Nationalities and rights held hostage to documentation
In the debate around the National Register for Citizens (NRC) in Assam, loose talk of concentration camps has already been heard despite the many concerns it raises. As discussed in the first part of this series, there is no justification for so much as the possibility of concentration camps being raised in imagination, let alone in discussion.
The echoes of India’s national trauma survive at the fringes of public memory largely because they cannot be erased. We in India barely have a culture of remembrance; the German Erinnerungskultur is alien to us. And, so, like all those who evade the past, or try to gloss over it without acknowledging the depth of trauma, we are always at risk of repeating it. The past is not always another country; it tells us how we came to be and informs our understanding of our own identity in the present.
Evading the past not only allows us to evade our shared histories but also the memory of the traumas we have all suffered in the process of the fragmentation of our identities and our lands. It erases tales of migration and assimilation, and it enables the development of constructs that alienate and perhaps even corral in forced-labor camps, if only in imagination, those whom we now consider “outsiders” who do not belong within our borders.
The case for impervious borders has always been the case for the consolidation of power (as the 1905 separation of the Bengal state by the British taught us), the demarcation of property, and the preservation of communal identity along with, if required, the facilitation of war to realize those objectives.
In our own time, borders are often closed by documenting the people within them and recognizing them as citizens. The smallest unit of documentation is often not the individual but the household, particularly in relation to rations and fuel, which may keep women in the control of men who are listed as being the heads of households. Instances of women subverting the system to establish their own independent identities are the exception.
As a result, closed borders tend to reinforce often-violent patriarchy and disadvantage those not ensconced in privileged, socially approved familial structures. These are people whose documents have been washed away in natural or man-made calamities, those who cannot access their documents, and those who never had documents. They are invariably people who are poor, or who do not conform to patriarchal expectations, or who escape such expectations: poor people living on flood banks, abused women who have their documents kept from them, people who are not cisgendered heterosexual, and those who choose to marry “out of caste” in the face of familial opposition, for example.
People without requisite documentation may easily be people whose citizenship would not be in question had they belonged to the privileged mainstream. They are people to whom the once-young Indian republic promised protection through a series of guarantees in its constitution, the formative law the state that promotes equality and has, over time, prohibited an increasingly wide array of forms of discrimination.
Leaving aside concerns about the “them vs us” narrative, experience has taught us that we have difficulty recognizing our own because of documentation issues, shared histories, close cultural ties, and common vocabularies. “Ami Bangla” (I am Bengali), as many Bengalis are prone to inform anyone within earshot, for instance, harkens to an old pre-Partition ethno-nationalism. Although it identifies those making the statement as being Bengali, it doesn’t necessarily indicate whether they are Indian or Bangladeshi.
We also have difficulty claiming our own beyond our borders. Women trafficked abroad from the Northeast of India are routinely shorn of their documents, making repatriation to India difficult, for example. This despite nobody seriously arguing that they are not Indian or that they do not belong in India. Many of them are believed simply to disappear.
In my case, family politics and estrangements over the years have resulted in none of my immediate family having easy access to adequate documentation that would prove our ancestry despite belonging to a well-established lineage, as I described in the first part of this series.
Given that the identification of those who qualify as citizens is no easy matter, there exists a constitutional imperative to ensure that laws deriving legitimacy from it do not flout the implicit guarantees it accords to individuals. That requires the development of legal processes that ensure that the most vulnerable among us are not sidelined. People cannot legitimately have their citizenship called into question simply because they find themselves without familial support. The cost of not submitting to violent patriarchy cannot legitimately be statelessness.
Being fair demands that we deal in kindness and with restraint. We must remember that all individuals, citizens or not, have the right to a life with dignity in accordance with Article 21 of the Indian constitution. That is what the founders of free India envisaged.
Dignity is the promise of our constitution, not the xenophobic approbation of concentration camps. We would do well to remember that and ensure that we steer clear of the atrocities of the past, atrocities we have collectively been subjected to ourselves and which we should know better than to risk inflicting on those we do not now recognize as our own.
(This is the final article of a two-part series on the threat that the National Register of Citizens poses to human rights in India.)