Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Themed Week on Citizenship, Identity and Belongingness: Narratives from India



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Post by Rimple Mehta, Lecturer, Western Sydney University. Her latest book, Women, Mobility and Incarceration focuses on the narratives of Bangladeshi women in Correctional Homes in Kolkata, India. This post is the first instalment of the Border Criminologies themed week on Citizenship, Identity and Belongingness: Narratives from India, organised by Rimple Mehta.

Hum Dekhenge, Hum Dekhenge, (We will witness. We will witness.)
Lazim Hai Ke Hum Bhi Dekhenge, (It is certain (that) we too shall witness.)
Hum Dekhenge, Hum Dekhenge, (We will witness. We will witness.)

The declaration of 1.9 million people as foreigners through the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam in 2019 and the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA) has made international news. It has drawn criticism from various quarters, both within India and beyond its borders, for its communal and exclusionary nature. The NRC requires one to prove they came to India before March 1971, the day before neighbouring Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan, in order to be on the citizens’ register. NRC has been prepared on the order of the Supreme Court to weed out ‘illegal migrants’ from India and has resulted in 1.9 million people at the risk of being stateless. The CAA which was subsequently passed in both houses of Parliament seeks to provide refuge to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians who “illegally” migrated to India from the neighbouring Muslim-majority countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan before December 2014, under the assumption that these are persecuted minorities. The Sri Lankan Tamil refugees and Rohingya Muslim refugees in India are conspicuous by their absence. Besides, Ahmadiyas from Pakistan Ulgyurs from China could also be recognised as persecuted communities in need of refuge, but they too are absent from CAA.

Amongst the resistance, protests and controversies around the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens 2019 (NRC), this popular nazm (a genre of Urdu poetry) penned by Faiz Ahmad Faiz and rendered beautifully by Iqbal Bano written against the oppressive Zia-ul-Haq’s regime (1978-88) in Pakistan has gained popularity in a renewed manner. When sung at a protest in IIT, Kanpur, one of the most renowned engineering institutes in India, the song was stripped of its history and context and suspected to be an ‘anti-Hindu’ song. The perceived threat to the community was so large that an enquiry committee was set up to investigate the intent of the song and its purported harm to Hindus and their sentiments.

This is an example of the ways in which shared history in South Asia is stripped of its context and presented as a ‘truth’. The construction of such ‘truth’ is underpinned by intimidation, violence and threat. The CAA and the NRC are examples of how history may be fashioned with these lampposts. The NRC resulted in a feeling of intimidation amongst the minorities in Assam, while their fears were then solidified by the CAA and the impending National Population Register (NPR). Along with these is the lurking threat of being put in a detention centres, which are now being built in different parts of the country under the Model Detention Manual 2019. In many instances, the nation-wide protests in the country were dealt with state-inflicted violence.

Map of the India-Bangladesh Border and Neighbouring States

Source: https://eindex.org/articles/2019/11/bsf-tracks-earth-water-and-air-on-bangladesh-border

The CAA is limited in its identification of specific religious communities and countries from where India can grant refuge to people. It is devoid of any understanding of a shared history in South Asia and refugee issues. The discussions in Indian parliament and protests have pointed out how CAA violates human rights and is unconstitutional, discriminatory. It also threatens tribal identities and their access to resources and furthers Hindutva nationalism. These protests bring together voices of insecurities created by intersecting issues of class, caste, religion, gender and related mobilities, which now are exacerbated by the contingencies created by NRC and CAA. The debate around CAA and NRC is much more deep rooted, rather than being located in the Hindu-Muslim binary. Fluid identities in the region will now have to be defined in ways that the border will come to exist not just as a political boundary, but as walls that separate neighbours. All this coupled with the establishment of detention centres across the country is likely to solidify a culture of militarisation and surveillance that will further threaten the historically marginalised religious, cultural and ethnic identities, resulting in a clamour for limited resources. It will result in an estranged population, where the process of ‘othering’ becomes a never ending cycle. Such a scenario leaves no place for empathy or trust with those in our neighbourhoods, states and country at large nor does it pave the way for constructive strategies and solutions. The word democracy has become a misnomer in the present context.

Nevertheless, and amongst all this, voices of women in Shaheen Bagh and Park Circus Maidan protests, students, and people from different walks of life across the country are reassuring: ‘We will witness’ the day in democracy that has been promised to us in the Indian constitution.

The blogs in this week’s series bring out the different voices of vulnerabilities, fear and insecurities of a reality that CAA may unveil, leaving several further marginalised and alienated from the state.


Themed Week on Citizenship, Identity and Belongingness: Narratives from India:

Monday, 17 February: In the Name of Indian Citizenship? Criminalizing Statelessness at the India-Bangladesh Border (Malini Sur)

Tuesday, 18 February: The Slipperiness of Documents: Notes from India’s Eastern Borderlands (Sahana Ghosh and Radhika Moral)

Wednesday, 19 February: Weaponising Citizenship in India (Arijit Sen and Leah Verghese)

Thursday, 20 February: Peripheral protests: CAA, NRC and Tribal Politics in Northeast India (Roluahpuia)

Friday, 21 February: Immigrant Labourers, Variegated Citizenship and Ethnic Anxiety in Urban Nagaland (Jelle JP Wouters)

Walking as Feeling as Belonging (Debaroti Chakraborty)

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Mehta, R. (2020). Themed Week on Citizenship, Identity and Belongingness: Narratives from India. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/02/themed-week (Accessed [date])


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