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The slipperiness of documents: Notes from India’s eastern borderlands



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6 Minutes

Guest post by Sahana Ghosh, Brown University and Radhika Moral, Brown University. This post is the third installment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on the Citizenship, Identity and Belongingness: Narratives from India organised by Rimple Mehta.

The questions of migrancy and refuge, border and citizenship have been central to the lives of millions of people, predominantly the agrarian poor, in the eastern borderlands of India. Multiple cycles of migration from the early 20th century have constituted – indeed, defined – the region, its political struggles over land, resources, and recognition, and its lasting cross-border ties and mobilities. What does the NRC (National Register of Citizens) for Assam, published on August 31st 2019, excluding 1.9 million people, most of them Bengali-speaking, Muslims and Hindus, look like from the eastern borderlands?

Neither the figure of the “illegal immigrant” nor measures to detect them are new to these borderlands. India began to fence its side of the 4,096 km long border with Bangladesh in the late 1980s as a bipartisan political project to stop, among other things, illegal migration. Our research in the borderlands of West Bengal and Assam, the Indian states that share a majority of the border, show that since the turn of the 21st century, a wide range of policing and surveillance practices have been rolled out to search for the illegal immigrant allegedly masquerading as a bonafide citizen. From the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) to the courts, from administrators overseeing electoral rolls to borderland residents themselves, different actors are all actively looking out for the “illegal immigrant”. The NRC too has been a long time in the making. Much like earlier colonial mappings of the region, this policy can be understood as a modern administrative process of enumerating and thereby producing populations as fixed entities. This latest attempt to fix populations to territories grates against historically fluid boundaries. While documentary identification has come to play a critical part in these processes, both state actors and borderland residents find that to be profoundly unreliable with little certainty of recognition.      

The slipperiness of documents endures.

A state of error?

The materiality of documentation, detection, and verification tell a story of the NRC as process. Technical solutions to the problem of forgery, such as biometric identification, are frequently celebrated and invested in at great costs to the national exchequer. Whether it is the much-debated Aadhar card or finger-printing drives piloted by the BSF in border villages, to be biometrically identified, individuals need to first be adequately documented. People acquire these documents not only from a range of state agencies but these bureaucratic processes include translations – some times more than once – across multiple languages. In October 2019 the fear of the impending NRC was spreading like wildfire across the Bengal borderlands: why were those even with documents panicking? A government school teacher in northern Bengal who has frequently worked with the national census and the electoral commission explained that these surveys and lists in English are often first completed and corrected in Bengali. Local staff then translate those names back into English, manually entering them into computers.  A letter lost in a name, a new spelling gained: between translations and phonetics, handwriting and typing, individuals frequently find that their documents instead of all confirming one another are inconsistent.

Many among the 1.9 million excluded from Assam’s NRC are in such a predicament of inconsistent and erroneous documents. If extended nationwide, a 5% error rate in the NRC would leave 67.5 million Indian residents excluded. This materiality of bureaucracy should not be read only as a mark of state incapacity; too easily glossed as a condition of the developing world. Rather, as ethnographers of the state have argued, these contradictions are central to all states, bureaucracies, and documentary regimes and are pronounced in its margins. 

At a verification of electoral rolls in a border village in northern West Bengal, residents accused of having forged documents are required to prove their identity. November 2014. Photo Courtesy: Sahana Ghosh\n

Gender and geographies of marginality

Not all residents are equally documented in India; the exclusions are particularly gendered. Meet Malati Barman in Coochbehar district, a government-contracted health worker in a border village in West Bengal. In 2015, a complaint by another resident to the Electoral Commission alleging that she is a “foreigner” put her in a precarious state. Her voter identity card and bank account stated her husband’s name but she had nothing that connects her to her parents in order to prove that she was born to Indian citizens. Birth certificates are a relatively recent phenomena and Malati did not complete high school, leaving women like her with no state-issued trace of family before marriage. In the Bengal and Assam borderlands, where there is a heightened awareness about possessing documents, women come into documented existence with marriage, acquiring ration cards, bank accounts, and voter identity cards linked to their husband’s household.

At an NRC booth in Nellie, Morigaon district of Assam (August 2018). Women travel considerable distances to reach NRC centers. Photo courtesy: Tora Agarwala\n

The gargantuan size of the NRC process itself inhibits uniformity, exacerbating existing inequalities, whether those of gender, geography, or sociocultural prejudice. Reports from the ground, while the NRC was ongoing, suggest that people in border districts such as Barpeta, Goalpara, Dhubri or Baksa, faced much greater hardships in confirming their status. Take for instance Musida Ali’s experience. Musida is a weaver who’s lived in Hajo, a village in Guwahati’s suburb, for over four decades. She was born in Dhubri, a border town. Her journeys to the NRC verification booth in Sibsagar district in Upper Assam at the far eastern end of the state have been harrowing. Besides the 600 km-long journey, the incredulity of officers about her place of origin who demanded even more documents left her feeling that even documents were not enough for people like her. Enumerators and lower level functionaries conducting the NRC were mainly ethno-linguistically Assamese and dominant social perceptions about who belonged where and who could or could not be Assamese influenced the process tremendously.  Such a process for an ethnically and linguistically composite state like Assam clearly has not factored in the cultural markers and indices which constitute the “treacherous terrain of attempting an ethnolinguistic definition of the Assamese people”.

Beyond a Hindu-Muslim optic

Determining citizenship on the ground is tied to this vexed issue and goes well beyond a Hindu-Muslim dichotomy. Our ongoing research reveals that in border villages and neighborhoods, divisions around ethnic and linguistic identities that were relatively dormant found sanction in this new state tool. At these local scales, rumors about neighbors as “foreigners” were weaponized through a language of inclusion/exclusion, severely affecting those without resources or the safety of patronage. Each of these instances scar the social fabric.

In the wake of a crippling uncertainty and mounting deaths in detention associated with the NRC, the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act has sparked widespread outrage in Assam. A law that grants citizenship to those fleeing religious persecution in neighboring countries – notably excluding Muslims – is poised to accommodate thousands of Hindus in Assam who have previously been deemed “foreigners”. Widespread economic distress, swamping of resources, a fear of the cultural and political hegemony of Bengali Hindu populations, existential anxieties and aspirations of indigenous groups and distinct generations of migrant Muslims all swirl in the mix of this outrage expressed as the interests of indigenous Assamese. The Indian government has overlooked the cultural identities and economic futures of the peoples of Assam and its neighboring northeastern states. These concerns have been historically sidelined as “regional”, or even sub-nationalist, in nationalist developmental agendas and most recently in the uneasy alliance with Hindutva.

The borderlands as laboratories 

To move beyond such polarized politics, it is vital to develop a language for empathy that can hold critical differences. As ethnographers we write not simply to highlight the experiences of those marginalized but rather to learn from them about the plural histories of colonialism, the exclusionary practices of the postcolonial state, its duplicities and multiple forms of violence. As the border peoples of West Bengal and Assam have long known - most acutely now with the weaponization of documentary citizenship - experimentation and inconsistency work in tandem to create messy states and discontent.

Borderlands have always been suspect spaces where any number of security measures can be tried out. Errors rarely have any political consequences; they can always justify the need for more policing, more security. To keep this in mind demands a fundamental shift in dominant discourses about such spaces: borderlands are not remote or isolated zones but in fact highly saturated with state security and extractive structures. The rage on the streets in West Bengal and Assam expresses a profound mistrust of the state. This is based on an experience of a bureaucratic state rife with inconsistencies and opacities. Without an understanding of these experiences, it is difficult to reason why some can believe the state and some are alienated by it.

*All names used are pseudonyms.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Ghosh, S. and Moral, R. (2020). The slipperiness of documents: Notes from India’s eastern borderlands. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/02/slipperiness (Accessed [date])


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