In a two-part series, I explore the human rights implications of processes like the formation of the NRC with reference to my own story, the problems of patriarchy, and the burdens of history.
Issues of citizenship and belonging have always been fraught in India. We are a plural society that was irrevocably torn apart in 1947. As a legal construct, the Indian republic is a federation of states. As a social reality, we know affiliations to various sub-nationalisms, subsumed within a greater pan-Indian nationalism, to be a source of individual pride.
We are not, however, a society that has consistently seen communal harmony. In recent history, British colonizers used a divide-and-rule policy to help cement their control over vast swaths of the Indian subcontinent.
American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White saw vast areas of Calcutta “dark with ruins and black with the wings of vultures that hovered impartially over the Hindu and Muslim dead” in 1946. The image of death approaching under the waiting, watchful eye of vultures was not new to Bengal, which had, at the time, barely recovered from a devastating famine, exacerbated by British policies, that took about 4 million lives. This was the same famine that prompted Leo Amery, then secretary of state for India and Burma, to compare Winston Churchill’sattitudes to those of Hitler.
Photographs taken in the 1940s in the fenced hunger-cum-labor camps of Europe and in the fence-less hunger-cum-labor geography of Bengal are not always easy to tell apart. Ravaged bodies with ashen skin, regardless of their color, can look much the same in black and white.
We may only now be beginning to call the famine genocide, and recognize the lingering effects of Partition, but we know what to expect of concentration camps. And we know that their effects can be achieved simply with incendiary rhetoric and administrative action. They do not need fences or a fenced-off vocabulary.
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.
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.
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.
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.