nation, but threatens the very autonomy and sovereignty that many indigenous peoples have fought for.
The state of Tripura, for example, has large numbers of Bangladeshi migrants. These migrants are Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian, though largely dominated by “Bengali Hindus” (a designation widely used by indigenous peoples of the state). So much so that the “Bengali Hindus” outnumber the indigenous Tripuri population. Questions surrounding land, resources, jobs, and belonging have acquired a certain edge since the CAA will legitimize the “Bengali Hindus” in Tripura, making them the dominant group. For this reason, there is large opposition to the CAA in the northeastern states, not solely because it is anti-Muslim but also because it is anti-indigenous. Customary laws around land, agrarian practice of farming, hunting, and access to resources play a crucial role in how indigenous peoples frame their independence and sovereignty. Capitulating to the CAA with its desire to legitimize certain citizens over others, and introducing variables such as population migration, highlight the challenging ways in which land and belonging still pervade much of the emotionally charged discussions around livelihood and citizenship. Hindutva forces and the implementation of the CAA attempt to create a “comradeship” based on religion but crucially through a centripetal dissemination of ideas grounded in the BJP’s idea of one nation, one language, and one religion. Undivided India might seem utopian, but in the current climate of political will, anything could be possible.
Religion thus plays a central role in policymaking, shaping political publics in a country that always prided itself as a secular republic. The CAA includes many of the “minority” Indic traditions but curiously also includes Parsis and Christians. Christianity in particular is seen as a foreign missionary force the Hindu right has always undermined and one that has no place in the civilizational space of Hindutva. Yet, by including Christians in the CAA, they play on the idea of a “persecuted minority,” while all the time disenfranchising them in their own backyard. A worker of the Hindu-right group associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Tripura even told me that the prime minister is keen to protect Christians from further violence in Bangladesh. Including the Christians of this region, where they have significant numbers, with three of the eight northeastern states professing a majority, is a delicate matter for the Hindu right. They openly show solidarity with Christians (hoping that this might lead to further alliances) in portraying a common enemy: “the Muslim,” who is the other within.
The shift to the right and the rise of populism across the world says something about the current political zeitgeist. The polarization of identities might win elections and in a certain sense one can see that happening in India too, but Hindu nationalism and their argument for a “Hindu” India, materialized in numerous ways, is a long-term project that is here to stay. The diversity of feelings, and the spectrum of views that feed into the idea of Hindutva, means that we understand the distributed nature of Hindutva and take care in trying to appreciate the many ways it is forged, disseminated, and consumed away from the heartlands and into the frontier regions of the Indian state.
Chhotray, Vasudha & Fiona McConnell. 2018. “Certifications of Citizenship: The History, Politics and Materiality of Identity Documents in South Asian States and Diasporas.” Contemporary South Asia 26 (2): 111–126.
Longkumer, Arkotong. 2020 (in press). The Greater India Experiment: Hindutva and the Northeast. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Riles, Annelise, ed. 2006. Documents: Artifacts of Modern Knowledge. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
The Hindu, Special Correspondent. 2016. “‘Citizenship Amendment Bill Communally Motivated’: Activists.” The Hindu: November 1.