The process of getting citizenship in eastern India’s Assam state has been anything but easy. The date for filing claims and objections with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam came to a close on December 31, 2018, but it appears that of the more than four million people excluded from the first draft, only 3.1 million applied for re-verification.

The NRC is a Supreme Court-sanctioned database of Indian citizens in Assam. The list is being updated for the first time since 1951 to include people who have legal identity documents issued before March 24, 1971, and their descendants.

As many as 900,000 people have found themselves in a precarious position and many more stand a good chance of losing their citizenship. But the Indian government has offered many “solutions.” Detention camps, work permits and distributing the “excess population” in the rest of India were among those offers.

However, many fear that having to get a work-permit will turn people into second-class citizens. The idea of work permits devalues a human being and their labor process by objectifying it and turning them into victims on the pretext of legitimacy.

Origins of ‘guest workers’

The idea of having guest workers became a popular policy of the German government in the late 1950s. The German government sent invitations to other European countries, asking them to send workers to help overcome a shortage of labor in their booming economy.

These people were known as guest workers. People from Turkey, Spain, Italy and Greece headed for Germany. There was even a treaty signed with the Turkish government in 1961 to export labor.

However, a recession pushed the Germans to withdraw and they put a stop to the scheme in 1973. They had assumed the workers would return home, this was not the case. Now Turkish people form a large minority in Germany.

In its current form in India, offering work permits to the many excluded from citizenship through the NRC process appears to be giving people a degree of legitimacy. But in reality, it turns them into workers without rights.

Catherine Besteman, Professor at Colby College in Maine in the United States, in a recent article in Current Anthropology, talked about an important aspect of the “global apartheid of labor” where the control and surveillance of people is growing, and which has increasingly become militarized.

There have also been reports of the Assam government expressing its willingness to collaborate with the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIAI) to gather biometric information of the people who are reapplying for re-verification of their NRC status – bringing those individuals under surveillance.

From now on, if somebody’s citizenship is doubtful, the government will already have full access to their information thanks to the process of forcing people to submit their biometric data to the NRC. This is something which the state cannot force its citizens to do.

Apartheid was a system of controlling movement and labor to counter the “threat” many people imagined came from black people. Besteman writes that it was managed by incarcerating black people in zones while also enabling the control and policed exploitation of black people as workers on which the country was dependent.

It was essentially a system of racial order and hierarchical labor markets. The NRC process is capable of doing the same.

Assam’s NRC

Detention camps in Assam function precisely like the apartheid regime by creating zones of containment and they seek to create hierarchic labor.

The legitimate NRC process was made possible by a long history of social and political
movements which rested on a very xenophobic and chauvinistic plane. The remainders of the NRC process are a product of a racialist order where the people will become “Bangladeshis.”

Seemingly, it could create a hierarchy of people by treating those excluded differently with lesser rights and restricting their movements. With multiple cases of suicides due to the process, the NRC has indeed begun a racialized apartheid which underscores human lives and subverts our democratic institution.

It also gives impetus to narrow nationalism by legitimizing such a bureaucratic infrastructure of the state. Such a regime already exists on the border of India and its states.

Militarized borders and surveillance are used to control the movement of people. Apart from that, student unions in Assam also played a vital role in restricting the movement of people after the draft NRC was published.

Exceptional legal frameworks such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts, or AFSPA, were also brought into place to make the NRC exercise a success. This involves not only identifying but also intimidating its citizens, using legitimate and monopolized power to detain them.

Hanif Khan, 37, committed suicide after his name was not in the first part of the draft of the NRC published on December 31, 2017. He feared he had lost his citizenship and would be sent to jail and subjected to torture. Hanif Khan’s suicide was proof of the intimidation and fear a state power is capable of.

The NRC has far greater consequences which our governments are not equipped to
handle. By attempting to solve the Assamese citizenship situation, it has created more social upheaval than we could ever have imagined and even legitimatized xenophobia.

In this whole process, the suffering of the victim is erased and conveniently forgotten.


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