The relationship between people and territory is mediated through the institution of state, which has been rarely static in human history. Nation-states emerged since the middle of the 18th century and spread widely across the globe after the Second World War. They, however, re-defined the earlier relationship between people and state from sovereign and subjects to a new association; defined as citizenship. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the prominent thinkers, who articulated the idea of the nation-state through a social contract theory, argued that the power of state is vested in its people and relationship between people and the state must be governed by certain rights and duties as embodied in the principles of equality, liberty and fraternity (Ritchie, 1891). He also believed that democracy was the best way of ensuring general welfare while maintaining individual freedom under the rule of law. However, the relationship between people and the state, as premised on the principles of citizenship, has not remained fixed, especially in the backdrop of increasing globalization in the post-war period.

Migration and Citizenship

While international migration brought noncitizens face to face with the state, internal migration, where populace relocate their homes either temporarily or permanently in different regions of the same state, challenged the very principles of citizenship as the migrants often lost the freedom of choosing a life of dignity at the place to where they migrated. Further, the politics of ‘sons of the soil’ and the reactions based on xenophobia led to the emergence of nativism, undermining the very idea of citizenship. It is to be emphasized that the ideas of nation-state, citizenship, nativism and xenophobia are closely related. It is generally argued that migration swamps the so called native culture and reduces it to a minority. In India, there is a sentiment evoked in the name of cultural rights and migrants are blamed for snatching away jobs that are held to ‘legitimately’ belong to the natives. Issues like agitation of the members of Shiv Sena group against wealthy business communities and professionals from Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the labour class from North India bear testimony to the fact that nativism of ‘sons of the soil’ doctrine often overarch citizenship in the country (Pal. 2014).

It may also be argued that there is a distinction between cultural privilege and cultural rights. The idea of cultural privilege cannot be a defining criterion of citizenship because it negates the principles of equality and justice. On the other hand, protection and promotion of cultural rights fulfil the principles of citizenship. When the northeast migrants were attacked in Delhi and Bangalore some years back, it was a violation of cultural and civic rights which the state was supposed to defend.

Scholars also make a distinction between formal and substantive citizenship. While formal citizenship refers to being a member of a nation-state, substantive citizenship connotes whether their civil, political, social, cultural and economic rights as citizens are being fulfilled or not. It is not just formal citizenship that matters but also whether or not the state is able to ensure and provide access to substantive citizenship is a matter that needs exploration. In this context, the debate over citizenship and its relationship with poverty, lack of education and access to healthcare matters. Scholars have also argued that the granting of formal citizenship does not ensure fulfillment of substantive citizenship rights (Holston and Appadurai, 1996). Paradoxically, we also find that the national borders of India are officially open to non-citizens, through the Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI), who are allowed to enjoy various privileges. At present, OCIs are foreign nationals. Who were erstwhile Indians but abandoned Indian citizenship in order to settle in other countries and it goes without saying that they are one of the socially privileged groups. Once OCI status is granted they may enjoy all privileges in India except the right to vote and being able to own agricultural property. Thus, it is indicative that borders do not matter for the privileged. In other words, the fulfillment of substantive citizenship rights is not contingent upon the formal citizenship. In the is backdrop, the paper examines the nature of Assam crisis and presents the demographic facts on immigration in a historical perspective. It shows that the methodology adopted in identifying non-citizens in Assam is palpably flawed.

The Assam Crisis

The immigration problem in Assam has a long history; dating back to the colonial era. The problem was so persistent that the Parliament of India passed the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950 to deal with it. A National Register of Citizens (NRC0 was prepared in the country in 1951, as part of the 1951 Census (Roychoudhury, 1981). Assam is the first state where NRC is again being prepared after 1951, in order to identify illegal immigrants in 2018. The draft list of NRC was released in public domain on July 30, 2018.

The country has seen an unparalleled uproar in history since then (Singh, 2018). About 4 million people were rendered illegal migrants whose names were not included in the final draft of NRC. The political parties jumped into the fray leading to polarization, which will have far reaching consequences not only for the coming years but for decades. As is known, the whole exercise was carried out under the direction of the Supreme Court (SC) of India. It is hoped that the SC will find an appropriate and just solution as the matter deals with the idea of citizenship and human rights. While nation states grant rights and protection to citizens, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, also grants rights and protection to undocumented or irregular migrants, refugees and stateless populations who are non-citizens. In the UN ’5 parlance, the term illegal migration was replaced by undocumented migration and more recently by the term irregular migration on the ground that human beings cannot be legal or illegal but the act of movement could be so. Notwithstanding, the migration predicament of Assam is larger than the refugee crisis in Europe in the present day. It is a sensitive subject that deals with a gamut of issues related to human existence, dignity, rights and protection of culture. It has acquired serious con notations as immigration is pitted against the collective sense of identity and politics. The sentiments invoked on the pretext that Assamese language and culture have been losing their majoritarian identity in the wake of irregular migration are not substantive enough to defend it. A similar process in underway in other parts of India as well. In Jharkhand, the tribal majority has been reduced to one-fourth of the state’s population. There are hundreds of primitive tribes on the verge of extinction. The list is long. On the other hand, it is also true that the people of Assam have suffered enormously on the issue of irregular migration over the decades. Long back. Myron Weiner (1983) argued that effective border control is the only natural solution for the persistent irregular migration from Bangladesh into Assam. It is a fact that the state should have acted long before reaching a point of no return.

The illegal migration in Assam is hyped on the basis of religious and linguistic demographics. It is generally portrayed that Muslim population has been growing faster and the share of Assamese population vis-à-vis Bengali has been declining. It is important to highlight that immigration is not is important to highlight that immigration is not the sole criteria of projecting such demographics. The annual growth rate of the total population of Assam during 2001-11 (1.58 per cent) was lower than the all India growth rate (1.64 per cent) according to 2011 Census (Census of India 2011). This is consistent with the fact that after 1991 Assam has also turned out to be a net-out migrating state. The 2001 Census showed that about 7 lakh persons from Assam live and work in other states of India (Lusome and Bhagat, 2010). Such data from 2011 Census is not yet available. There is also no empirical proof to support that immigration has impoverished any nation or region. On the other hand, the theory of mobility transition shows that when a nation moves in the trajectory of development, it transits from a nation of emigration to a nation of immigration (Zelinsky, 1971). Assam is not a developed state of India and there is no reason to believe that the state has received huge immigration in the recent past. On the contrary, Assam being a net out-migrating state as shown by 2001 Census, is consistent with mobility transition theory. The problem of Assam is historical and this may be seen in the context of refugee migration in the event of partition of the country in 1947 and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.

The Census of India also provides data on immigration which need to be looked into as well. The Census of India 1991 (1981 Census was not conducted in Assam) shows that out of 3.3 million migrants born in Bangladesh, 0.21 million were residing in Assam. In the 2001 Census, the figure for those living in Assam but born in Bangladesh dropped to 0.16 million compared to 3.7 million for the whole of India. Data on immigration from 2011 Census has not been released by the Registrar General of India till now though seven years have elapsed since the census was undertaken. As the Census of India is a part of the Ministry of Home Affairs, this data should not be set aside or suppressed. It must be borne in mind that numbers have the potential to create xenophobia leading to discrimination and violence and some intellectuals have conjectured a number as high as 10 million illegal immigrants in Assam (Dasgupta, 2018). However, if there are problems with the census data this could be debated and methods may be improved once it is brought out in the public domain.

On the other hand, methods used in the NRC in Assam raise many questions. It is based on the production of documentary proof. It may be noted that Assam is a state where one-fourth males and one-third of females are illiterate (Census of India, 2011). The documentary proof for NRC is primarily based on legacy data. Legacy data refers to the names of the inhabitants of Assam who were enumerated in the NRC of 1951 based on 1951 Census, or whose names have appeared in the electoral rolls until the midnight of March 24, 1971 as per the Assam Accord. Later on some more documents were added to claim citizenship before the stipulated deadline. One has to trace their ancestors based on the specified documents in order to be included in the present NRC 1951 based on 1951 Census was free from any omission or coverage error. The history of census in India shows this is not the case; the same is true for the electoral rolls as well. The legacy data should have also taken into account the 1961 and 1971 Censuses as well in order to make the NRC more robust. However, this has not been done. The application of March 25, 1971 as the benchmark does not appear to be reasonable after the passage of more than four decades. All those born in Assam after 1971 will be of age up to 47 years at present. How is it that those born in Assam, but do not have proper documental support will be illegal migrants? Should we punish children for the illegal acts of parents or grandparents? Further for many women, it is difficult to trace the family tree after leaving their parental households after leaving their parental households after marriage. Many do not have marriage certificates as well. This may lead to a large number o women being excluded from the NRC list. Also several cases reported in daily newspapers allege that while some members of the same family are included in the NRC, others are not. The NRC authorities and the Supreme Court of India have a huge task at hand and an enormous challenge ahead to ensure that women, children, trans gender, internal migrants and indigenous people are not unduly excluded from the list of NRC.

Another concern is where the people ousted from the final NRC will go. Will they be a stateless population? If they are divested of their political and economic rights, it may be tantamount to creating a situation akin to neo-apartheid. Some scholars suggested redistribution them in various other states of India where there is a shortage of labour (Aiyar, 2018). But it is to be recollected that we have not been able to solve the problem of the stateless Chakma population, who are to the tune of about 50,000 living in the state of Arunanchal Pradesh for more than five decades. It is important to point out that India is not a signatory to the United Nations’ Refugee Convention, but is party to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030 which is premised on the principle–leave no one behind.

It is a difficult task to make a choice when the matter evokes emotive issues of culture and language where rationalism often gets trampled. Yet, the future depends upon rational choice–a passionate debate, careful scrutiny based on a progressive ideology and a just methodology. There is little hope that Assam will come out from this muddle amidst its challenging march towards prosperity and progress.


Migration and new forms of motilities such as refugee and irregular migration in the international context and seasonal and temporary migration and displacement in the national context destabilizes the very sedentary idea of citizenship. The emerging outcome is that the idea of citizenship is being reshaped and national borders are economically and politically redefined. The European Union is one such evolving example where national borders have lost significance. Further, since the 1970s, as many as 84 countries actors the globe have allowed dual citizenship (Siaplay, 2014). The Government of India has also provided OCI status to erstwhile citizens and their descendants who are now passport holders of other countries. We have all the reason to imagine that the vexed situation in Assam resulting from the irregular migration will find apolitical solution as South Asia moves up the ladder of prosperity and economic integration. Until the rigid sense of border prevails, we should try our best to minimize the tragedy of the people of Assam.