‘History of Citizenship and Migration in South Asia’: A talk by Mr. Manav Kapur

Manav Kapur read law at NALSAR, Hyderabad and New York University, New York. He has previously taught law at NALSAR and Jindal Global Law School. He is presently pursuing his Ph.D. in legal history from Princeton University, New Jersey. This is a transcript of a lecture delivered as part of the lecture series at the Fall 2020 Citizenship and Statelessness Clinic, Jindal Global Law School. You can find the full recording of the lecture here.

In the course of today’s discussion I thought we’d talk about citizenship and Partition. It’s kind of interesting because many of these debates are similar to the debates that have come up over the last year or so, and what I’ve been thinking about in the past few weeks is while much has been made about how the CAA [Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019] marks a break with the liberal conception of citizenship in India and how its explicit privileging of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, and Parsis from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh is seen as a break from the earlier regime, I don’t think that’s true. This is definitely not a defence of the CAA, but it’s interesting to see how even, and partly because of the Partition, these issues came up at the very outset of the setting of the terms of citizenship. 

I’m going to start off talking about two distinct questions: first, the ways in which Partition and citizenship were imbricated, both in the popular imagination and in the legal categories – and how did this become a South Asian problem? So what’s interesting also is that Indian debates and Pakistani debates are supposed to be different, but that really wasn’t what was happening. The second question is how did India’s citizenship provisions go from being relatively uncomplicated to ones that ‘received far more attention’ than any other provision (Nehru) by the time the debates end or ‘a headache’, in the words of Ambedkar? 

What had happened after independence was, and what we need to remember is that post-colonial South Asia had changed so much from what it was even six months before independence, that you couldn’t actually assume categories of citizenship qua populations, but that this was actually a produced category that was debated and given sanction, both from the top-up and bottom. So it was a long-term project aimed at turning subjects into citizens and both populations were active participants in this process. 

Now if we go to Seervai, which is one of the basic canonical texts of Indian constitutional law, he says that citizenship is a triangular relationship, it’s a personal bond between state and citizens, whereby citizens bear allegiance to the state and in turn are given full political and other rights. There were two models of citizenship: one is jus soli i.e. the right of anybody who is born in a particular territory to be a citizen of that territory, and the second one is jus sanguinis, which comes from the Latin for the ‘right of blood’ and is linked to questions of nationality and ethnicity, where ethnicity and parentage are key. Now, both [Niraja Gopal] Jayal and [Joya] Chatterji when they’re talking about citizenship in India say that the idea of citizenship in India actually starts off as a jus soli thing. If you look at the first draft of the citizenship provisions in the constitution, and interestingly the first draft was the fundamental rights section, they didn’t even think it was necessary to have a separate chapter on citizenship. This is on April 23 1947: within six months they’ll know that this is not going to be as simple as they think it is. ‘Every person born in the Union or naturalized according to its laws and is subject to the jurisdiction thereof’ (Clause 3, April 23, 1947) was supposed to be an Indian. So this is basically jus soli simpliciter. Of course when this was being talked about this was tempered with some elements of jus sanguinis, because there was this question of what happens to  people who are born in India but whose families don’t live in India, and the converse, what happens to people whose families live abroad but are actually domiciled in India. So then domicile came up, and what is now Article 5 of the Constitution at this time. Article 5 says: 

At the commencement of this Constitution every person who has his domicile in the territory of India and:

(a) who was born in the territory of India; or

(b) either of whose parents was born in the territory of India; or

(c) who has been ordinarily resident in the territory of India for not less than five years preceding such commencement, shall be a citizen of India.

When we look at this, this is pretty simple but this doesn’t really think about what the Partition is going to do to this entire question. 

A small note on domicile: domicile is basically defined as a place where the habitation of a person has been fixed, and from where there’s no intention of moving therefrom. The reason why I’m specifically mentioning domicile is because domicile becomes specifically relevant in the context of Partition, particularly in the context of women and their citizenship. As Joya Chatterji points out, this is also useful because given that the Constitution was being drafted contemporaneously with the Partition and independence, both India and Pakistan, according to her, thought of a jus soli basis of citizenship, which is primarily territorial – so where you’re born, you’re a citizen of that country and after Partition happens, the other country really has no role to play in deciding your rights or lack thereof. But of course, this was predicated on the assumption, which later turned out to be erroneous, that Partition would not result in large-scale migrations. And interestingly, this idea that Partition would not lead to large-scale migrations persists through June, July, and August 1947. In June 1947 for example there’s a story about how Jinnah met a set of prominent Muslim leaders from Delhi and said that well, if Delhi isn’t part of Pakistan – which also wasn’t clear at the time, because the Punjab was to be divided and Delhi was at the border with Punjab—then you’re Indian citizens, and that’s the end of it. 

In order to understand citizenship, I think we have to take the idea of what Vazira [Fazila Yacoobali-] Zamindar calls ‘the Long Partition’ somewhat seriously. The ‘Long Partition’ has been defined, according to her, as ‘the ways in which two postcolonial states’– namely India and Pakistan—‘comprehended, intervened, and “shaped” the colossal displacements of Partition, and in doing so, recalibrating the categories of citizen, state, nation and territory’. All these categories seemed clear in March 1947; all of this was changed in September 1947. All of this resulted in mass migrations that started in 1947 but continued until at least the 1960s on both flanks of the border: on the Eastern flank which is the Bengal, Assam, and the East Bengal border, and the Western flank which stretches all the way from Kashmir up to Gujarat and Sindh. There’s also a note of terminological caution I want to make over here because the terms that were used were ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’, but the idea of a ‘refugee’ has to be distinguished from what we understand of a refugee now as a stateless person. At this point of time the term ‘refugee’ in India referred to those who moved to India from Pakistan, and a ‘migrant’ was seen as somebody who moved from India to Pakistan. Now importantly they were called refugees, but they weren’t refugees like stateless people, they definitely had a state allegiance and that allegiance was acknowledged by the state they were moving to, it was just that their domicile and the state that they wanted to be part of did not at that particular point intersect.  

Two dates are very significant: 1 March 1947 and 19 July 1948, and we will see this when we discuss Articles 6 and 7 of the Constitution. 1 March 1947 was a significant date because it was the cut-off date for Partition violence, or so the Indian government thought, because violence started in Rawalpindi on 3 March and continued in Punjab throughout this time. And because the Eastern border wasn’t considered – as we shall see throughout this discussion, the Eastern border was considered peripheral to questions of citizenship in the ways that were fundamental to the determination of citizenship law at the time when the Constitution was being drafted. So the violence of Direct Action Day on Noakhali and stuff did not feature. 

Article 6 is something that we should spend a little bit of time on, because it talks of the rights of citizenship of certain persons who have migrated to India from Pakistan. It has a non-obstante clause at the beginning: ‘notwithstanding anything contained in Article 5’ – which is basically a jus soli conception of citizenship, with a little bit of jus sanguinis, about parents, but this is a departure from that –‘a person who had migrated to the territory of India from the territory now included in Pakistan shall be deemed to be a citizen of India at the commencement of this Constitution if he and either of his parents or any of his grandparents was born in India as defined in the Government of India Act, 1935 (as originally enacted), and’—even his little bit about the Government of India Act is significant, because before the Government of India Act, India included Burma and Aden, so both of them were excised from the idea of India, and that was particularly significant because Burma had a huge population of Indians, and Joya Chatterji does talk about that in questions around Indian nationals vs. citizens – ‘In the case where such person has so migrated before 19 July 1948…has been registered as a citizen of India by an officer appointed in that behalf by the Government….’ The important thing to note here – this is about 11 months after Partition—the very fact the Government decided to use this date [19 July 1948] meant that the Government thought that Partition migration had more or less in the ordinary course of events ended; migration after the 19th of July 1948 was seen as exceptional, and this was only true for the Western frontier and only for the provinces of West Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province. Hindus from Sindh continued to move to India until the 50s, and also from Balochistan. 

We should talk about Article 7 as well, which is another exception to the jus soli conception. This is the most controversial clause: called obnoxious by its detractors and obligatory by those who supported it, and it’s interesting even though religion is not explicitly mentioned, debates around both Article 6 and Article 7 make it very clear who is contemplated under these provisions and who isn’t, and that is largely based on religion, and in that category you see Muslims as one category and non-Muslims as another. Article 7 reads, beginning with a notwithstanding clause:

a person who has after the first day of March, 1947, migrated from the territory of India to the territory now included in Pakistan shall not be deemed to be a citizen of India:

Provided that nothing in this article shall apply to a person who, after having so migrated to the territory now included in Pakistan, has returned to the territory of India under a permit for resettlement or permanent return issued by or under the authority of any law and every such person shall for the purposes of clause (b) of article 6 be deemed to have migrated to the territory of India after the nineteenth day of July, 1948.

So basically, the person should have a permit for resettlement or permanent return and then be registered as a citizen of India. At first, this doesn’t seem like a particularly problematic position. Of course, it says if you leave in March 1947 you lose Indian citizenship, but you have a way of getting back – just register etc. It seems clear, but it isn’t. 

Now let’s get to the meat of what the problem was with the way in which these three provisions were drafted. Three questions come up: one is India’s perceived sole responsibility for Pakistani Hindus and Sikhs—the assumption is (and this comes out very clearly in the Constituent Assembly debates across party lines) that Pakistani Hindus and Sikhs don’t have any other place in the world to go to but India. There is also a related suspicion of Muslim migration into India, both the return of people who had gone to Pakistan and the movement of other Muslims to India. And this is all undergirded by the hard economics of rehabilitation – or what I would call the ‘costs’ of citizenship. 

The question of Hindus and Sikhs as fundamentally Indian was a question that arose out of Partition, and out of the belief among many members of the Constituent Assembly Debates that the Partition was not a territorial division but also an excision of a part of the Motherland. Because of this, the idea was that any Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan (which at the time included Bangladesh) were seen as the responsibility of India. P. R. Deshmukh actually very clearly and very strongly articulates this in 1949:

By the mere fact that he is a Hindu or a Sikh, he should get Indian citizenship because it is this one circumstance that makes him disliked by others. But we are a secular State and do not want to recognise the fact that every Hindu or Sikh in any part of the world should have a home of his own. We are not debarring others from getting citizenship here. We merely say that we have no other country to look for acquiring citizenship rights and therefore we the Hindus and the Sikhs, so long as we follow the respective religions, should have the right of citizenship in India and should be entitled to retain such citizenship so long as we acquire no other.

This is very similar to questions around the way in which the CAA is thought of presently, the idea of non-Muslims as being discriminated against in other parts of the subcontinent, and that Indian Muslims are not discriminated against. This idea of Pakistani Hindus and Sikhs as a lost limb comes up time and again in the Constitution. It’s something that Nehru himself mentions in his tryst with destiny speech, that we ‘feel for those who have been cut away from us in this unnatural division and we will always have a responsibility for them’.

But now what was happening, as Joya Chatterji points out, is that in the period 1947 to 1950 there was this very very complicated relationship that minorities had with the governments of the opposite dominion. When Partition happened by September 1947, the High Commissioners of the other dominion had taken charge of minority camps pending their movement, which again was ensured through military evacuations carried out by soldiers of the other dominion itself. One interesting aspect of this is that the first Pakistani High Commission in India was located in the barracks of the Sher Shah Suri mess, which is now the site of the Delhi High Court. Now of course it’s impossible for any Pakistani citizen to enter any cantonment zone, but because of the Partition, because of the responsibility both countries took over for its minorities, and because of the military escorts that they had to provide, the first Pakistani High Commission was located within an army mess in India. Also the Pakistani High Commission in Delhi and the Indian High Commission in Karachi were simultaneously organizing water, food, and medicines to camps – there are these long letters that go from the Indian government to the Pakistani High Commissioner in September 1947 about the fact that the Lal Quila camp only had two functional toilets for 40000 people. So there is that sense of responsibility for people just after Partition.

Now interestingly, what happened is that the moment you look at the idea of people moving to Pakistan, there’s this question of what the scope of migration was, or what the intent behind Partition migration was. So in the Constituent Assembly, and in a lot of writing around Partition in India, you see the idea of Muslims moving to Pakistan as part of a deliberate desire to move. So it is a conscious, well thought out decision to leave India. As Jaspat Roy Kapoor, Constituent Assembly member whose family had migrated from West Punjab to UP says: ‘Once a person has migrated to Pakistan and transferred his loyalty from India to Pakistan, his migration is complete. He has made up his mind at the time to kick this country and let it go to his own fate and to go to Pakistan and make it a prosperous country’. On the other hand, when the question comes about Hindus who continue to live in Pakistan till the winter of 1947, Justice Mahajan says something completely different. He says that: ‘In October or November 1947, men’s [sic] minds were in a state of flux. Nobody thought that when he was leaving Pakistan for India or vice-versa that he was forever abandoning the place of his ancestors’ (Mahajan J. in Central Bank v Ram Narain (1955)). Which obviously makes sense, because in 1947 there was no clarity on what these migrations meant, the only thing that happened was that in the Punjab both Governments had agreed to transfer populations pending a settlement of the situation. But the situation was never settled in any way other than the vast majority of people not being able to come back. But this distinction between the idea of Muslims going to Pakistan going with a form of malice or forethought versus people coming into India as refugees who had no other option, having lost everything, persisted through the course of these debates and is significant in the way Article 7 was both drafted and operated. 

Now the history behind Article 7 – we’ve seen that this led to a permit system for settlements or permanent return to come back to India. This seems pretty straightforward but isn’t –this is because in early 1948, after Gandhiji’s fast in Delhi and his subsequent death, and the Government’s crackdown on RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] and anti-Muslim violence in much of North India, a set of people who’d gone to Pakistan started to come back. Now the numbers weren’t very huge – this table on CID Enumeration of Muslim Movements shows that the number of people who came back in  toto were about 12 to 15000. These numbers are not huge, but the way in which they were seen by the population in Delhi, by a lot of the Government, was as this one-way traffic that was coming from Pakistan of people trying to come back and take over their houses. This almost medical terminology of influx of people moving in, of this fear of contamination and infection, is what led to a permit system being put in place. Initially, from August 1947 to July 1948 there was no bar on Indians moving to Pakistan and vice-versa, in fact one of the conditions of Partition had been that there would be no restriction placed on people moving: to the extent that Nehru’s first visit to Pakistan was supposed to be 1949, but throughout the winter of 1947 Nehru was constantly going to Lahore for meetings with regard to people who were moving, and Liaquat and Jinnah were constantly coming to Delhi, and that wasn’t even considered foreign travel. 

Now a permit for permanent resettlement was one of the hardest ones to get. The permit system basically allowed permits to be given in three circumstances: for transiting, for visits and meeting divided families, and for permanent resettlement. This permit for resettlement was almost impossible to get, only 1200 got it in the first year of its installation. Again, to get the permit required a background check, a family check, and any link to the Muslim League before Partition meant that you wouldn’t get the permit. What’s interesting is not that you’d get the permit so sparingly, but the fears it aroused. The assumption was that when Muslims were coming back to India, people who had already left for Pakistan were coming back, they were coming back either as a fifth column that was attempting to destroy India from within, or coming back to take over their property. 

Now why would taking over the property be a problem? Because of the whole way in which the evacuee property regime had started to function. Now the evacuee property norms have in a lot of scholarship been described as ‘brutal’ laws, as ‘exceptional’ laws, as deeply complex laws. Their complexity comes because they were serving two contradictory purposes. In the weeks after Partition, in early 1947 as populations were on the move in Punjab, both governments came up with a set of norms by which they’d take over the property of those who’d left and hold it in trust for them until they came back. So the migrants, the people leaving were recognized as the sole owners of the property they’d left behind, but in order to protect this property, and to prevent it from being alienated in unauthorized ways, the Government would take it over and hold it in trust. But there were 2-3 things that happened at the same time. This was also harvest season, the Punjab was a very fertile land and food supplies in both countries were in a state of flux, and refugees needed to be resettled on these lands. So while refugees were resettled, the assumption was that migrants continued to be sole owners of this property but pending their coming back or the settlement of the question of compensation, refugees would be allowed to live on these lands. This was also happening because a lot of refugees, out of desperation on both sides of the border, were forcing their ways into these houses. So now evacuee property laws were serving two contradictory purposes: firstly they were safeguarding the property of those who had migrated until they returned or until an inter-governmental solution could be found (India was rooting for an inter-governmental solution; Pakistan, because the volume of property was more in Pakistan, was rooting for person-to-person exchange); and simultaneously all of this property had gone in a compensation pool to rehabilitate refugees who were living on this. 

Now especially in India, because the amount of property which Muslims had left was much lesser than property Hindus and Sikhs had left when they came to India, the whole question of Muslims coming back was seen as taking away what the already marginalized Hindus and Sikhs who came from Pakistan were going to get. So therefore it became almost impossible for the Government to actually be seen to be giving permits to people, only a few thousand were likely to return. When this was debated in the context of Article 7 of the Constitution, Nehru made a very strong point about how we can’t discriminate between Muslims who have chosen to leave in situations that were not of their volition. But he also says – and this was the way in which he tries to assuage the ‘costs’ of Muslims coming back – that only a few thousand are likely to return, and they’re ensuring  that the procedure for getting  the permit has been made extremely difficult. Now, because this was made so difficult—and not only was it made difficult, after 1951 and the Liaquat-Nehru pact the Government actually came up with a law which said that even if people are given permits for resettlement, this resettlement will not mean their property will no longer be evacuee property. So even if they come back, they are not going to get their property back. Their property is going to go into the compensation pool until an inter-governmental solution comes up; as it happens, an inter-governmental solution never came up, and the Government nationalized this property in 1957 and redistributed it. 

As we can see, what is actually happening in the period between 1947 and 1950 is that the Governments of both dominions are taking a very significant interest in the lives of minorities on both sides. The Liaquat-Nehru pact – and Amit Shah himself when he spoke of the CAA said that the Liaquat-Nehru pact is an example of this – but the Liaquat-Nehru pact is the point when this starts to break. Contrary to the discussions around CAA which state that the Liaquat-Nehru pact situated responsibility on the ‘other’ dominion, the pact actually did the opposite. A little bit of background – this pact comes in response to violence in Bengal. Throughout this time there has been very little sustained violence that happens in Bengal: in 1948 migration slowed down in Bengal, there were about 8 lakh people who moved across the border, as opposed to the Western border where 75 lakh people have moved, and this movement is continuing. In late 1949, however, there was rioting that started in East Bengal, across East Bengal, and spread to India as well. This leads to about a million and a half people moving, and the fears of a migration of the kind that happened in the West are what lead to both Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan coming together and specifically saying that minority rights are the responsibility of their own governments: 

The Government of India and Pakistan solemnly agree that each share ensure to the minorities throughout their territory complete equality of citizenship irrespective of religion..full security in respect of life, culture, property and personal honour.

Both governments wish to emphasise that the allegiance and loyalty of the minorities is to the states to which they are citizens and that it is to the Governments of their own state that they should look for the redress of their grievances.

Now on the Eastern frontier the bulk of migration happens after the 1947-1948 cutoff dates. Migration here starts in 1946, there’s some in 1947, the situation stabilizes by late 1948, then in early 1950 all of this starts again. Economics was not as important here: since there was no exchange of populations, evacuee property norms in Bengal were very different from evacuee property norms in the rest of the country. Evacuee property in Bengal continued to be property held in trust by the state for migrants who were presumed to return, and this was not distributed to refugees. The Permit system did NOT apply in the East: the free movement of minorities was supposed to ensure a feeling of security, and as a result of that you could cross the border without a permit. The very nature of the border also, because it wasn’t properly demarcated, meant there was little policing of migrants. 

But even in Bengal, particularly in Assam, you see the refugee-migrant difference coming up in the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Bill, 1950 which was enacted two months after the Constitution came into force – this was actually initially called the ‘Undesirable Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Bill’, the name was changed after a very complicated debate in the Provisional Parliament. Now we can see in this Bill that the Central Government has a lot of untrammelled power to order expulsion of certain immigrants:

If the Central Government is of opinion that any person or class of persons, having been ordinarily resident in any place outside India, has or have, whether before or after the commencement of this Act, come into Assam and that the stay of such person or class of persons in Assam is detrimental to the interests of the general public of India or of any section thereof or of any Scheduled Tribe in Assam, the Central Government may by order— 

(a) direct such person or class of persons to remove himself or themselves from India or Assam within such time and by such route as may be specified in the order; and 

(b) give such further directions in regard to his or their removal from India or Assam as it may consider necessary or expedient: 

Provided that nothing in this section shall apply to any person who on account of civil disturbances or the fear of such disturbances in any area now forming part of Pakistan has been displaced from or has left his place of residence in such area and who has been subsequently residing in Assam.’

This is to do with migrants, and the proviso very clearly says that this doesn’t apply to refugees. What we should think about is how similar this language and this provision is to the raison d’être of the CAA 2019. When this was discussed in the Provisional Parliament, the religious difference was very clear. It was very clear for everybody talking about the bill that reference to outside of India was only construed as Pakistan, and that too East Bengal. There were two lakh Nepali people working in tea gardens in Assam, but because they were told they were in language and religion akin to our people, this would not apply to them. That’s interesting because while Bengali and Assamese are undoubtedly different languages, Bengali, Assamese, and Nepali are also different languages. So it’s not a question of language but merely a question of religion. Now this had again emerged out of a similar fear as the return of migrants across the western border, and this will come out of this fear of Muslim migration in Assam that preceded the Partition of India, and the movement of lakhs of ‘undesirable immigrants’ (Sardar B. S. Mann, from West Punjab) who are likely to be a source of ‘separatism…with the old League mentality and outlook’ (Biswanath Das, Parliamentary Debates 08.02.1950). And these people, Muslim Bengalis, are viewed as coming with a ‘careful and calculated intent…to a country over which they have not the least claim after Partition’. Look at the language here – now ‘all those who emigrated on account of civil disturbances, are only to be construed as non-Muslims’, as ‘those who have no place in Pakistan and are thrown out mercilessly’, again this trope of the violent Pakistani populace against Hindus and Sikhs.

In conclusion, I’m going to summarize what the main argument of both the pieces we discussed were. The first, by Niraja Jayal, is that the initial definition of citizenship has been understood to be predicated on jus soli with ‘domicile and descent complementing rather than undermining citizenship based on birth in BOTH India and Pakistan, but that has changed over time to take more elements of jus sanguinis. Joya Chatterji takes a broader picture, looks at the Indian diaspora, and argues that not only did India and Pakistan move away from jus soli, they also moved away from conventional jus sanguinis, to prevent undesirables who formed part of the diaspora from returning to India. What I actually think is significant over here is the idea that there hasn’t been a movement towards jus sanguinis as such but there’s always been this underlying current. I wanted to think about what this means in the context of citizenship in India, and what this means in the context of constitutional guarantees of equal citizenship and secularism.

Citizenship and the Eastern Partition

This is a guest post by Malavika Prasad. She is an advocate and doctoral fellow at the NALSAR University of Law. She has served as an advocate in the Supreme Court of India and other courts. Presently, she is also a senior editor at Law and Other Things.


 “For most people who live alongside it, the border between India and Bangladesh is a chimera.”

– Urvashi Butalia[*]

On the day the Indian republic came into being, one could be an Indian citizen in two key ways. Those with domicile in free India were eligible for citizenship if born in free India, or to Indian parents, or if ordinarily resident in territory that was now Indian in the past five years.[1]  Those without domicile in free India, being ordinarily resident outside British India and the princely states,[2] could be citizens if they had a connection to India by birth.[3]

However, Partition had created a third category of people: those who lacked Indian domicile despite being linked to British India by birth and residence because their permanent homes were now in Pakistan. For them, the Constitution made an exception from the general rule. If they came to India before 19 July 1948, they had to have resided in India since their arrival to establish an intention to be an Indian citizen. If they came to India after 19 July 1948, or had gone to Pakistan and sought to return to India on permits for resettlement or permanent return, registration as a citizen after a minimum of six months’ stay in India was necessary.[4]

These provisions betray no consideration of the unique circumstances of Partition on the East. This piece is a brief exploration of how this came to be. Closely reading these debates reveals that the citizenship crisis of the East is a crisis that was incipient and looming even when the Constitution was framed.

Histories of Eastern Migration

The Boundary Commission drew the border between India and Pakistan over just a few weeks, both in the West and the East.  Helmed by an Englishman, Sir Cyril Radcliffe (whose ignorance of the soon-to-be borderlands was taken to be a guarantee of impartiality), the top-down partition of India was unmindful of the social histories of migration in Eastern India.

After the British annexed Assam in 1826, they acquired land on a large scale by displacing locals to run tea, jute, oil and other enterprises.[5] Tea workers were recruited from Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and other regions[6] and settled in Assam.[7] These labourers were deliberately isolated from the locals at the behest of the tea industry management.[8] Likewise, the low-lying floodplains of the Brahmaputra were used for cultivation of jute, for which the settlement of East Bengali peasants was encouraged.[9] The peasants moved upstream along the Brahmaputra and eastwards into Assam from eastern Bengal in such large numbers that they outnumbered the locals.[10] As social networks in the region grew, (largely Muslim) migrant labourers started coming on their own[11] and did not face resistance till the last two decades of colonial rule.[12]

With the evolution of transportation technology towards achieving “imperatives of the empire” such as “security, profit, and cheap but safe governance”, movement of labour became easier.[13] Much of the highly localized migration was ecologically determined by the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers flooding fields or swallowing up islands[14] as they cut new courses to the sea[15] — a phenomenon that continues to determine micro-migration to the present day.[16] The economic depression and the Second World War only heightened the desperation of these labourers as well as the need for labour.[17]Of course, white-collar migration for administrative and clerical jobs serving the Raj also commenced over time, with large numbers of Hindu Bengalis heading to Orissa, Bihar, Bombay, United Provinces, the Punjab, and Assam.[18]

To give you a sense of the numbers, by 1931, scholars note that“…6 million persons had moved within and from the greater Bengal region, a number already twice as large as the entire Indian diaspora worldwide  in 1947 and almost twice the size of the Chinese diaspora in the USA in 2010.[19] By 1931, the Bengali-speaking population in Assam was double the number of Assamese-speaking persons.[20] In Tripura alone, scholars have noted that the indigenous tribes had stopped being a “decisive majority” on the eve of partition due to Bengali migration.[21] Given their huge socioeconomic and cultural consequences,[22] these migrations cannot be overlooked merely because international borders were not crossed.[23] Moreover, this internal migration with a five decade history was suddenly transformed into an international one when the eastern border was drawn.[24]

Impact of the Eastern Partition  

Dominant narratives of the eastern partition focus only on linguistic and religious identities of migrants and refugees. However, even wherethe border did indeed separateBengali majority areas from others(such as in Tripura and Assam)“…it was often a case of Bengalis (both Muslims and Hindus) on one side and non-Bengali Christians or Buddhists on the other…[25]

Further examination also reveals the caste, class, and gendered impacts of the eastern Partition. For instance, in West Bengal, the first to arrive were upper caste and upper and middle class Hindus of East Bengal. Dalit refugees came only after the riots of 1949 and 1950.[26]

The landed and middle class were motivated by the fear of violence, the loss of social status, and the feeling that they may be better off in a land of ‘their own people’. On the other hand, the peasant class only moved when faced with “extreme violence or …intolerable hardship”, such as in the communal violence in 1949 and 1950.[27] While peasants were three quarters of the Hindu population of East Bengal, they were only forty percent of the Hindu refugees in West Bengal.[28] 

Among upper caste refugees, women occupied a position of “power and powerlessness in a national context.”[29] In public imagery, they were depicted in the public sphere,[30] which led to a narrative of agency. However, many such women were actually thrust into land grabbing for squatting, and later, into (sometimes violent) political agitations against eviction.[31]

In literature, the squalor in the Sealdah station – as refugees awaited allocation to a government refugee camp – forms the turning point for upper caste women getting into politics. However, Sealdah is barely a footnote in the ‘legacies of vulnerability’ inherited by the Dalit women refugee.[32] While upper caste women could rebuild their lives and look back upon the trauma of refugeehood, Dalit women refugees were consigned to a refugeehood that continues to the present day.[33] While upper caste women entering the labour market was seen as a “feminist triumph”,[34] Dalit women – having always been involved in wage labour – continued to do so post Partition, only without the family as a support system in their second full shift of domestic labour.[35]

Rehabilitation schemes entailing land and loans was implicitly designed for the able-bodied male refugee. For “unattached” women, rehabilitation came only in the form of training for (gendered and often low-paying) vocations, with the aim of keeping them occupied.[36] By 1957, when a comprehensive rehabilitation policy was introduced, women stood marginalized – along with families that lacked able-bodied men.[37] They were seen as economically non-productive, perennially dependent, and unworthy of rehabilitation but in need of relief.[38] Thus, the right to a social identity was taken away from women refugees who were not “attached” to a heteropatriarchal family of some type.

Outside of Bengal, the binaries of religion (which were particularly nationalistic) and language (which privileged the border between East and West Bengal where “non-Muslim” did indeed overwhelmingly mean “Hindus”) gave way to a deeper complexity along ethnic lines.[39] For instance, the border sliced through Garo[40] and Rakhaing communities and their trade and solidarity networks. Yet, the terms on which Partition was executed, flattened the vocabulary for these gender, ethnic, caste, and class contexts into the simplistic and reductive categories of linguistic and religious identity. This oversimplification of the communities of the Eastern border continues in popular discourse to the present day.

The Resulting Citizenship Question

When citizenship was debated in the Constituent Assembly, the eastern border and its communities as well as the many histories of migration prior to Partition, barely came up. In fact, the migration in the West almost exclusively fed the concept of citizenship that was encoded into the Constitution.[41] The reason the Assembly was so preoccupied with the refugee crisis on the Western border was that it was seen as intractable, unlike that on the East.

The consensus between the two dominions at the time had been to refrain from exchanging their minority populations, except in Punjab.[42] They had arranged instead to maintain reciprocity[43] — in that each nation would treat its religious minority in the same way as the other would treat its minority, while the borders would remain porous.[44] However, the commitment to reciprocity started breaking down as the Indian government decided to aid the evacuation of Sikhs and Hindus from Sind in the wake of the January 1948 Karachi riots.[45] Soon after, the border came to be regulated through the permit system, to tackle what was perceived to be a “one way traffic” to India – of Muslims.[46]The heavy handed enforcement of the permit system[47] was seen as necessary because of the economic consideration of how to rehabilitate returning Muslims who had once fled India; their homes had already been allotted, under evacuee property laws, to Hindu and Sikh refugees who came in from Pakistan.[48]

In comparison, no permit policy was introduced to regulate the Eastern migration. Since there were significant economic interests at stake for West Bengal in permitting continued migration,[49] it was hoped that the reciprocity arrangements would persuade “migrants to stay in place.”[50] When refugees continued to pour in nevertheless, the political leadership viewed the influx as fundamentally reversible.[51] Thus, the Eastern migration fell by the wayside of the Constituent Assembly’s attention.[52]

The limited context in which the Eastern migration was considered in the Assembly was at the behest of R K Chaudhury, for two classes of people. First were the migrants from East Bengal who had come to West Bengal or Assam “out of fear of disturbance in the future or from a sense of insecurity”.[53] The second were those who belonged to Sylhet[54] when it was a part of Assam, and thus continued to reside in Assam even after Sylhet was partitioned and restored to East Bengal. The partition of Sylhet caused mass migrations of Sylhet’s Bengali Hindus[55] – who probably feared violence or unsettled livelihoods – to the Barak valley[56] and the princely state of Tripura.[57] Those who remained in Assam, Chaudhary pointed out, could not now be expected to return to East Bengal, even if their reasons for being in Assam to begin with were business or government employment.[58]

Sylheti workers, no doubt, were being cut off from Assam’s tea gardens as well as Calcutta’s merchant marine as they were viewed as “Pakistani” after Partition.[59] However, Chaudhury’s centering of Sylhet reveals a concern for only a particular demographic, of the many whose lives were upended by Partition. To put it plainly, he had no interest in enfranchising recent Muslim migrants to Assam.[60] In his view, at least some Muslims were being settled there by the Muslim League to shore up the state’s Muslim population (perhaps with the aim of having the entirety of Assam be assigned to East Bengal in partition[61]). Despite his advocacy, the framers of the Constitution were committed to the secular and universally framed citizenship provisions[62] even if they opened the door for a free-for-all migration to Assam.

The Looming Citizenship Crisis

The Constitution’s citizenship provisions came into effect on 26 November 1949. The eastern border came to be regulated by the passport system only in 1952.[63]

Migration, which was otherwise unremarkable in the Bengal delta, had become galvanised by Partition into a continuous process; displacement was now “an inescapable part of [their] reality”.[64]  In West Bengal alone, about 20-30 lakh refugees from East Bengal had settled there per the 1951 and 1961 census.[65] By July 1958, the state government decided it would house no more refugees in the state,[66] and forcibly movedthem – an overwhelming number of whom were Dalit – to camps in (non arable, non irrigated) lands outside the state.[67] Tripura saw about 5 lakh partition-refugees from East Bengal between 1947-1958; after suffering significant impacts on its local cultivation, land use and demographic patterns, the registration of refugees was stopped.[68] In Assam, members in the Lok Sabha contended that “that as many as 4 ½ lakhs of Muslims … [had] crossed the border … after the attainment of Independence.”[69] To allay old concerns about the exploitation of Assam, Parliament passed the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act  in 1950.[70]

When Parliament was considering the Citizenship Bill in 1955, the long-drawn migration induced by partition was yet to unfold. Once again, there were proposals to treat Hindu and Muslim refugees differentially in the citizenship law;[71] once again, the framers of the Act declined to do so. All refugees from Partition were eligible to be Indian citizens through a single secular, and neutrally applicable provision. They would have to register themselves as citizens under Section 5 of the Act. Tellingly, the law permitted citizenship by descent only through the male line – in keeping with the State’s apathy towards unattached women.

By the 1970s, the numbers of refugees in West Bengal had doubled to about 60 lakhs.[72] The mass movement of refugees into India[73] triggered by the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971 only aggravated the migration crisis.[74] Tripura’s tribals turned into a minority.[75] In Assam, a new crisis was brewing.

It was claimed that the influx of refugees had resulted in about 31 to 34% of the State’s population (about 50 lakh persons per the 1971 Census) being “foreigners”, and that a substantial number of them were even on the electoral rolls.[76] Championing this claim was the All Assam Students Union. Their agitation culminated in 1985 in the signing of the Assam Accord[77] – a political rapprochement between the central government and the Union stipulating that “a) all those who had migrated before 1966 would be treated as citizens; (b) those who had migrated between 1966 and 1971 could stay provided they put themselves through an official process of registration as foreigners; and (c) all those who migrated thereafter were simply illegal immigrants.”[78] Thus was born the 1985 amendment to the Citizenship Act by which the Indian citizen was defined in opposition to a “foreigner”.[79]

The Incipient and Looming Citizenship Crisis

A “foreigner” under the Foreigners Act, 1946 is “a person who is not a citizen of India”.[80] For this definition to be meaningful, the citizen needs to have a fixed meaning – with citizenship being tethered to the fact of birth or domicile. Only then can its photo-negative be the foreigner.

However, the top-down imposition of the Eastern border onto the many histories of migration in the region, at once transformed those who were once Indian into “foreigners”. Moreover, the many caste, gender, class, and ethnic impacts of Partition were papered over by the dominant political narratives on religious and linguistic lines. Ultimately, it was those who were rendered foreigners – by the creation of the Indian state and its dominant political narratives – that were sought to be kept out by the 1985 amendment.

This raises a question that ought to cause alarm. With the 1985 amendment, the existence of the foreigner constitutes and informs the definition of the citizen.[81] It appears then that the citizen in India, far from being a fixed and pre-defined entity, can be reified only in relation to the foreigner. If the citizen can be only understood informed by the foreigner, and the foreigner is inherently politically contingent, who really is an Indian citizen?

 


[*] Urvashi Butalia, The Nowhere People, Seminar 2003.

[1] Article 5 of the Constitution.

[2] Articles 6 and 7, as well as Article 8, use as their reference point, “India as defined in the Government of India Act, 1935 (as originally enacted)…”, which includes both British India as well as the princely states. See Section 311(1) of the Government of India Act, 1935: ““India” means British India together with all territories of any Indian Ruler under the suzerainty of His Majesty, all territories under the suzerainty of such an Indian Ruler, the tribal areas, and any other territories which His Majesty in Council may, from time to time, after ascertaining the views of the Federal Government and the Federal Legislature, declare to be part of India.”

[3] That is, they had to be born in British India or the princely states (or to parents or grandparents who were born there) and register themselves in the Indian consulate, signaling their intention to be Indian. See Article 8 of the Constitution..

[4] Articles 6 and 7 of the Constitution of India.

[5] Walter Fernandes, IMDT Act and Immigration in North-Eastern India, The Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 40(30) 3237-3240, 3239. Fernandes notes that tribal lands inherently were “community owned according to tribal customary law” while mainstream Indian laws recognized land as a private property right. Thus, the “disjunction between the systems” made the land susceptible to easy encroachment by immigrants whose only transferable skill was cultivation. Immigration, in Fernandes’ thesis, must be understood for the deeply economic issue it is, rather than being flattened into an ethnic or linguistic issue. Of the colonial project of dispossessing the indigenous communities of their land, Sanjib Baruah writes“…There were frequent attacks on the plantations by “tribesmen” protesting their dispossession during the early years of tea in Assam. Colonial writings portrayed them as marauding barbarians. The Inner Line… was an attempt to fence off the plantations and cordon off areas of clear, cemented colonial rule.” Sanjib Baruah, In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast (Stanford University Press, 2020), 31;

[6] The tea industry was “built on indentured labour from Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and other regions where the Permanent Settlement 1793 and the zamindari system had displaced people on a large scale”, writes Fernandes. Walter Fernandes, 3239.

[7] Sanjib Baruah(2020), 50 (footnotes omitted).

[8] Walter Fernandes, 3239.

[9] Sanjib Baruah (2020), 50.

[10] Claire Alexander, Joya Chatterji, Annu Jalais, The Bengal Diaspora Rethinking Muslim Migration, 39-40 (Routledge 2015). See also Mohammed Mahbubar Rahman and Willem van Schendel, I am Not a Refugee, Rethinking Partition Migration, Modern Asian Studies 37(3), 551-584, 582 fn71.

[11] Amalendu Guha records that in the first half of the 20th century, 85% of the landless immigrants from East Bengal to Assam alone were Muslim, despite the “line system” implemented to regulate the in-bound migrant communities, which changed the face of Assamese politics significantly. See generally Amalendu Guha, East Bengal Immigrants and Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani in Assam Politics, 1928-47, The Indian Economic & Social History Review13(4), 419–452. These Muslims of the Brahmaputra valley went on to adopt Assamese as their first language. Sanjib Baruah (2020) 53-54.

[12] Sanjib Baruah (2020) 50-51.

[13] Alexander, Chatterji and Jalais 26.

[14] See Alexander, Chatterji and Jalais, The Bengal Diaspora, 64-66, on mobile agriculturists from Malda and Chapai who routinely ‘lost their land to the river’, lived in bamboo huts that can be assembled and disassembled with ease, and capitalized on their years of acquired “mobility capital” to migrate after partition being “remarkably free of any ideological baggage committing them particularly to a nation, whether Pakistan, India, or Bangladesh.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Rohini Mohan, Lakhs Of The Most Marginalised Women In Assam’s River Islands Risk Becoming Stateless, Huffington Post, 7 August 2018 https://www.huffingtonpost.in/2018/08/07/lakhs-of-the-most-marginalised-women-in-assam-s-river-islands-risk-becoming-stateless_a_23497234/

[17] Alexander, Chatterji and Jalais, 39-40.

[18] Alexander, Chatterji and Jalais, 32; Sanjib Baruah (2020), 51; Thongkholal Haokip, Inter Ethnic Relations in Meghalaya, Asian Ethnicity 15(3) (2014): 302-316, 305.

[19] Alexander, Chatterji and Jalais, 28 (footnotes omitted).

[20] Navine Murshid, Assam and the Foreigner Within, Asian Survey 56(3) 581-604, 599.

[21] Subir Bhaumik, Disaster in Tripura, Seminar 2002, https://www.india-seminar.com/2002/510/510%20subir%20bhaumik.htm, citing H.L. Chatterji, ‘Glimpses of Tripura’s History’, Tripura Review, 15 August 1972.

[22] See Madhumita Sengupta, Historiography of the Formation of Assamese Identity A Review, Peace and Democracy in South Asia, Volume 2, 121-34 for a review of the literature on the consequences in Assam; Udayon Misra, Immigration and Identity Transformation in Assam, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 34(21) (May 22-28, 1999), pp. 1264-1271.

[23] See generally, chapter 1 “Prehistories of mobility and immobility: The Bengal delta and the ‘eastern zone’ 1857-1947” in Alexander, Chatterji and Jalais.

[24] Willem van Schendel, The Bengal Borderland 192 (Anthem Press 2004) 210-211.

[25] Willem van Schendel, 47.

[26] “…Yet this was also when the refugee crisis assumed such “desperate proportions that Government officials were at a loss to find accommodation for their rehabilitation.” Dwaipayan Sen, The Decline of the Caste Question 219 (Cambridge University Press 2018); See also Sarbani Bannerjee, Different Identity Formations in Bengal Partition Narratives by Dalit Refugees, Interventions (2017), 2.

[27] See Joya Chatterji, The Spoils of Partition: Bengal and India 1947-67, 111-118 (CUP 2007). See also Uditi Sen, Spinster Prostitute or Pioneer? Images of Refugee Women in Post- Partition Calcutta 3-6(European University Institute Working Papers 2011/34).

[28] Chatterji (2007) 118.

[29] Paulomi Chakraborty, The Refugee Woman Partition of Bengal, Gender and the Political 19 (OUP 2018).

[30] Uditi Sen, 7.

[31] Uditi Sen, 10-12.

[32] Ekata Bakshi, Marginal Women A Study of Partition-induced (1947) Forced Migration through the Lens of Caste and Labour in Vijaya Rao et al. (eds.), Displacement and Citizenship: Histories and Memories of Exclusion 138 (Tulika Books 2020).

[33] Ibid, 141.

[34] Uditi Sen, Citizen Refugees Forging the Indian Nation After Partition 238-39 (CUP 2018).

[35] Ekata Bakshi, 143 – 145.

[36] See Uditi Sen, 2018, Chapter 5.

[37] Uditi Sen, 8.

[38] Uditi Sen, 2018, 210 -218.

[39] Willem van Schendel, 47-48.

[40] S K Chaube points to the Garo areas of Mymensingh and Rangpur which went to East Bengal (and border present day Meghalaya), the Khasi regions of Sylhet, and the Kuki-chin areas of the Chittagong Hill tract. See S K Chaube, Hill Politics in North-east India 85-86 (Orient Blackswan 1999).Haokip, ibid.

[41] See Abhinav Chandrachud, Secularism and the Citizenship Amendment Act, Indian Law Review, 4(2) (2020) 138-162.

[42] Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar, The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia, 39-41(Columbia University Press, 2007).

[43] The Inter Dominion Agreement, 1948 stating that both India and Pakistan “are determined to take every possible step to discourage such exodus and to create such conditions as would check mass exodus in either direction, and would encourage and facilitate as far as possible the return of evacuees to their ancestral homes.” See Pallavi Raghavan, Animosity at Bay, 60 (Harper Collins 2020). Likewise, in 1950, the Nehru-Liaqat Pact was enacted. Pallavi Raghavan finds that “this was a remarkable agreement, making the governments, for the first time, formally accountable to one another for the welfare of their minorities.” Pallavi Raghavan, The Making of South Asia’s Minorities, EPW LI(21) May 2016, 45.

[44] Zamindar 71-72; See Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Statement on Partition Issues Between India and Pakistan, 12 December 1947, The Constituent Assembly of India (Legislative) Debates, Official Report, Vol III, 1810, https://eparlib.nic.in/bitstream/123456789/760070/1/cald_01_12-12-1947.pdf#search=null%201947

[45] Zamindar, 53.

[46] Zamindar, 94. Through this system, those who sought to permanently relocate to India needed a permit for permanent return or a permit for resettlement. See Section 3, Influx from West Pakistan (Control) Ordinance, 1948, (Ordinance XVII of 1948), https://archive.org/details/in.gazette.e.1948.41/page/n1/mode/2up/search/Influx+from+Pakistan+(Control+)+Ordinance?q=Influx+from+Pakistan+%28Control+%29+Ordinance. This was later superseded by the Ordinance XXXIV of 1948, with effect from 10th November 1948, https://archive.org/details/in.gazette.e.1948.148/mode/2up/search/%22Influx+from+Pakistan%22?q=%22Influx+from+Pakistan%22 which went on to be superseded by the Influx from Pakistan (Control) Act, 1949, Act no. XXIII of 1949, with effect from April 22, 1949. The Influx Ordinances did not state that there would be different kinds of permits depending on the duration of stay or the intention of the migrant – a detail that was announced through the Rules. See Rules Regarding Permit System Introduced Between West Pakistan and India, dated 7th September 1948 issued under the Influx from West Pakistan (Control) Ordinance, 1948, https://archive.org/details/in.gazette.e.1948.84/mode/1up/search/Influx+from+Pakistan+(Control+)+Ordinance?q=Influx+from+Pakistan+%28Control+%29+Ordinance (last accessed on 28 April 2020).

[47] The Indian High Commission in Karachi was instructed not to issue permits to those Muslims who had initially intended to permanently migrate to Pakistan, and now sought to return. Joya Chatterji, South Asian Histories of Citizenship 1946-1970, The Historical Journal (2012) 55(4), 1049-1071, 1063.

[48] See for instance Speech of Gopalaswami Ayyangar, Constituent Assembly Debates 12 August 1949, Vol. 9.117.116-123. Hindu and Sikh refugees crossing the western border were sought to be rehabilitated, temporarily, in the homes of Muslim who fled in the wake of the September 1947 Delhi riots.What actually happened was that incoming refugees who had forcibly occupied the homes of fleeing Muslims, were allowed to keep them, thus leaving the owners of the homes unable to return to them after the riots ended. Zamindar, 28-9. Several of those who fled the riots moved to the refugee camp in Purana Qila and even boarded trains to Pakistan. Zamindar, 26-31, Zamindar writes of the camp at Purana Qila, which was taken over by the Indian Government in September 1947: “The camp at Purana Qila emerged as some 12,000 government employees who had “opted” to work for Pakistan and their families (who had initially congregated at the Transfer Office of the Pakistan government) were moved there by the Pakistani High Commission, until travel arrangements could be made for their departure to Pakistan. As word spread, other Muslims seeking refuge, with or without intentions to go to Pakistan, also came to Purana Qila, and within days over 50,000 Muslims of Delhi had taken refuge there… However, from the start it was suggested that “those in Purana Qila be separated into two lots,” those wanting to go to Pakistan and “those who wished to stay.” … the “general feeling” in the Emergency Committee was that there was “reason to believe that 90 percent wish to go out” or “would want to go to Pakistan.” Given that in fact most of the Muslims in Purana Qila did leave for Pakistan, it would seem that the estimates of the Emergency Committee were accurate. However, one report to the Emergency Committee noted that “[e]xact figures for the latter two categories [go to Pakistan or back to city] are extremely difficult—as large numbers have not as yet finally made up their minds.” See p. 34-37.

[49] Speech of Gopalaswami Ayyangar, Constituent Assembly Debates 12th August 1949, Volume 9.117.114. He went on to express a fear that any permit system may be administered in a discriminatory manner by overzealous officials: “It is said, for instance, that Assam wanted a permit system to be applied as between East Bengal and Assam. The Assam Government and the Government of India have discussed the matter between themselves. They have held more than one conference for the purpose of arriving at a solution of this trouble. And I shall not be revealing a secret if I say that at the last conference we had on this, subject, the general consensus of opinion amongst both representatives of the Government of India and the representatives of Assam was that it was not wise to introduce anything like a permit system between East Bengal and Assam on the same lines a obtain between West Pakistan and India. There are complications which perhaps it is unnecessary for me to go into in detail. One very big complication is the repercussion it will have as regards the movement of persons between East and West Bengal. Now, by permitting the extension of the, Permit system as it works between West Pakistan and India to the area between East Bengal and Assam, we shall be inviting Pakistan to introduce such a system as between East and West Bengal and I only mention this to people who are acquainted with both West Bengal and Assam for them to realize all the enormous complications, on the economy of West Bengal which it will entail. The last conference merely came to the conclusion that we should seek and apply other methods for preventing or mitigating the influx of a large number of Muslims from East Bengal to Assam …”  Raghavan writes “…[d] elegates at the Calcutta conference acknowledged that the economic viability of the region as a whole rested partly on the traditional networks of commerce and migration”. Pallavi Raghavan, The Making of South Asia’s Minorities, EPW, 45.

[50] In October 1948, some leaders met to discuss the possibility of a complete exchange of minority populations, to prevent such mass migrations from East Bengal. With alternatives like redrawing the Radcliffe line being out of question, reciprocal arrangements of accountability were the only way out.  Thus came into being the Inter Dominion Agreement, 1948 and the Nehru-Liaqat Pact, 1950. Pallavi Raghavan, EPW, 47-49.

[51] Chatterji notes the views of Prime Minister Nehru on influx of refugees on the east as,“…the product of largely imaginary fears and baseless rumours, not the consequence of palpable threats to Hindu life, limb and property.” In her words, “Long after the exodus from the east had begun, Nehru continued to delude himself that it could be halted, even reversed, provided government in Dacca could somehow be persuaded to deploy ‘psychological measures’ and restore confidence among the Hindu minorities who were leaving in droves.” Joya Chatterji (2007) 129. See also, Niraja Gopal Jayal, Citizenship and its Discontents 63 (Harvard University Press 2013).

[52] Niraja Gopal Jayal 62-68.

[53] RK Chaudhury, Constituent Assembly Debates 12 August 1949, Vol 9.117.97.

[54] Sylhet in the Surma valley was a largely Muslim, Bengali district that was contiguous to East Bengal. After being incorporated into Assam in 1874 for “colonial administrative reasons”, Sylheti Hindus desired to be reunited with the more advanced Bengal while Sylheti Muslims preferred to remain in Assam where they had “a more powerful political voice than they would have had if they returned to a Muslim majority East Bengal.” Assamese locals, who were fearful of the possible hegemony Sylhetis would wield over their own people “with their earlier access to English education”, also supported its restoration to Bengal. Sanjib Baruah (2015), ibid; Madhumita Sengupta, Historiography of the Formation of Assamese Identity A Review, Peace and Democracy in South Asia, Volume 2, 122; Anindita Dasgupta, Remembering Sylhet: A Forgotten Story of India’s 1947 Partition, Economic and Political Weekly 43(31) 2008, 18-22, 19.

[55] Dasgupta, ibid. Sanjib Baruah is of the view Sylhet’s partition’s effects are seen to the present day, in the way politicians engage with the public in the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys. Baruah opines: “In election campaigns in the Brahmaputra Valley in Assam, ruling party politicians including Prime Minister Narendra Modi speak incessantly about expelling “Bangladeshis”. Then they opportunistically change their rhetoric in the Barak Valley where a fundamentally different set of memories of the Partition prevails because a large number of people displaced by the Partition live there.” Baruah explains that the rhetoric of expelling Bangladeshis/Bengalis would not be reassuring to those in the Barak Valley, who “have long been supporters of the BJP precisely because it has historically sided with Partition refugees” (by offering to put them on citizenship track) who were largely Hindu in that region. See Sanjib Baruah, Citizens, non-citizens, minorities, The Indian Express, 28 June 2018 https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/assam-citizenship-amendment-bill-protests-national-register-of-citizens-citizenship-immigrants-sarbanand-sonowal-5236229/; Baruah, 2020, 69-70.

[56] The Barak valley is an extension of the Surma Valley of present day Bangladesh comprising Sylhet district’s Karimganj, Cachar, and Hailakandi. In Assam, Partition was experienced differently in the largely Bengali speaking Barak valley in southern Assam and the largely Assamese speaking Brahmaputra valley, further north. Sanjib Baruah, Partition and Politics of Citizenship in Assam, in Urvashi Butalia (ed.), Partition The Long Shadow (Zubaan 2015).

[57] Baruah (2015).

[58] Speech of RK Chaudhury, Constituent Assembly Debates 12 August 1949, Vol 9.117.95-103.

[59] Claire Alexander, 73.

[60] They had “… not long ago set up the struggle for Pakistan, they had not long before taken an active part in compelling the politicians of India to agree for partition”, and were only here to“exploit”Assam, he declared. Speech of R K Chaudhury, Constituent Assembly Debates 12 August 1949, 9.117.98-104. On the scapegoating of Bengali Muslims, see van Schendel, 211-212.

[61] See Udayon Misra, Burden of History Assam and the Partition- Unresolved Issues 63-85 (OUP Kindle Edition 2017).

[62] For instance, Ambedkar, without explicitly addressing the concerns of traditionally migrant labour communities, affirmed the secular ideal of Article 6 with the following speech: “…the criticism has mainly come from the representatives of Assam particularly as voiced by my friend Mr. Rohini Kumar Chaudhuri. If I understood him correctly his contention was that these articles relating to immigrants from Pakistan to India have left the gates open both for Bengalis as well as Muslims coming form East Bengal into Assam and either disturbing their economy or disturbing the balance of communal proportions in that province. I think, Sir he has entirely misunderstood the purport of the articles which deal with immigrants from Pakistan to India. If he will read the provisions again, he will find that it is only with regard to those who have entered Assam before 19th July 1948, that they have been declared, automatically so to say, citizens of Assam if they have resided within the territory of India. But with regard to those who, have entered Assam, whether they are Hindu Bengalees or whether they are Muslims, after the 19th July 1948, he will find that citizenship is not an automatic business at all. There are three conditions laid down for persons who have entered Assam after the 19th July 1948. …there is a very severe condition, namely that he must be registered by, an officer appointed by the Government of the Dominion of India. I would like to state very categorically that this registration power is a plenary power. The mere fact that a man has made an application, the mere fact that he has resided for six months in Assam, would not involve any responsibility or duty or obligation on registering officer to register him. Notwithstanding  that there is an application, notwithstanding that he has resided for six months, the officer will still have enough discretion left in him to decide whether he should be registered or he should not be registered. In other words, the officer would be entitled to examine, on such material as he may have before him, the purport for which he has come, such as whether he has come with a bona fide motive of becoming a permanent citizen of India or whether he has come with any other purpose. Now, it seems to me that having regard to these three limiting conditions which are made applicable to persons who enter Assam after 19th July 1948, any fear such as the one which has been expressed by my Friend Mr. Rohini Kumar Chaudhuri that the flood-gates will be opened to swamp the Assamese people either by Bengalees or by Muslims, seems to me to be utterly unfounded. If he has any objection to those who have entered Bengal before 19th July 1948- in this case on a showing that the man has resided in India, citizenship becomes automatic-no doubt that matter will be dealt with by Parliament under any law that may be made under article 6. If my friends from Assam will be able to convince Parliament that those who have entered Assam before 19th July 1948 should, for any reason that they may have in mind or they may like to put before Parliament, be disqualified, I have no doubt that Parliament will take that matter into consideration. Therefore, so far as the criticism of these articles relating to immigrants from Pakistan to Assam is concerned, I submit it is entirely unfounded.”. See Speech of Ambedkar, 12 August 1949, 9,117.138-9.

[63] Haimanti Roy, Partitioned Lives: Migrants, Refugees, Citizens in India and Pakistan, 1947-65 History Faculty Publications (2012) Paper 21; Haimanti Roy, Paper Rights: The Emergence of Documentary Identities in Post-Colonial India, 1950-67, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 39(2), 329-349.

[64] Jasodhara Bagchi and Subhoranjan Dasgupta, The Problem, Seminar 2002.

[65] Joya Chatterji (2007) 119.

[66] This has prompted scholars to note that refugees largely were left to their own devices to settle and rehabilitate themselves, by grabbing and squatting on available, unoccupied lands, educating themselves and earning livelihoods. Joya Chatterji (2007)141-148. By 1973, 15% of West Bengal was comprised of refugees.

[67] They were settled in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, and the Dandakaranya region, comprising 80,000 square miles spanning the “Bastar district of Madhya Pradesh, the Koraput and Kalahandi districts of Orissa, and the Agency Tracts of Andhra Pradesh.” Sen, 211-9. See also Sarbani Bannerjee, 3, citing Basu Guha-Choudhury, 2009, 66-67.This posed the additional cost of impacting the settled lives of the local adivasi communities. Joya Chatterji (2007) 135-140.

[68] Nilanjan De, Partition of India and its Immediate Effect on Jhum Cultivation of Tripura, International Journal of Social Science & Interdisciplinary Research 1(8), August 2012, 185-190.

[69] Speech of Buragohian, Lok Sabha Debates 8 Feb 1950, 321.

[70] The Act permitted the ejection of classes of persons who had come into Assam although “ordinarily resident… outside India”, so long as they were not fleeing civil disturbances. See Section 2, Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950..

[71] Pandit Thakur Das Bhargava, Lok Sabha Debates 8 August 1955, 9614-16: ““I know there are people who are evil-minded and who want to see trouble created in India, who would go to Kashmir and do all sorts of things, who would go to Assam and do all sorts of things. I am therefore clear in my mind that so far as citizenship is concerned, so far as Pakistan nationals are concerned, citizenship should be circumscribed with conditions and restrictions, so that the security of our State is not adversely affected. I am perfectly clear in my mind that this can be done very easily. In the exodus, lakhs and lakhs of people, are coming. They are coming at the rate of 30,000 a month. They are Hindus as well as Muslims. Now, the question arises: in our secular State, can we distinguish between Hindus and Muslims, can we make different laws? I would submit there is no such impractical difficulty. …After all, Government have discretion in the matter; Government can deprive a person of his citizenship if he becomes a citizen. Government are rehabilitating certain people, giving them some help. Some people are coming to this country and they treat this country as their home, but others come for other purposes. As between the two, Government can very easily make a distinction, and they can have a law by which only those who come to this country for the purpose of real asylum and who are our brethren in every meaning of the word, should be allowed to become citizens and not others.” He went on to suggest, after the Bill was scrutinized by the Joint Parliamentary Committee: “We could say that those persons who have come from East Bengal before the 1st January, 1955 should ipso facto be regarded to have become the citizens of India without any registration, etc. … These persons of Indian origin have lost their citizenship of undivided India because you agreed to the partition of India. Those Hindus living in East Bengal are the potential citizens of this country. I know that our Government is unable to stem the tide of those who are coming from there into India… Registration is only for those who are not the real citizens of India, nor are rooted in the land of India, nor have a domicile in this country, not wanting to return to any other country.” Pandit Thakur Das Bhargava, Lok Sabha Debates, 3 December 1955, 1175-1177.

[72] Joya Chatterji (2007)120.

[73] Zaglul Haider, A Revisit to the Indian Role in the Bangladesh Liberation War, Journal of Asian and African Studies 2009, 44(5), 537, 541-542’ Antara Datta, Refugees and Borders in South Asia:The Great Exodus of 1971 (Routledge 2012).

[74] Subir Bhaumik, supra. The percentage of tribals was 63% in 1874, but only 28.44% in 1981.

[75] Zaglul Haider, 542. “According to an authoritative source, by the end of May 1971, nine million refugees had arrived in small hilly state of Tripura while the indigenous population of that state was only 1.5 million.”

[76] Sanjib Baruah (2015) 88.

[77] Memorandum of Settlement dt. 15 August 1985, signed between the AASU and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad, the Government of India and Government of Assam,  https://peacemaker.un.org/sites/peacemaker.un.org/files/IN_850815_Assam%20Accord.pdf.

[78] Niraja Gopal Jayal, 64.

[79] Statement of Objects and Reasons Amending Act 65 of 1985: The amendment’s objects read: “ 1. The core of the Memorandum of Settlement (Assam Accord) relates to the foreigners’ issue, since the agitation launched by the A.A.S.U arise out of their apprehensions regarding the continuing influx of foreign nationals into Assam and the fear about adverse effects upon the political, social, cultural and economic life of the State. 2. Assam Accord being a political settlement, legislation is required to give effect to the relevant clauses of the Assam Accord relating to the foreigners’ issue. 3. …”

[80] Section 2(a), Foreigners Act, 1946.

[81] Anupama Roy, Mapping Citizenship in India, 11-12 (OUP 2010). Ashna Ashesh and Arun K Thiruvengadam, Report on Citizenship Law: India 16 (European University Institute 2017).

Interview with Prof. Niraja Gopal Jayal

Niraja Gopal Jayal is Professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and Centennial Professor at the Department of Gender Studies, London School of Economics, London.  Her scholarship has focussed on citizenship, democracy, and governance. Her book Citizenship and Its Discontents (Harvard University Press, 2013) won the Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy Prize of the Association of Asian Studies in 2015. Her other books include Representing India: Ethnic Diversity and the Governance of Public Institutions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) and Democracy and the State: Welfare, Secularism and Development in Contemporary India (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has also edited Re-Forming India: the Nation Today (Penguin Random House, 2019) and Democracy in India (Oxford University Press, 2009), and has co-edited The Oxford Companion to Politics in India (Oxford University Press, 2010); Local Governance in India: Decentralization and Beyond (Oxford University Press, 2005); and Interrogating Social Capital: The Indian Experience (Sage, 2004), among others. She has held visiting appointments at King’s College, London; EHESS, Paris; Princeton University; University of Melbourne; and University of New South Wales.  In 2009, she delivered the Radhakrishnan Memorial Lecture at All Souls College, University of Oxford. Some of her recent articles and op-eds can be found here and here.

This interview was conducted over email and has been edited for length. 

Arunima Nair: Current arguments around citizenship have frequently highlighted a shift: that Indian laws have moved from citizenship based on birth in Indian territory (jus soli), to citizenship based on descent (jus sanguinis). In your book Citizenship and Its Discontents, you argue that India’s trajectory is not quite this linear. Could you elaborate on this?

Niraja Gopal Jayal: That was an argument about the historical trajectory of the idea of citizenship. The questioning of the linear narrative in my book (which, by the way, was published in 2013, when I did not anticipate that the CAA would gather such momentum in just a few years) was an attempt to jog historical memory and remind ourselves that jus soli was such an embattled idea even in the moment of constitution-making. Though it was eventually endorsed by the Constituent Assembly, Dr. Ambedkar alluded to how contentious it had been when he described the drafting of it as a “headache.” Subsequently, the Citizenship Act 1955 expressed this unambiguously, and the process of attrition only began in 1986 with the amendment to give effect to the Assam Accord of 1985. So we saw, first, the emergence of a conditional jus soli – citizenship by birth available unconditionally, and regardless of their parentage, only to those born before 1987, while a person born in India between 1987 and 2003 was required to have one parent who is an Indian citizen. From 2004, this became even more restrictive, making ineligible for citizenship by birth a person born in India who has one parent who is an “illegal migrant” at the time of his or her birth. The debates around these amendments articulate the very prejudices and arguments heard for a restrictive conception of citizenship in the Constituent Assembly. They are a sign of the constitutional settlement having been less stable than we assumed it to be.

AN: Are ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ used interchangeably in Indian politics? What are the histories of these words and their usage in India? 

NGJ: Before I explain the distinction, please note that the word migrant in India has in popular parlance (at least till before the migrant workers’ crisis in the shadow of the pandemic) been prefixed by the word ‘illegal.’ It is in the Citizenship Amendment Act 2003 – which came into effect in 2004 – that the term “illegal migrant” entered the law, signifying someone who has entered India without legal authorisation or stayed on without it. It was a dog-whistle reference to Bangladeshis in Assam and the northeast more generally. 

Technically, refugees are compelled to flee their country and seek refuge in another land, due to political or religious or other kinds of persecution, and this movement is involuntary. Migrants, on the other hand, are understood to move voluntarily, more often than not for economic reasons. Such movement is also presumed to be legal because migrants typically have visas or (depending on which part of the world we are speaking about) guest worker permits. At the time of the Partition, these two categories acquired religious and normative overtones, such that Hindus and Sikhs coming into India from their homes in what had now become Pakistan were referred to as refugees, deserving of succour. On the other hand, Muslims who left their homes in India for the newly created state of Pakistan, but chose to return to India to reclaim their lives and livelihoods after the violence had abated, were termed migrants, deemed to be undeserving of the same consideration because they had after all chosen to go to Pakistan in the first instance. 

This offers an interesting contrast with the contemporary Hindutva discourse which defines both countries in terms of religious identity, such that Pakistan is an Islamic nation while India is a Hindu nation rather than a secular multi-religious one. The construction of India as a nation in which its Hindu citizens are by definition privileged, was therefore not the dominant understanding of India in 1947-48, but has acquired currency in recent times with the politicisation of religion and religious identity in our polity.

The political usage of ‘illegal migrant’ in India has thus made explicit that encoded identity of migrant = Muslim, while refugee = Hindu. This usage is consistent with the long history of these terms in India. Note that refugees from Tibet or indeed Tamils from Sri Lanka are still referred to as refugees, fleeing persecution. The CAA, in a sense, imports this distinction into its use of religious categories. It implies that Muslims cannot, by definition, be refugees because they cannot be persecuted in the three Muslim-majority countries they come from. 

AN: The Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 requires applicants to prove that they belong to one (or more) of the six enumerated communities (Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis, Sikhs) from one of the three neighbouring countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan), but the rules for the Act are yet to be notified, and it is unclear how an applicant is supposed to prove this. However, is this the first time that the religion of applicants was explicitly referenced as a criteria for obtaining Indian citizenship? How can the administration determine religion in such cases? Also, how did the local administration determine the religion of migrants to be registered?

NGJ: The Ministry of Home Affairs has reportedly sought more time to frame the rules. The text of the Amendment Act certainly does not mention any requirement for proving religious affiliation, nor does it require the experience of persecution to be proved. In fact, one of the objections of the Intelligence Bureau (as recorded in the report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the CAB) was precisely this: that these provisions could be misused by “infiltrators” from neighbouring countries, presumably because they could claim to belong to one or other of these religions in order to gain entry for purposes such as espionage. It is baffling how functionaries in the local administration could determine anybody’s religious identity.

While this is the first time that religion has been explicitly mentioned as a criterion for determining citizenship, religion did find mention in the 2004 Rules of the Citizenship Act, which delegated limited duration powers to the District Collectors of border districts in Rajasthan and Gujarat to register people most of whom had come in from Pakistan after 1992, on Pakistani passports and valid visas that they had outstayed. The Rules invoke religion explicitly, as they refer to these people not as migrants, much less as ‘illegal migrants,’ but as ‘minority Hindus with Pakistan citizenship who have migrated to India….with the intention of permanently settling down in India…’ 

AN: One of the disproportionate effects of our current citizenship law is that children born after 2004 are particularly at risk of having their citizenship questioned in any verification exercise. This is because, per the Citizenship Act, any person born in India after 2004 is an Indian citizen by birth only if one parent is an Indian citizen AND the other parent is not an ‘illegal immigrant’. One example of how this has played out in practice is the NRC exercise in Assam: a child, who has a parent who’s either been declared a ‘doubtful voter’ or whose case is pending before a Foreigners Tribunal, will be excluded from the NRC on the basis of the Act. Is this creating a problem of inherited statelessness?

NGJ: Indeed it is. This is affecting people whose parent(s) may have come in 40 years ago, even likely have voted in elections. These individuals born after 2004 (who would today be 16 years of age or less) have known no other home but this. It is decidedly unjust to render them stateless and amounts to punishing them for something they had no control over – the place of their birth. The predicament of infants and children in the Assam NRC is deeply worrying.

AN: How have our citizenship laws historically grappled with (if they have at all) the statuses of women, Dalits, Adivasis, and other socially vulnerable groups?  Documentation is very  central to citizenship determination. But, as has been repeatedly pointed out, there’s a mismatch between the expectations of a formal legal regime and the sociological reality of Indians—particularly the poor, illiterate, and marginalised, who simply do not possess and cannot access any documents. And it isn’t just a question of the number and types of official documents—but the veracity of official documents themselves is constantly questioned, constantly challenged. Why is there such a pervasive suspicion of documents? Is this particularly acute in border states? Have government policies or judicial bodies taken note of this sociological reality in the context of citizenship?

NGJ: Let me phrase my response in terms of, first, a distinction between formal and substantive citizenship. The poor, minorities, Dalits, Adivasis and women belonging to all these groups enjoy the formal status of citizenship – but, for these groups, substantive citizenship, the ability to meaningfully exercise rights, is far from realized. 

Given the marginalisation and vulnerability of these groups, given the convergence between poverty and the absence of documents, and given the histories of prejudice in our society, these groups, more than others, will – through the instruments of the NRC/NPR – be pulled backwards, perhaps even deprived of the formal legal status of citizenship. For them, this would be a move from the substantively second-class citizenship they hold to formal legal second-class citizenship or worse; from an enfranchised status to potential disenfranchisement. This, if nothing else, should disturb our conscience.

Secondly, you are quite right about documents. It is a fact that the poor and disadvantaged are also historically the most poorly documented. The veracity of such documents as they possess is frequently called into question – in one case, the Bombay High Court deemed somebody’s passport as having been acquired by fraudulent means. As we saw very recently, poor people in Assam suffer the ravages of floods almost every year, and papers are regularly lost in such natural calamities. The state’s obsession with the requirement of paper as proof is one side of the coin; its habitual distrust of the authenticity of the document offered is the other.  

AN: Discussions around citizenship have primarily circled around the state’s perspective, and the state’s sovereign prerogative, in granting citizenship—which has meant debating laws, rules, and whether these laws and rules are fair or not. What does Indian citizenship mean to the various communities who are in line to receive it? What are their hopes and expectations from being conferred Indian citizenship? 

NGJ: My interviews in Rajasthan with communities – mostly Dalit and Adivasi – who had migrated from Pakistan suggests that to them Indian citizenship means just the basic paperwork to be able to get employment, send their children to school and college, access the public distribution system, get a patta for land, get an electricity connection and so forth. It had little or nothing to do with any sense of affective belonging, much less any feeling of religious identity. Those who could have got it in the citizenship camps organised by the administration often could not afford it. Even after the CAA, we will not know till the Rules are framed as to whether this fast-track citizenship will come with a hefty price tag or not.

AN: You have written that even as the years between the Partition and the present increase, we seem to be reopening, and not reconciling, the wounds and ‘divisive legacy’ of that epochal event. How do you think this affects our relationship with our neighbours? Can an ‘internal matter’ dealing with foreigners and citizens be resolved without international cooperation? 

NGJ: The CAA has already made manifest the unhappiness of our neighbours. The threat of deporting ‘illegal migrants’ to Bangladesh, led to a statement from the High Commissioner of Bangladesh in India to the effect that people from his country would prefer to swim to Italy in search of employment than to cross over to India. In fact, there is speculation that, given the impressive economic indicators of Bangladesh today, there may be less migration from Bangladesh to India now than in the reverse direction. Already, with 1.1 million illegal Indian immigrants, Bangladesh is the fifth largest sender of remittances to India. The High Commissioner of India in Bangladesh has reportedly not been given an appointment with Sheikh Hasina for four months. These incidents suggest some deterioration in a hitherto robust bilateral relationship. Afghanistan too was hurt by the insinuation that Hindus and Sikhs are persecuted in their country. In fact, some instances of persecution after the passage of the CAA have come to light. It is well known that Pakistan’s treatment of its minorities is far from good, and that untouchability is also practised against its Dalit citizens, but present day India is scarcely in a position to lecture others on the question of how minorities should be treated.

Arunima Nair is a Core Team Member at Parichay. She is a second-year LLB student at Jindal Global Law School.