Assam Citizen’s List: Are We Out of Ideas on Tackling Migration?


Assam Citizen’s List: Are We Out of Ideas on Tackling Migration?

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

The list is finally out. More than three crore people in Assam have been waiting for years to find whether they make the cut as a citizen or an original inhabitant or a settler or an illegal immigrant. Over 19 lakh, almost half of the 41 lakh people who were excluded from the draft list published last July, are left out.

The final National Register of Citizens includes only those as Assam citizens who can prove that they were living in the state on or before March 21, 1971. The register got its first update since 1951, ostensibly to weed out illegal Bangladeshi migrants, but the move has been criticised as a way to target Assam’s Muslim population. The state is fully aware of the consequences this might have, considering security has been tightened and tens of thousands of paramilitary troops have been posted across Assam to contain any outbreak of violence.

Because today, violence – in a variety of seen and unseen ways – undergirds any form of national identity. This isn’t merely the case in India; we’re seeing it unfold across the world.  

When and how did we end up here? We speak about inequality and capitalism, we speak about how the world’s one per cent have cornered more than 80 per cent of the world’s resources and wealth. Be it individuals or countries, our discourse has been torn between liberal and conservatives, good vs evil, democracy vs autocracy, rich vs poor, the haves and the have-nots. Yet, there is a crucial piece of glue that’s binding them (and us) all – our belief in our current ideals about how one system i.e. democracy, coupled with free movement of capital, is the sure-shot recipe to unfettered improvement of the classes and the masses. It is the view that nationalism, be it cultural or otherwise, is the right thing for our times.

Most critics of cultural or militant nationalism will not question nationalism’s broader milieu. The idea that nations are just a means to an end is long forgotten. Nationhood, along with similar ethnic, geographic, or economic constructs, has long gone from being an enabler of the human condition to being a barrier that prevents people born – purely by accident – in one geography or religion from moving to another.

The migration of people from Bangladesh has been a simmering conflict, that led to the six-year agitation in the state from 1979 with anti-immigrant riots claiming hundreds of lives.

If you were to take the creator’s view of it all, you might wonder why something as artificial as a geographic boundary needs to be set in stone? Forget Donald Trump who gets the worst rap for erecting walls, but aren’t all of us guilty of the same when we construct barriers around every conceivable cluster of humans with some homogeneity, be it ethnic or economic? We live in gated communities built on public space, but designed to keep that very public out of it. And we watch this tragedy of the commons play out every single day in our lives.

While migration is now shaping the foreign policies of the US and Europe, it has long been the driving force of Assam’s politics. The migration of people from Bangladesh has been a simmering conflict, that led to the six-year agitation in the state from 1979 with anti-immigrant riots claiming hundreds of lives. It has been a major election plank with BJP winning the state for the first time in 2016 on the promise to rid the state of “Bangladeshi intruders”.


Perhaps it’s human nature to want more when one has more and to become conservative as we become more affluent.

Image Credits: Getty Images

This fierce fight for “identity” be it in Assam or the US, can only lead to violence and more uncertainty. It is now far more difficult for people to move from a country to another in search of economic or other opportunities, compared to the earlier part of the 20th century when we were all supposedly at war with each other?

In terms of geographic area alone, the US can host many times the size of its population (this map shows that all of America’s population can be accommodated in just four of China’s provinces). Europe, in fact, needs migrants: The Economist estimates that “Germany and Italy need migrants badly: without newcomers, they would face declines of 18 per cent and 16 per cent. And even if migration does continue, Eurostat’s central forecast reckons that Germany will still only just about maintain its current population of 82.8 million.” Yet every developed nation has become even more measly in its ability to absorb migrants. Why even the bulwark of the fight against this claustrophobia, Germany and its liberal chancellor Angela Merkel, has to set up camps at borders to stop migrants from entering its lands.

Will we be able to ever look ourselves as tenants of earth who really don’t own anything except the ability to improve one’s own condition and that of others less privileged?

Perhaps it’s human nature to want more when one has more and to become conservative as we become more affluent. What’s the real fear? That a couple of million poorer people coming into America, will reduce the per capita income of the average American who’s guzzling zillions of gallons of gas or cars or homes or appliances? When will we ask how much is enough? How much is luxury?

One need not go back to the Vedas or eastern philosophy to question these realities. Even western philosophers from Kant to Kafka to even a modern-day Thomas Piketty have been pointing out the perils of excessive protectionism.

What America, and Assam, and the rest of the world needs is a new idea – or a new messiah that reminds its peoples of values beyond consumption and per capita income. One that can remind its people that once you’ve achieved the means and wealth to cover your needs and some luxuries, it is alright to let others, less privileged, brown or black, Syrian or Bangladeshi, Muslim or Dalit, to have a go at it. The culture of privilege needs to be turned on its head. A new leadership that can remind us to start looking at new models of development, to take a slight detour from the Ayan Rand-Alan Greenspan method of unbridled individual ambition as the road to self-attainment.

If theorists who say that life comes back full circle are right, then maybe we’re on the cusp of reversing this tide of claustrophobic nationalism. I am not suggesting a return to communism or going back to the redistributive socialist models of yore, but a more liberal outlook on ownership and what constitutes “enough migrants” from a developed nation’s point of view. A more accommodative attitude will mean a different breed of leaders, who understand that the pitchforks and peasants are not gone – they’re waiting in the wings for a kill, the day this excessive protectionism drives them to further despair.

An op-ed in Economist published last April pointed out, “The UN estimates that 258 million people now live in places other than their country of birth, an increase of nearly 50 per cent since 2000. Around 65 million have been forcibly displaced either within their own country or outside it… For all the debates raging in Europe and America, rich countries still take in only a small fraction of the world’s most vulnerable migrants. Rich countries can and must do more to help those beset by war, persecution or economic duress. How they can do this without jeopardising their own democracies is one of the hardest questions facing liberals today.”

Maybe the answer will become simpler once we understand that closing up is not a choice – especially in times when one destitute driven to the brink is enough to bring down many an edifice. It’s easy to criticise Donald Trump for separating children and their parents at America’s borders, but it would serve us well to pay attention to the humanitarian disaster looming in our own backyard in Assam. It also starts with migration.  

This is an updated version of story published earlier.