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Book reviews

NRC, “Jatiyotabaad” and Citizenship Crisis in Assam

Bhargabi Das
Bibliographical reference

Akhil Ranjan Dutta. 2021. Hindutva Regime in Assam: Saffron in the Rainbow. New Delhi: SAGE India. 360 pages.

Nani Gopal Mahanta. 2021. Citizenship Debate over NRC and CAA: Assam and the Politics of History. New Delhi: SAGE India. 346 pages.

Abhishek Saha. 2021. No Land’s People: The Untold Story of Assam’s NRC Crisis. New Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers India. 302 pages.

Mrinal Talukdar. 2020. The Game Called NRC. Guwahati: Nanda Talukdar Foundation. 364 pages.

Full text

1This review essay looks at four recently published books that trace and analyze the citizenship, identity crisis and state-making projects in Assam, India. The essay is focused primarily on the authors’ understanding of Assamese nationalism (jatiyotabaad) and identity through their analysis of the citizenship project called the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, as in other places.

2These four books are among the few full-fledged books recordings (in English) of the NRC as a citizenship project by “insiders” (all authors are from Assam) and it is vital to critically engage with this scholarship, not simply to figure out the pitfalls of the NRC but also to record more extensively the functioning of the project. The diverse professional backgrounds (journalistic, academic) of the four authors also give the reader a range of perspectives on “jatiyotabaad,” Hindutva politics, identity politics in addition to the citizenship project.

  • 1 The 1951 NRC was prepared by census enumerators from census slips of 1951 under then Census Superin (...)

3But what exactly is the NRC and why was it conducted in Assam? The NRC is a register of citizens wherein people have to show state-mandated documentary proofs in order to be recognized as citizens of India. The updating of the 1951 NRC1 that went on for almost five years (starting 2015 to 2019, still on-going technically) is a direct consequence of “anti-immigrant” and “jatiyotabaadi’”politics. “Jatiyotabaad” was conceptualized and strengthened by the educated, upper-caste, middle-class Assamese Hindu men in opposition first to the figure of the Bengali Hindu and Bengali Muslim and then, post 1970s, to the figure of the “illegal Bangladeshi” who is often imagined as the lungi (wrap-around lower garment) clad, East-Bengal origin Bengali Muslim.

  • 2 There was a strong campaign by the Muslim League to include Assam in East Pakistan.

4Bengali Hindus, though numerically few, were preferred by the British for appointments in higher administrative jobs in Assam and were thus mostly hated by newly educated, caste-Hindu Assamese men interested in such prestigious employment. This, along with Bengali being declared the language of the courts and educational institutes in Assam in 1836, added to the caste-Hindu Assamese’s insecurities about Assamese “natives” losing their culture and language over time. Post-independence, though, the caste-Hindu Assamese leadership managed to keep Assam in India2 and hence majoritarian control of the state remained with them; the anxiety about and hatred of the Bengali Hindus continued as was most evident during the violent Language Movement of the 1960s.

5The Bengali Muslims were first encouraged to settle in largely empty chars or river-islands in Assam by the British who saw opportunities of turning “wastelands” into permanently cultivated lands. The Bengali Muslim peasants who were escaping from an oppressive feudal taxation system in East Bengal brought in superior cultivation techniques and used the chars to produce rice and cash crops such as jute. Unlike that of the Bengali Hindus, the arrival of the poor peasantry class of Bengali Muslims did not threaten the caste-Hindu Assamese who, in fact, welcomed their arrival since Assam was scantily populated and chars were hardly lucrative lands for them. However, post 1911, there was massive inflow of Bengali Muslims and, as more lands were starting to be taken by them, the demand rose for a “Line System” to segregate “native” villages from “immigrants” so that the latter could not settle, cultivate or buy plots in the formers’ areas. The Bengali Hindus and Muslims continue to be harassed, violated and stereotyped by the majoritarian state and society alike. The “anti-immigrant” Assam Movement of the late 1970s is a case in point that specifically targeted linguistic and religious minorities under the pretense, of their being “illegal immigrants.” The current NRC updation exercise is a result of such exclusionary, xenophobic “jatiyotabaadi’”politics and history, as it was a demand of the Assam Accord, signed at the end of the Assam Movement. The final NRC has excluded almost 1.9 million people, the majority of whom are linguistic and religious minorities and they now remain on the verge of becoming stateless.

The books

6Akhil Ranjan Dutta’s Hindutva Regime in Assam (from here on Hindutva Regime) is a meticulous analysis of the growth and evolution of Assam’s Hindutva regime which he traces from events such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) involvement in the “anti-immigrant” Assam Movement in the early 1980s to a more detailed understanding of the rise and consolidation of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in this borderland state.

  • 3 BJP’s “Rainbow Coalition” was a successful political tactic in the 2016 Assam Assembly elections wh (...)
  • 4 BJP introduced schemes such as “Chah Bagicha Dhan Puraskar Mela” wherein the government directly tr (...)

7Dutta examines factors that allowed the Hindutva regime to propagate a cultural nationalism that finds its foundation in majoritarian dominance while the regime actively pursues a neoliberal economy. In the case of Assam, he brings out important factors such as “Rainbow Coalition”3 populist politics4 particularly among the tea-garden communities and extensive, persistent groundwork by the RSS “shakhas” (branches) that have significantly contributed to the BJP’s coming to power in Assam. Hindutva Regime dives deeply into the political tactics that allowed a party to throttle rule by the Congress of more than a decade. The author shows how, through the charismatic appeal of leaders such as Narendra Modi and Himanta Biswa Sarma, the BJP in Assam has been able to bring together Assamese nationalistic aspirations of “jati-mati-bheti” (community, land, hearth) and Hindutva politics of “Akhand Bharat” (One India), previously unheard of. It has also allowed the Hindutva regime to accommodate different ethnicities under a single coalition (Rainbow Coalition) and in the process to highlight their larger Hindu identity over varied ethnic aspirations. The solid years of groundwork such as building of Sankardev Sishu Niketan schools or hospitals, etc. in tea gardens and other tribal dominated areas have added to the consolidation.

8Hindutva Regime however, diligently uncovers the contradictions of this regime—the gap between promise and practice—and this comes across clearly in the chapters where Dutta discusses the NRC-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and the promise of development. The BJP’s promise to protect “indigenous” rights against “illegal immigrants” through its popular election slogan of “jati-mati-bheti’” by bringing forward the updation of the 1951 NRC was later contradicted by its introduction of the CAA which provided citizenship rights to persecuted religious minorities (except Muslims) in India who had immigrated from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and had entered Indian territory by 31 December 2014.

  • 5 The international auctioning of 12 oilfields in Assam, approving Coal India’s proposal to mine Dehi (...)

9The other contradiction discussed is the BJP led state’s failure to bring about any substantive “development” in the state, be it increase of income or improvement in human development. Dutta uses yearly per capita income reports, receipts and expenditure reports of the BJP-led government to show how the growth of income has been very limited over the years, severely impacting the infrastructural capacity building of the state. While venomously polarizing Assamese society, projecting the poor Bengali Muslim as the “land-grabbing enemy” of the Assamese, the government relentlessly pursued neoliberal policies wherein the big national and international corporates are favored over poor Assamese people.5 The author is thus successful in bringing to light the hypocrisies that characterize the functioning of the Hindutva regime in Assam. Through a layered narrative, Hindutva Regime shows how right-wing ideology has inter-connected ethnic aspirations, religious polarization, economic under-development and citizenship in Assam.

10Finally, Dutta supports the NRC as an idea in itself and an answer to the problem of “illegal immigration” in Assam, uncritically hailing the Assam Accord as a holy “public law contract.” (p. 123). This leads him to question the public intellectuals and humanists who termed the demand for NRC by Assamese society as “xenophobic” with those who live in utopia refusing to acknowledge the multi-layered reality and anxieties of people living in a borderland state.

11Nani Gopal Mahanta’s Citizenship Debate Over NRC And CAA (from here on Citizenship Debate) talks about the growth and nature of Assamese nationalism “from the perspective of a marginalized, numerically smaller nationality and region” (p. 1) in the borderland. He tries to understand Assam’s “politics of history” and shows how the demand for an NRC and the need for a CAA in Assam is meant to correct the wrongs of the legacies of partition.

12He traces the way in which Assam and Assamese society have historically been cosmopolitan in nature with various tribes and groups migrating and becoming part of the larger Assamese identity and culture, which was disrupted by colonial politics that encouraged the large-scale migration of East Bengali Muslim peasants. By using statistical figures and reports of colonial officials such as C.S. Mullan, the author shows how the numbers of Bengali Muslim migrants were “abnormally” high to the point that, instead of accepting larger Assamese society’s culture and economic practices, they disrupted this cosmopolitan culture. For example, the Bengali Muslim migrants turned communal landownership into individual, private ownership in the chars. Calling them “land-hungry,” Mahanta shows how historically they have aggressively cleared and often “illegally” settled in lands that belonged to Vaishnava temples (satras).

13The author further discusses the divisive role played in Assam by the Muslim League and East-Bengali Muslim leaders such as Abdul Hamid Bhashani who not only opposed the Line System but also demanded permanent land rights for Bengali Muslim peasants and campaigned for Assam’s inclusion in East Pakistan. He often contrasts the divisive politics of the League and its Muslim leaders with the sympathetic, “pro-native” stance of the upper-caste, middle class Assamese Hindu leaders such as Ambikagiri Raichoudhury, Gopinath Bordoloi, etc. He then turns to Bengali Hindu refugees, the treatment they received in East Pakistan and the fact that the Indian state has historically been sympathetic to them. Though one should be appreciative of his efforts to explain in detail the violence suffered by Bengali Hindus, it is also clear that he places this figure of the Bengali Hindu refugee as a victim of partition violence so as to construct a figure of the Bengali Muslim as an “illegal immigrant,” many of whom, he argues, stayed in Assam post-independence.

14It is in this context that Mahanta justifies his support of both the NRC and CAA, as he carefully mixes the anxieties of “indigenous” people with anxieties of caste-Hindu Assamese people, so that the enemy is framed as the Bengali Muslim, who has in the past and continues in the present, to take away the rights of the “indigenous people.” Unlike the Bengali Muslims, he argues, the migration of Bengali Hindu refugees, tea tribes, Marwaris, etc. into Assam has never disturbed the cosmopolitan, diverse Assamese society and culture. Thus, he emphasizes that while the NRC was formulated and legitimately demanded by the “indigenous” Assamese people as a result of disruptive, large-scale migration of Bengali Muslims, the CAA was formulated to protect the non-Muslim (particularly Bengali Hindu) refugees who have historically faced violence at the hands of the Bengali Muslims—be it in East Pakistan in the past or in present-day Bangladesh. The violent attacker or the disruptive immigrant is thus always a Bengali Muslim, against whom both the laws provide protection.

15Citizenship Debate talks about the regionalization of Hindutva, and shows how the BJP was successful in mobilizing the fear against the “illegal immigrant” who was largely projected to be the Bengali Muslim and in turn in bringing together a “Rainbow Coalition” of ethnic and right-wing parties. This reminds us of some of the factors drawn meticulously by Dutta in Hindutva Regime. Unlike Dutta, Mahanta, however, explains the rise of the BJP by legitimizing the fear of the “East-Bengal Origin Muslims,” against the backdrop of an Aryanized, Brahminical Hindu history of Assam that was challenged by the uncontrolled migration of Bengali Muslims.

  • 6 Right To Information
  • 7 Gogoi supervised the functioning of the NRC

16Abhishek Saha’s No Land’s People: The Untold Story of Assam’s NRC Crisis (from here on No Land’s People) is a moving narrative not just tracing the judicial, political life of the NRC but also taking a microscopic look into the consequences of the NRC for real people, particularly the linguistic and religious minorities. Saha’s narrative aims to understand how the figure of the “illegal immigrant” has been constructed, and the entire exercise of the NRC conducted around it. He first approaches the question historically, following colonial state officials such as C.S. Mullan’s narrative of large-scale migration of East Bengali Muslims to Assam, then moving on to post-colonial government’s reports such as Assam Governor S.K. Sinha’s reports that projected that more than 30 lakh “illegal” Bangladeshis lived in Assam. These numbers, he shows, either created or inflamed anxieties about the “native” Assamese, fanning xenophobic violence against minorities. Saha then carefully creates doubt about these projected numbers by referring to government sources such as replies by the Ministry of Home Affairs to RTI6 queries (filed by author) or questions in Parliament, where the government itself agrees on the lack of conclusive evidence for a correct estimate of “illegal” immigrants. Saha thus, indirectly questions the Supreme Court’s (SC) decision to conduct the NRC, justified by the same numbers. In fact, as opposed to Mahanta and Dutta, Saha critically looks at both the SC and the then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi7 from an ideological view-point—indeed No Land’s People questions the intent and bases of the judiciary’s decision to update the NRC itself.

  • 8 Quasi-judicial courts where cases related to people whose citizenship is in doubt are heard. They w (...)
  • 9 Doubtful Voters are those whose citizenship is in question. Often Border Police personnel or Electi (...)

17He expands his critical look at the judiciary by examining the functioning of the Foreigners Tribunals8 and their handling of “Doubtful (D) Voters”9 cases through which he re-enters the question of the construction of “illegal immigrants.” He uses personal narratives of “D Voters” to show how such “doubtful” people are constructed by both Border Police forces and Foreigner Tribunal judges. He shows how poor, illiterate people hardly receive notification of their “D Status” or how judges are asked to increase the numbers of “foreigners” convicted in the Tribunals.

18Saha re-evaluates the question of construction of “illegal immigrants” by focusing on individual tales of exclusion and anxiety of victims of NRC. From tracing families of individuals who committed suicide because of being excluded from the NRC to individuals who have been marked as “D” for decades and stand on the cusp of being stateless, No Land’s People gives a face to the pain, anxiety, fear and anger of the excluded, most of whom have been linguistic and religious minorities in Assam.

19Finally, he looks at the political games that the process of NRC saw, showing how the NRC after five years, is not accepted by any political party or organization. The demands of re-verification from different quarters continues for various reasons, while the question of a nation-wide NRC remains. The contrasting reasons for dismissing the NRC—the BJP believes that Bengali Hindus were wrongfully excluded, while Assamese nationalist organizations believe that “illegal immigrants” were wrongfully included— show that the figure of the “illegal immigrant” along with its numbers are constructed in the political corridors of majoritarian dominance and power.

20Though it is not directly underlined, the author does show ideological discomfort over the conduction of NRC as a “solution” to the problem of “illegal immigration” as he forcefully argues that the figure of the “illegal immigrant,” particularly in large numbers, is a constructed idea. He also questions the intention and effectiveness of a documentary, bureaucratic project such as the NRC to solve a “political” problem.

21Finally, Mrinal Talukdar’s The Game Called NRC (from here on The Game) is a detailed narrative of the political contexts and decisions under which the NRC as a project developed, minutely fleshing out the many technical procedures and decisions that went into making the effective and “error-free” NRC. Talukdar, just as Dutta and Mahanta places the existence of the NRC in the historical context of “uncontrolled” migration of Bengali Muslims from East Bengal during the colonial period.

  • 10 In 1983, in a village called Nellie, Bengali Muslims who dominated the village were brutally massac (...)
  • 11 The Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act was enacted in 1983, and following a petition (...)
  • 12 In 2013, the SC under the two-judge bench comprising the then CJI Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Rohinton (...)

22The Game introduces us to the demographic change in Assam by citing decadal census reports to set the stage for the carrying out of the 1951 NRC. Talukdar describes the powerful impetus that finally concretized the demand for the updation of this 1951 NRC—the “anti-immigrant” Assam Movement and the role of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), and highlights the violent nature of the Movement that led to the brutal massacres of minorities.10 Finally, he talks about the 2005 SC’s decision to invalidate the IMDT Act.11 the failure of the NRC pilot project in two revenue circles in 2010, the intervention of the SC in 201312 and, finally, the coming to power of the BJP in 2016—all of which contributed to the updation of the NRC.

  • 13 Tripartite meetings were conducted among representatives of Central Government, State Government (A (...)
  • 14 DNA testing was also included as a provision to prove lineage in an earlier version which was later (...)

23What is particularly insightful is the attention to detail of the systematic unfolding of different political events—most importantly the tripartite meetings13—which enable the reader to see the internal contestations in framing the rules of NRC and the earlier versions of modalities of NRC.14 Talukdar explains the technicalities involved with the NRC—the documents listed, lineage proofs, the software involved, etc. And critical insights are given when he discusses the problems faced by both officials and applicants such as faulty software, lack of laptops, rushed procedures, poor salary and working conditions of technical stuff, etc.

24The intricate discussion of the technical life of the NRC along with the many on-ground issues of its implementation allow the reader to understand the complicated procedure and language of the NRC which have contributed to many poor, illiterate people being left out of it. The author does talk about the violence of the NRC process, by focusing on the minorities—Bengali Hindus and Muslims, in which he too discusses the role of judicial institutions such as Foreigner Tribunals and Detention Camps in propagating this violence. However, unlike Saha, he does praise the SC, particularly CJI Gogoi’s role and intention in finally unrolling the NRC project.

25One can sense the author’s frustration when he questions the hypocrisy of the BJP who introduced the CAA and then refused to accept the final NRC. The Game shows the violence of the NRC but, in many respects, it celebrates its implementation, particularly the role of the SC and the Coordinator—Prateek Hajela—in this process. However, in the “Epilogue,” Talukdar revealing his participation in the “anti-immigrant” Assam Movement, calls both the Assam Accord and the NRC exercise a “failure,” which displays not just the author’s position but also The Game’s moral and ideological support for “anti-immigration” policies and the NRC as a project.

  • 15 Then Finance Minister of Assam government (post 2016 Assembly elections)

26Both Dutta and Mahanta, being trained political scientists and active public political commentators, use archival sources to bring forward their arguments. Dutta uses largely archives of public speeches (his use and comparison of budget speeches of Himanta Biswa Sarma15 is particularly interesting), statistical reports, newspaper and online platform articles, government surveys, court case summaries and judgements, etc. Mahanta used archives of both colonial and post-colonial government reports, statistical reports by independent committees such as SATRA Research Committees, presidential speeches of Asam Sahitya Sabha (Assam Literary Association), Assamese nationalist magazines, etc.

27Saha and Talukdar are journalists and they too use a wide range of archival sources, such as minutes of government meetings (the tripartite talks), colonial and post-colonial census reports, parliamentary and Assam Legislative Assembly debates on immigration into Assam and the NRC, media statements by government, etc. Talukdar’s interviews with NRC officials on its technical dimension or with NRC Coordinator Hajela add significant value to his intricate understanding of the technical life of the NRC. Saha, due to his journalistic assignments, also gained access to interview materials of victims of the NRC process—particularly those living in remote villages, allowing him to bring the less known stories into the foreground.

28The use of archives has allowed the authors to trace the macro patterns while describing the historical contexts under which current events surrounding NRC, CAA, Hindutva politics have unrolled; however, dependence on archival data meant working around structures and information made available by the state (court judgements, laws, etc.), and thus reflecting a statist perspective in varied degrees even though, in the case of Dutta particularly, it has been used to present an anti-state narrative. However, it also means that the authors (except Saha and to some extent, Talukdar) were unable to locate narratives and view-points that the state or established structures do not record.

  • 16 The Sabha has engaged in purification of Assamese language and culture and stands for chauvinist As (...)

29Mahanta’s careful selection of archival sources weaves a narrative that is highly divisive and non-critical of the majoritarian state. The heavy use of archives of what he calls “organic literature” of former Presidents of Asam Sahitya Sabha,16 an organization dominated by caste-Hindu Assamese men, allows Mahanta to present a purified history of Assamese society, arguing that it was by the advent of a large migration of “East-Bengal Origin Muslims,” that this rightly balanced Assamese culture was disturbed.

30Though he claims to be using “vernacular” literature and hence presenting a narrative that is often missed by scholars from “mainland” India, this “vernacular” is not inclusive of literature written in languages such as Bodo, Bengali, etc. which store the stories of the tribal, linguistic and religious minorities. It is possibly because of such choice of sources that Mahanta celebrates a history of “Aryanization” and Assam’s connections with “Bharatabarsha” (Greater Indian nation). His narrative lets us see how scholars take an active part in seeing and remembering some “connected histories” while other connections are consciously erased and forgotten. (Chatterjee 2018).

31When it comes to audiences for each book, Dutta has written the text for a large audience—researchers, journalists, political commentators, activists. One critical group for him are the “humanists” who are opposed to the NRC. Though opposed to them, he critically engages with their literature and writes with the intention of convincing such groups of the “reality” from which he writes. Though Mahanta, Talukdar and Saha have not clearly stated which audience the book is meant for, as they write in non-jargonish language, I believe it would be accessible to both an academic and non-academic audience and would particularly interest researchers, lawyers, political analysts, journalists and historians.

Contributions and conversations

32Each book meticulously traces the history and the contextual specificities behind the demand for an NRC. Except Saha, all authors use this historical tracing to present and validate the anxieties of the “natives” of a borderland state. This also allows them to address the evolution of the politics surrounding “jatiyotabaad.” While Mahanta understands the growth of “jatiyotabaad” as a response to the “aggressive illegal Bangladeshi Muslim,” first harbored by the Muslim League and then by Congress, Talukdar and Dutta go beyond “illegal immigration” to consider, too, the economic exploitation of a marginal state by the central government or corporates. In Talukdar’s narrative, one can also identify the phases when “jatiyotabaad” as an ideology received set-backs such as failure of the nationalist party Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) to fulfil its promise of updating the NRC; while in Dutta’s narrative, the reader is able to understand the transformation of “jatiyotabaad’”along with the coming of a Hindutva regime in Assam. He shows how ethnic aspirations are brought together with Hindu aspirations under one roof in the name of “Rainbow Coalitions.” He successfully shows how the Hindutva regime by projecting the Bengali Muslim as the “enemy other” has suppressed discussions surrounding exploitation by a neo-liberal economy that once was one of the key factors of growth of “jatiyotabaad” in Assam.

33The books are also critical to understanding how violence operates in the borderland states of India. Talukdar and Saha show that while violence is made visible in events such as the Nellie Massacre during the Assam Movement or during the NRC, it is important to recognize the violence not just as series of events but also its everyday presence, which is being increasingly normalized. This is particularly brought out in the books’ discussions of the processes whereby poor minority people are turned into “D Voters,” in the functioning of the Foreigner Tribunals or in the presence of detention camps. Dutta too talks about the chauvinist, violent nature of the Assam Movement, while discussing attacks on communists, Bengalis and Muslims by nationalists, or the violence propagated by the polarized politics of the BJP and the neo-liberal economy, particularly against poor tribals, religious minorities and the environment.

34The books open up discussions on state-making and citizenship in the borderlands. Reading about the historical context surrounding the NRC and Assamese nationalism allows one to understand that state-making in Assam since late colonial times has been dictated by educated upper-caste, Assamese Hindu men or organizations such as AASU filled by such men that have largely led the course of nationalism in Assam. While Dutta talks about state-making techniques with a particular focus on the making of a Hindu state, Talukdar’s elaborate narrative on NRC, and its technical life, shows how NRC has introduced a new regime of state-making: rigid, scientific, technology and document dependent with active intervention of judiciary and bureaucracy. What Saha adds to this narrative is an account of how this new regime of state-making is once again pauperizing and marginalizing the already marginalized—poor religious and linguistic minorities of Assam.

35The books thus make important points regarding citizenship and its practice. They show that in borderland states the idea of citizenship will always be intricately associated with histories of migration, partition and even ethnicity. In the case of the NRC, the project is not to find out simply who is an Indian but also who is an Assamese, and with the coming of a right-wing government, who is a Hindu? This is exactly what Anupama Roy (2016) is talking about when she argues that NRC in Assam creates “hyphenated citizens” that are Indian and Assamese.


  • 17 Upper-caste Assamese Hindu language purists dropped tribal lexicons from standardized Assamese lang (...)

36These four books help us understand the complex landscape of belongingness and recognition of varied communities in Assam. And while all authors address the multiple layers of who exactly an “Assamese” is, they still remain in the definitional boundaries of language and cut-off dates to imagine and understand the Assamese community and who can belong in it. Dutta and Mahanta, who use Assamese language as the basis of community identity, do not critically look at how Assamese, in order to be seen as a language distinct from Bengali, historically underwent intense purification by upper caste, upper-middle class Hindu Assamese men. The “Aryanization” of Assamese as a community who shared common roots with “Bharatabarsha” (Greater Indian nation) was partially achieved through the standardization and purification of the Assamese language (Sharma 2011; Sengupta 2016). This caste-oriented17 history of the Assamese language is not engaged with at all. Basing our sense of community on linguistic lines would be to embrace this brahmanical, exclusionary history too.

37This sense of community then reflects assimilationist sentiments wherein other cultures have to adjust to the rhythms and cycles of the majoritarian culture, without the latter really undergoing any change. This is clearly seen in Mahanta’s outright dismissal of the “Miya Poetry Movement” in which Miya Muslims (Bengali Muslims) wrote poetry in “Miya” dialect to express their pain over discrimination by caste-Hindu Assamese society and appealed to be allowed to belong. Dutta and Talukdar refrain from engaging with movements like Miya Poetry, which they see instead as threats to what they describe as the “inclusive, diverse” Assamese community.

38Moreover, except Saha, all authors rely a great deal on statistics and numbers— particularly census reports on population increase or decrease and religious and linguistic composition. Mahanta’s use of numbers and statistics carves out a narrative which is littered with religious polarization. The constant recalling of increase of Muslim population percentage or the cherry-picking of a statistical discourse wherein he shows that many Muslims who did not fall under the purview of “Nehru-Liaqat” Pact were “illegally” living in Assam, is a case in point. He, however, refuses to engage with the numbers and statistics of the killings in areas like Chawolkhua Chapori where Bengali Muslims were brutally slaughtered as part of the caste-Hindu Assamese led Assam Movement or with the state never having officially acknowledged or engaged with the killings in Nellie.

39Scholars have shown how statistics and numbers are guided by what the state wants us to see or know, and the image of “objectivity” and “scientific-ness” that numbers have for people. (Scott 1998; Gupta 2012). Thus, a critical use of numbers and statistics is highly necessary, particularly in a context where numbers have played a significant role in guiding nationalist sentiments and xenophobic politics.

40The authors do not disclose or engage with the varied positionalities that they occupy, the politics of which have deep bearing on how they approached and wrote the texts. As such, the works are not reflexive in nature. Except Saha (who is a Bengali Hindu), the authors are caste-Hindu Assamese men and one cannot help but notice their failure to problematize the figure of the upper-caste, middle class Assamese Hindu man and his politics in their narratives. Both in Dutta’s and Talukdar’s narrative, the “native” Assamese voter is instead projected as “misguided,” someone who has been repeatedly betrayed by governments in power instead of someone who historically has actively participated in politics of “othering” of religious and linguistic minorities.

41Talukdar, towards the end, does underline his participation in the “anti-immigrant” Assam Movement, with an adulthood dream of making Assam “Bangladeshi free,” which does give a peek into his positionality and politics. Recognizing his own biases (though not explicitly engaging with his positionality), he adopts a multi-author approach wherein he includes chapters on impacts of the NRC on the linguistic and religious minorities by Bengali Muslim and Bengali Hindu authors. This is a commendable approach towards inclusivity, representation and presentation of “insiders” viewpoint; however, I cannot help but emphasize that boxing these chapters as “Bengali” and “Muslim perspective” with no interactions with the rest of the narrative makes them look like stand-alone opinions which might be easy to dismiss.

42Saha, on the other hand, does engage with his identity as a Bengali Hindu in Assam and his personal investment in the NRC project, as his own grandmother was declared a “doubtful voter” and hence was excluded from NRC. His moving personal tales of the pain, anxiety and hatred that he and his family had faced allows the reader to see the location and history from where he is writing the text. However, Saha falters in structuring his narrative as a coherent whole. While the individual stories of pain are powerful in themselves, the larger arguments are not woven systematically and seem to be scattered around the text.

43All the texts fail to systemically conceptualize and analyze how Assamese nationalism, and NRC as its product, was specifically violent and exclusionary on the basis of gender. Though the authors (except Mahanta) touch upon NRC’s impact on women, particularly minority women, this aspect is dealt with in a scattered way (possibly as individual instances) and not analyzed concretely in dialogue with the larger narrative. Besides, the deep impact of NRC on minority sexualities such as transgenders is not at all sufficiently engaged with (Dutta flagging it in a few paragraphs).

44Despite these shortcomings, these are important works considering that they are among the rare contemporary, full-fledged book recordings of the NRC-CAA projects written by “insiders” (all from Assam) in a broad sense of the term, and present diverse perspectives. In fact, I suggest their being read together, in interaction with one another, for they present counter-narratives and can help the reader to critically consider each book’s presented opinion. This literature should also be used to critically understand and analyze the “post-NRC” period, which I imagine it to be our ethical duty to record since this period is marked by a sense of “waiting,” anxiety and “in-between living” of the excluded.

45This literature thus, should be used to fill up the gaps in opinions, methodologies, histories and theoretical frameworks, while audiences simultaneously learn more about how Assam’s citizenship, “immigration” and nationalism issues are undergoing changes under Hindutva politics and how this can help in understanding the changing nature of citizenship, democracy, secularism and identity politics in India.

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Chatterjee, Indrani. 2018. “Connected Histories and the Dream of Decolonial History.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 41(1):69–86.

Gupta, Akhil. 2012. Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence and Poverty in India. London and Durham: Duke University Press.

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1 The 1951 NRC was prepared by census enumerators from census slips of 1951 under then Census Superintendent of Assam, Mr. R. B. Vaghaiwalla. This NRC was not application-based but on a house-to-house basis as it was part of the census operations.

2 There was a strong campaign by the Muslim League to include Assam in East Pakistan.

3 BJP’s “Rainbow Coalition” was a successful political tactic in the 2016 Assam Assembly elections wherein it brought diverse ethnic and regional political parties such as the Assamese nationalist party Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the leading party amongst the Bodo tribe “Bodoland People’s Front” (BPF) into the fold of a grand coalition. The Rabha and Tiwa leadership also joined this coalition. Dutta in his book argues, how this tactic also contributed to the saffronization of the “rainbow” as regional, tribal aspirations were propagated as “Hindu” aspirations.

4 BJP introduced schemes such as “Chah Bagicha Dhan Puraskar Mela” wherein the government directly transferred funds (Rs. 5000 each) to the bank accounts of tea garden workers. Schemes providing subsidized rice to workers were introduced.

5 The international auctioning of 12 oilfields in Assam, approving Coal India’s proposal to mine Dehing Patkai Forest, etc. have led to (or may lead to) displacement of poor Assamese people, robbed people of their agricultural land, caused environmental degradation that negatively impacted the soil and fresh water sources, thus, indirectly impacting agricultural production.

6 Right To Information

7 Gogoi supervised the functioning of the NRC

8 Quasi-judicial courts where cases related to people whose citizenship is in doubt are heard. They were launched through the Foreigners (Tribunal) Order, 1964.

9 Doubtful Voters are those whose citizenship is in question. Often Border Police personnel or Election Commission officials can mark as “doubtful” a voter as who then loses the right to vote. “D Voters” along with their descendants were kept out of the NRC.

10 In 1983, in a village called Nellie, Bengali Muslims who dominated the village were brutally massacred in broad daylight. Over 2000 people were killed.

11 The Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act was enacted in 1983, and following a petition was struck down in 2005. The IMDT Act had put the burden of proof of citizenship/non-citizenship on the accuser as opposed to the accused as per Foreigners Act, 1946.

12 In 2013, the SC under the two-judge bench comprising the then CJI Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Rohinton Nariman directed the state of Assam to immediately start the process of updating the NRC.

13 Tripartite meetings were conducted among representatives of Central Government, State Government (Assam) and signatories of Assam Accord to discuss the various clauses of the Assam Accord, including the updation of the NRC.

14 DNA testing was also included as a provision to prove lineage in an earlier version which was later removed.

15 Then Finance Minister of Assam government (post 2016 Assembly elections)

16 The Sabha has engaged in purification of Assamese language and culture and stands for chauvinist Assamese nationalism.

17 Upper-caste Assamese Hindu language purists dropped tribal lexicons from standardized Assamese language, while drawing Aryanized historical connections with “Bharatabarsha.” To read more, see: Sharma 2011; Sengupta 2016.

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Electronic reference

Bhargabi Das, NRC, “Jatiyotabaad” and Citizenship Crisis in AssamSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 30 | 2023, Online since 21 April 2023, connection on 05 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Bhargabi Das

PhD candidate in Anthropology, National University of Ireland, Maynooth

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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