Trending: Call for Papers Volume 4 | Issue 4: International Journal of Advanced Legal Research [ISSN: 2582-7340]



The origin of the word citizen and citizenship can be traced back to the Latin word ‘civis’ which means a resident of a city. The implementation of the National Registers of Citizens (NRC) in Assam had stripped 1.9 million people of their citizenship. Being a citizen enables one in the making and functioning of the state and thereby giving them an identity by making them a part of a bigger community.Stripping these people of their citizenships would equate to stripping them of their identity, leading to an identity crisis similar to the one that took place during and after the Partition of India, 1947. Surprisingly, this kind of an action against the minority population of Assam was supported by the “Assamese” population in order to ease their schizophrenic fear of losing their identity and hegemony. The Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019, which equally targets and demonizes the minority population of the region, however has faced rampant opposition from the residents of the state as well as the country. This opens up a pathway to several questions and discussions which revolve around the concept of citizenship in the state of Assam, which is perceived differently than the residents of mainstream India. This paper is an attempt to explore the concept of citizenship through the lens of the residents of Assam and the role of policies and politics in the shaping of the same.


citizenship, xenophobia, illegal immigration, discrimination, ethnicity



III.1. Citizenship and the CAA

In its strictest sense, citizenship is defined as a legal status which gives a person the right to live in a state. To be a citizen of a nation is to be a part of a community. It gives one a sense of belonging and bestows upon an individual certain rights and duties that they are expected to enjoy and fulfil respectively. It enables an individual to participate in the affairs of the state as it gives an them the right to contest and participate in elections[1]. According to The Citizenship Act 1955; citizenship in India can be conferred by birth, descent, registration, naturalisation and by incorporation of foreign territory.

The amendments of 1986 and 2004 rendered a shift in the Indian citizenship law from jus soli, which refers to citizenship by birth, to jus sanguinis, citizenship by descent. After the 2004 amendment, any person born in India on or after 1 July 1987 but before 3 December 2004 would be a citizen only if both their parents are Indian citizens, or, if one parent is an Indian citizen and the other is not an illegal migrant at the time of their birth.An illegal immigrant would refer to a foreigner entering or residing illegally in the country. Basically, referring to an individual who enters without any valid travel document or enters legally but resides beyond the permitted time period[2]. Person identified as an illegal immigrant was to be expelled from the country immediately [3]. However, the Citizenship Amendment Act, which was introduced in 2019, changes the criteria for categorizing an individual as an illegal immigrant.

The CAA is a discriminatory provision which extends Indian citizenship to illegal immigrants belonging to selected religious communities; which includes Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who escaped persecution from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and entered India before 31 December 2014. The victims of persecution, who belonged to one of these enumerated faiths and had fled from these above-mentioned jurisdictions before the cut-off date,were expected to reside in the country for a period of 12 months before the date of their application. They must alsobe a resident of India for 5 years prior to the 12-month period. This eases the requirement for acquiring citizenship as previously, an applicant for citizenship by naturalization had to reside in India for at least eleven out of the fourteen years prior to the twelve-month period of their application.

This ostensibly benevolent initiative taken up by the government in power has been criticized for various reasons one of those being the violation of constitutional provisions like Article 14 and impairing the constitution’s commitment to secularism, which is enshrined in the Preamble. These criticisms however provide only a limited purview to the impact that the CAA has had on Assam. However, it also opens up a pathway to understand and analyse the concept of citizenship in Assam and the role that it has played in shaping the politics and aspirations of the residents of the region.

III.2. The Case of Assam

The term “foreigner” and “illegal immigrant” carries with it a certain historical baggage which is entwined with controversy. These two terms have been used as a political tool by Assamese politicians and has given birth to several movements, insurgencies, discrimination and xenophobia which continues to persist in the state of Assam. The word foreigner is used as a mechanism for those who consider themselves “indigenous” population to distinguish themselves. However, the question arises- Who are the indigenous people of Assam?

Unlike the mainstream India, where the word foreigner is interlinked with nationalism, foreigner in Assam refers to an ethnic outsider[4]. Assam is a homeland to several national, ethnic, linguistic, religious and tribal groups; who have been residing in the region for centuries. The complex history of immigration in the state took a new direction with the advent of colonial rule in India. The interference of the British encouraged several communities to migrate and settle in this region. English speaking Bengalis to work as professionals, tribals from Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Madras to work as labourers in tea gardens, Marwaris to expand their trade and Bengali peasants from East Bengal who in an attempt to escape poverty, settled in these lands in search of opportunities[5].  This movement took place in the 18th – 19th century and has become a home to these then migrated communities since.

This however resulted in a tremendous anxiety amongst those who were residents of this land and considered themselves the indigenous population which includes the Ahoms, Boros, Kacharis, Misings, Karbis and other such communities belonging to tribal and ethnic groups. This anxiety was further aggravated in 1837, when Bengali was used as a medium of instruction and administration in Assam[6]. The process of “othering” which was solely on the basis of language had commenced. Assamese, which was hitherto a language, now referred to a specific ethno-linguistic group and other tribes and ethnic groups who inhabited the territory of Assam previously[7].

The partition of India in 1947 was considered to be a blessing in disguise for the Assamese population as it enabled Assamese to emerge as a dominant nationality in Assam [8]and also it would put an end to the influx of Muslim peasants from Bangladesh, which had peaked during the first three decades of the 20th century[9]. However, contrary to their expectations, Assam had to witness an infiltration of 15,00,000 Hindu Bengali refugees from East Pakistan thought 1950s and 60s. In 1971, the Liberation War resulted in the infiltration of lakhs of Muslims migrants from Bangladesh (the number of refugees shift on the basis of the parties which come to power)[10]. By this time, land in Assam had become scarce which aggravated the fear of the Assamese people of losing their holdings, in addition to their language, culture and political power as a consequence of this demographic transition.

The Assamese identity had now started to take shape by identifying a “common enemy”[11]-, the Bangladeshi immigrants. All those people who migrated from Bengal in 1947, East Bengal and East Pakistan in 1947 were generalised by the Assamese population as “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants[12]. This had set the stage for a movement against migrants in Assam. In 1978, a memorandum was submitted by the student leaders of the state to the Government demanding the deportation of those identified to be illegal immigrants. On 8 June 1979, the All-Assam Students Union sponsored a strike to demand the “detection, disenfranchisement and deportation” of foreigners. This was the first of the series of events that were to take place in an aggressive attempt to preserve the cultural identity and the hegemony of the Assamese community. It has been 43 years since the advent of the Assam Agitation and yet, the question of Citizenship and who is considered to be an Assamese still lingers in this region, despite various solutions proposed by governments holding majority.

In this paper, the researcher makes an attempt to understand the nuances of citizenship which, as one can analyse from the paragraphs above, is a different ball game altogether in the state of Assam. The researcher tries to understand the role of citizenship in shaping the identity and the attitudes of one community towards the other by analysingthe policies and the political agendas which have played a major role in defining who is a citizen of the state and who is not.


The agitators who participated in the Assam Movement (1979-85) put forward certain demands to the central government in order preserve the authentic Assamese culture, language and heritage; which the Assamese people perceived to be threatened by the Bangladeshi immigrants. As a response to this, the central government struck the Assam Accord with the leaders of the movement and also amended the Citizenship Act 1985.

This resulted in the implementation of certain provisions to provide certain safeguards in order to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity of the Assamese people [13]. Individuals of Indian origin who entered Assam before 1st January 1966 from Bangladesh and have been residing there, were considered Indian citizens. Foreigners who entered Assam on or after 1st January 1966 but before 25th March 1971 and had been residing in Assam since, were to receive Indian citizenship, except for the right to vote for a ten-year period. Any person who did not qualify any of these above-mentioned categories were to be deported[14].

The AASU however was not satisfied with this concession and felt alienated by the central government in New Delhi. They wanted the cut-off date to be 1961 which is ironic as, if they were concerned with illegal immigration from Bangladeshthen logically, the cut-off date should have been 1971-the year in which Bangladesh was formed. Therefore, the issue was not illegal immigration but the constant fear in the consciousness of the Assamese population of being dominated by the “minority community” – the Bangladeshis. This xenophobia has been constantly justified with the use of census data, which is riddled with problems[15].

The ethnic subgroups that were directly threatened by this were the immigrants from East Bengal, irrespective of the religion they belonged to. There was a tendency amongst people to categorise all Bengali speaking people as “Bangladeshis”, irrespective of the time period in which they entered the nation[16]. The term “mia”, which meant unclean and unwanted, was used to refer to the Bangladeshi immigrants and was highly popularised during this period[17].

The signing of the accord was followed by the revision of electoral rolls, in which the procedures followed were not as efficient since the names of large number of legal citizens were removed. Elections took place in spite of this and the Assam Gana Parishad (AGP), members of which were major players in the movement, was elected to power. The AGP however, failed to take any effective action of “detecting and deporting” the “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh[18]. An initiative was taken by the Election Commission of India to identify these illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and categorise them as D-voters (D referring to dubious/doubtful). The people identified as such were sent to the Foreigner Tribunals which were set up under the Foreigner (Tribunal) Order of 1964 and were deprived of their voting rights.

In addition of depriving these people of their citizenship, they are sent over to detention camps where they live in inhuman conditions[19]. Their right to life and personal liberty, which comes under Article 21 of the Indian constitution, has been deprived. Due to pressure from the state government to identify the illegal immigrants, lower ranked border police officers have been accused of faulty identification. Those identified as D voters became subjects of discrimination and ostracization from their natal village[20].

Unlike the National Registers of Citizens of 2013 which is based on the IMDT act, the D voters’ scheme is based on the Foreigner’s Act of 1946. The burden of proof is on the foreigner to prove their citizenship. Poverty and illiteracy, which is widespread amongst people living in rural Assam, makes it difficult for them to go to courts and bring out papers which prove their citizenship[21].

Lakhs of those who have been registered as D voters have been fighting for their citizenship rights for decades. The 4 D-voters who had cleared their cases in the Foreigner’s tribunals were not included in the voter’s list[22]. Article 326 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to vote to the Indian citizen, is clearly being violated in this scenario.


Ethnicity and ethnic boundaries in Assam are a consequence of political projects, which attempted to bring solidarity amongst ethnic groups. Ethnic boundaries in Assam are however, fluid and this fluidity is determined by the government holding power. Depending on the political climate, certain government may choose to make linguistically defined ethnic solidarity a salient feature in their political agenda, in other times they may appeal more towards religiously defined ethnic solidarity[23]. Therefore, Assamese as an ethnic identity is both inclusive and exclusive[24].

The Assam Movement began in 1979 after the rapid expansion of the number of voters in the Mangaldoi parliamentary constituency captured public attention[25]. The government holding power during that time was of Syeda AnwaraTaimur’s, who favoured Muslim gazetted officers and executives in her government. Due to her actions against the ethnic Assamese government officials who were supporters of the movement, the fear of losing their hegemony to Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh was reinforced amongst the educated Assamese elite. As a result, leaders of the Assam Agitation diverted the attention of the Assamese population towards the increasing number of number of voters in Mangaldoi which was an area with a heavy concentration of immigrants from East Bengal. This instilled a fear amongst the indigenous Assamese population, who now started classifying the Bengali speaking immigrants as “outsiders” and perceived them to be the “common enemy”. This resulted in a gradual and permanent growth of xenophobic tendencies amongst the Assamese population.

In December 12,1983 the Government of India passed an ordinance which was in the form of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act also known as the IMDT Act. According to popular accusations, the IMDT Act permitted the immigrants to settle down and consolidate the documents over time so that they remain in the state and become vote banks of the Congress Part which ruled over Assam during that time[26]. According to the Act the accuser had to be a resident of an area which was within the radius of 3km from the place of the accused so that fake allegations could be avoided. One person was given the threshold of reporting only 10 suspects and the burden of proving that the suspect is not a citizen of India rests with the police and the accuser. The document that enabled a person to be registered as a citizen and a voter was a ration card[27].

The Supreme Court of India declared the IMDT Act as “illegal” and “undemocratic” [28]after a petition was filed by SarbanandaSonowal , who was the Lok Sabha Member of Parliament from AGP during that time. His arguments rested on the fact that the IMDT Act was a major departure Foreigner’s Act of 1946 as in the IMDT Act, the burden of proof lied on the accuser to prove that the suspect was an illegal immigrant which was an obstacle to the identification and deportation of illegal foreigners. He also made a point that Assam was facing “external threat and internal aggression” due to the heavy infiltration of Bangladeshi immigrants in the state.The fact that not all immigrants engaged in criminal activities and most of them came in to escape conditions of poverty was clearly negated[29] . A review petition was filed by the central government, where the Congress government was in power, against the Supreme Court’s judgement[30].

Jinnah’s ideology in two-nation theory, which was held responsible for partitioning British India, has ironically played a major role in the pathway taken by the legislative and executive body of India to verify the citizenship of a resident of the country[31].  This however was not relevant in the case of Assam, where opposition to migration dated back to Pre-Partition days. During the advent of the Assam Agitation, the Assamese people’s view of citizen and foreigner was strictly secular as the demand of the people was to prevent the cross-border migration of Bangladeshi citizens into Assam, irrespective of the fact that the immigrants belonged to Hindu or Muslim community[32]. As governments came to power, the narrative of illegal infiltration and the definition of an illegal immigrant was manipulated, in accordance of the political agenda of the political party. With the advent of the BJP government in the state in 2014, the xenophobic attitude of the people was now being forcefully replaced by the communal ideologies of the central government.

Religious polarisation in the was evident in the 2014 elections, where the BJP government mobilised the Hindu voters of Assam and the AIDUF appealed to the Muslim population in Assam. Application of the Hindutva ideology by the BJP resulted in the blurring of the ethnic lines amongst the residents of Assam.A large section of indigenous Muslim population of Assam chose to support AIDUF in an attempt to defeat the BJP[33]. This reinforced the generalization of the Muslim population in Assam, where-in the indigenous Muslim community of Assam were being categorized in the same frame as the immigrants from Bangladesh.

The Citizenship Amendment Act which was implemented by the government in 2019 had communalized the citizenship law in India[34]. There were widespread protests in Assam against this. Giving citizenship to those whom the Assamese perceived to be illegal immigrants would imply the failure of the Assam Agitation to achieve its purpose.


Depriving an individual of their citizenship would equate to depriving them of the rights that they would’ve enjoyed. Several fundamental rights are only available to Indian citizens, because of which immigrants are vulnerable to various injustices for which there might be no remedy. Till date, the Assam government has failed to successfully detect illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and deport them back to their land of origin[35]. Their inefficiency has resulted in an identity crisis amongst the Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam, who don’t feel a sense of belonging in the region where they have been living for decades. The term “outsider” is still used against any non-Assamese speaking resident of Assam, who does not fulfil the criteria of an “ethnic Assamese”.

Since the inception of the Assam Movement, the Bengali community of Assam as well as the Assamese community themselves, have been subject to violence which ranged from murder, rape and arson. The famous Nellie Massacre involved the persecution of the Bengali Muslim community, where the estimated number of deaths was 3000[36].  It was alleged that state officials were involved in the massacre as well. Pandemonium took over when ethnic communities were at each other’s throats. In Kokrajhar, BoroKacharis fought Bengali Hindus and Muslims; in Gohpur, Boros fought Assamese Hindus and in Thekrabari, Muslims persecuted Hindus. Each community played the role of both, the victim and the predator[37].

Military oppression by the state by imposing President rule and implementing the AFSPA[38]; in order to quell the insurgent groups like the ULFA, who demanded greater sovereignty due to the inaction of the central government has resulted in human rights violations in the state, which had impacted the entire population of this region.

Today, the people of Assam are trapped in a xenophobic (and now communal) political climate, which involves fighting imaginary enemies which they made due to misconceptions and manipulations by the political parties and the elite population. In the case of Navtej Singh Johar v Union of India[39],  the Supreme Court strikes down Article 377 of the Indian constitution as it had discriminatory provisions. Striking down of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which is equally discriminatory in nature and implementing provisions to safeguard the rights of immigrants seems to be a solution to ease the situation in Assam.

In this paper, the researcher has explored the concept of citizenship in the state of Assam by travelling back in time in an attempt to understand the seeds of fear and insecurity which have been sowed during the colonial period, which still persists and continues to cause havoc in this region. The violent elimination of non-Assamese speaking outsiders in the state have been shaped by policies and political agendas which have ingrained discriminatory, communal and xenophobic attitudes in the subconsciousness of the people of Assam.

[1]Singh, Rajeev. 2010. “CITIZENSHIP, EXCLUSION & INDIAN MUSLIMS” The Indian Journal of Political Science 71(2): 497-510



[4]Murshid, Navine. 2016. “Assam and the Foreigner Within” University of California Press 56(3): 581-604

[5]Srikanth, H. 2000. “Militancy and Identity Politics in Assam” Economic and Political Weekly 35(47): 4117-4119+4121-4124


[7]supra at 6

[8]Supra at 7

[9]Supra at 7

[10]According to the UPA government, there were about 1.20 crore illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, out of which 50 lakh were in Assam and 57 lakh in West Bengal. On the contrary, The NDA government is now saying there are 2 crore of them across the country. Various demographic surveys have also come up with their projections.

[11]Supra at 6

[12]Supra at 6

[13]Government of Assam, n.d. Assam Accord and its Clauses. p.1.


[15] No census was conducted in the year 1971-1981 in Assam due to the political turmoil in the state. Data is manipulated. High reproductive rates amongst Muslims Bangladeshi.Many of them identify themselves as Assamese.

[16]Baruah, Sanjib. 1986. “Immigration, Ethnic Conflict and Political Turmoil – Assam, 1979-1985” Asian Survey 26(11): 1184-1206

[17]Ahmed, Shahiuz Zaman. 2014. “DEPORTATION MOVEMENT, CREATION OF ‘D’ VOTERS AND PROBLEMS OF NRC UPDATION IN ASSAM” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 75: 1293-1300


[19]NDTV.com. 2019. “D” Voter Lodged in Assam Detention Camp, Dies After Falling from Bed. [online] Available at: <https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/d-type-voter-dies-in-assam-detention-camp-2036761> [Accessed 1 May 2022].

[20]Times of India. 2012. Rights body moves National Human Rights Commission over suicide. [online] Available at: <https://archive.ph/20130103135309/http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-06-12/guwahati/32194300_1_d-voter-rights-body-moves-foreigners-tribunal#selection-849.36-849.45> [Accessed 1 May 2022].

[21]Supra at 2

[22]Supra at 20

[23]Supra at 19

[24]Supra at 19

[25]Supra at 19

[26]Ragi, Sangit Kumar. 2022. “PRICE OF IMDT ACT: MIGRANTS AND ETHNIC POLITICS IN ASSAM” The Indian Journal of Political Science 74(3): 545-556

[27] Separatist Militants and Contentious Politics in Assam, India: The Limits of Counterinsurgency

[28]SarbanandaSonowal vs Union Of India &Anr [2005] 131 (Supreme Court of India).

[29]Supra at 2

[30]Bhattacharyya, R., 2007. SC to hear review petition on Feb 12 – Indian Express. [online] Archive.indianexpress.com. Available at: <http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/sc-to-hear-review-petition-on-feb-12/22900/> [Accessed 1 May 2022].

[31]Supra at 2

[32] Separatist Militants and Contentious Politics in Assam, India: The Limits of Counterinsurgency

[33]Nath, Manoj Kumar. 2016. “Communal Politics in Assam: Growth of AIDUF since 2016” Economic and Political Weekly 51(16); 88-93

[34]Communalisation of Citizenship Law: Viewing the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 Through the Prism of the Indian Constitution

[35]Assam SanmilitaMahasangha&Ors vs Union Of India &Ors [2014] 876 (Supreme Court of India).

[36]Ahmed, Shahiuz Zaman. 2014. “DEPORTATION MOVEMENT, CREATION OF ‘D’ VOTERS AND PROBLEMS OF NRC UPDATION IN ASSAM” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 75: 1293-1300

[37] Arun Shourie, “Assam Elections: Can Democracy Survive Them?,” India Today, 8: 10 (May 31, 1983), p. 57.

[38] Separatist Militants and Contentious Politics in Assam, India: The Limits of Counterinsurgency

[39]Navtej Singh Johar vs Union Of India Ministry Of Law [2018] 76 (Supreme Court of India)