Immigrant Labourers, Variegated Citizenship and Ethnic Anxiety in Urban Nagaland



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4 Minutes

Guest post by Jelle JP Wouters, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Sciences, Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan. This post is the sixth installment of the Border Criminologies themed week on Citizenship, Identity and Belongingness: Narratives from India, organised by Rimple Mehta.

If you buy groceries, take a rickshaw ride, visit a pan (areca nut)-shop, or hire a labourer in the town of Dimapur, perched on the Nagaland-Assam border in India’s Northeast, you are likely to encounter a Bangladeshi immigrant, or an ‘IBI’ (Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrant) as most tribal Nagas refer to them. Long troubled by violence and volatility, the result of the protracted Indo-Naga conflict, in the past decades, Dimapur nevertheless grew into a sprawling and bustling commercial hub. Much of its expansion was achieved through immigrant labourers, mostly from Bangladesh. Having crossed the border with India clandestinely, most of these migrants subsequently insist on places of origin in southern Assam; in areas bordering the Indo-Bangladesh border but not from across it. Their willingness to perform unskilled labour for modest pay, and their perceived docility made them indispensable to Dimapur’s economy. Over time, however, Dimapur began to attract more immigrants than it could, or desired to accommodate. Land, housing, water, electricity, and employment became scarce, and life increasingly turned into a desperate scramble for jobs and livelihoods. Consequently, a more restive town started to emerge; not overnight, but in ways that were nevertheless noticeable.

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The presence of nonlocal, nontribal immigrants became more visible, resented, deemed responsible for the congestion, competition and crime in everyday life, and a source of ethnic anxiety. This anxiety assumes particular volatility in view of  the long lingering Naga Movement for the right to self-determination and Article 371A to the Indian Constitution, specifically tailored for Nagaland state that grants its special status, protection and provisions within the wider Indian dispensation. Article 371A, which was included as an amendment to the Constitution in 1963, provides substantial political autonomy and institutionalizes a regime of ethno-territoriality, which refers to a form of governmentality that essentializes the ties between ethnicity and territoriality. It promotes variegated citizenship that locally separates those deemed autochthonous from nonlocal ‘strangers’ (not just illegal immigrants, but also referring to residents with the same nationality but who do not ethnically ‘belong’ locally). Here autochthony, not Indian citizenship, serves as the basic criteria for eligibility to rights, employment reservation and state resources and benefits. 

Critics see in ethno-territoriality (also characteristic of other hill states in Northeast India) an affront to liberal statecraft and universal citizenship. In Nagaland, after all, only those who ‘belong’ enjoy rights. For those who reside there, even for the long time, but do not ethnically belong, these are regimes of exclusion. Defenders of the constitutional amendment, Article 371 A, point to the threat of Nagas’ demographic and cultural devouring by much larger populations from neighbouring states. They see in the current existence of exclusive ethnic and territorial rights the last line of defense for Naga culture and identity to survive. They now experience the rising presence of immigrants, especially from Bangladesh, as corrosive of Nagas’ exclusive territorial and cultural rights and belonging. They experience an emergent gap between Naga nationalist aspirations, existing constitutional safeguards and ‘practical sovereignty’ in terms of everyday, emplaced Naga sovereignty over their land, economy and belonging. In recent years, this ethnic anxiety has come to embody itself in the figure of the ‘IBI.’

Thus, while Bangladeshi immigrants have long been a social familiarity in Dimapur and Nagaland, their presence is also a source of ethnic anxiety. They remain to most Nagas what ‘the neighbour’ is to Slavoj Zizek. ‘Beneath the neighbour’, he writes, ‘there always lurks the unfathomable abyss of radical Otherness, of a monstrous Thing that cannot be “gentrified.”’ The ties that bind Naga ‘hosts’ with Bangladeshi immigrants do not transcend this fear that their distinct physical features, culture and religion may turn them into a rival and enemy in the future. The case of Tripura is often invoked as a warning. In Tripura the autochthonous tribal population became the victim of waves of immigrant arrivals from Bangladesh that saw them reduced to a marginalized minority in their ancestral lands. This is the nightmare-scenario that Nagas, and other tribal communities in the region, want to avoid at all costs.

In recent years a fierce pro-Naga discourse of ethnic control emerged in Dimapur. Naga businessmen, contractors and landowners who allow Bangladeshi immigrants a source of livelihood and residence are viewed with misgiving. They now stand accused of putting Nagas’ long term interests and exclusive belonging at risk for their own private gains, as are those Naga politicians who allegedly enroll them on electoral lists to be used as vote-banks. The Naga Students’ Federation (NSF), a commanding local body whose influence stretches far beyond the domain of students and education, in turn, launched a state-wide campaign to ‘flush out’ Bangladeshi immigrants. This example was followed by other organisations such as ‘Survival Nagaland’ which served ‘quit notices’ to Bangladeshi immigrants in Mokokchung town. In other places, municipal and village councils embarked on ‘enumeration drives’ to identify the names and addresses of Bangladeshi immigrants residing within their territorial jurisdiction. If the latter may seem relatively innocuous, the pages of history reveal how identification and documentation often precede bouts of horrific ethnic violence with organized mobs carrying lists of names of those to be ‘removed’ from the body-politic. For several years, in short, a discourse and political atmosphere that targets Bangladeshi immigrants has been building up.

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Crucial here is that these measures to curb illegal immigration are presided over by Naga civil society organisations, not by the government (which instead is decried for its inability to prevent illegal immigration). As such, it can be read as a Naga citizens-initiative (in-the-making) of the recently conducted, contentious, and government-led National Register of Citizenship (NRC) exercise in neighbouring Assam that aimed at identifying and evicting non-Indian nationals. Not a few Naga voices now desire for a similar exercise to be conducted in order to restore ethnic exclusivity, wholeness and ‘purity’ in Nagaland. Towards the same end, however, Nagas expressed apprehension and protested against the also recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that offers the grant of Indian citizenship to non-Muslim minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and which, it is feared, may give some of the currently, non-Muslim illegal migrants, or future arrivals, the opportunity to invoke the language of legality to claim permanent residence in Nagaland, and so possibly pose a challenge to the Naga ethnic identity. In response to such concerns, however, the Central Government, has exempted, at least so for time being, Nagaland and neighbouring highland states from the CAA.

For all the existential passions this pro-Naga discourse of ethnic control unleashes, it nevertheless exists at odds – and this is where major complications lie – with the observation that illegal Bangladeshi immigrants have progressively turned into the figurative oil that runs Dimapur’s growing economy.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Wouters, J. (2020). Immigrant Labourers, Variegated Citizenship and Ethnic Anxiety in Urban Nagaland. Available at: (Accessed [date])



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