Nation Building, Nationality and Composition of Population as Independent India Turns 72

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Rajashree Ghosh

By Rajashree Ghosh

The world over there have been renewed and furtive activities that are drawing national boundaries in as indelible way as possible. Who stays in and who does not – has been the most enduring political activity the world over. It is also about controlling the composition of the population that comprises the country. And likewise, for an individual, finding that anchoring and to count as a citizen with rights and has become that much more valued and that much more fleeting.

For Indians like me and being born of parents who were rendered refugees in 1947, adds another layer to the experience of nationhood and the earnest need to belong to a community. It has been 72 years since India achieved its freedom from colonial rule. Emerging out of communal disharmony, and much strife, India moved forward in welcoming the wave of refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1947.

The millions who were driven to become refugees in 1947 in the Punjab and Bengal went through hostile and violent circumstances that rendered them without a home, a nation and citizenship.  For my parents, moving out of refugee camps to becoming citizens of India and highly skilled professionals contributing to the growth and power of the newly formed independent country was a matter of pride. Even as they mourned the home they lost, they were deeply aware that the hostilities of the past were driven by mercenaries hired to assist the colonial “divide and rule” policy.

Growing up in independent India has been a privilege and to be nourished by stories about “before” and “after” 1947 has been enriching. The stories of nation building were woven in our lives through language, customs, food and most certainly memorializing how it all came to be. August 15 each year was and is still significant with watching the PM’s speech from the Red Fort in Delhi and watching reruns of speeches on “tryst with destiny.”

Given that harmony of differences has been pivotal in the nation building process in India, the recent National Register of Citizens document presents a disturbing policy mechanism to weed out those not wanted to be part of the country. The divide between “us” and “them” has been reestablished. Is this a reflection of global phenomenon of manipulating population?

The state of Assam had entered into a pact in 1985 whereby those that entered the state without proper documentation after March 24, 1971 would be declared a foreigner. The current process ran into substantial amount of money ($180 million by some estimates). Everyone had to submit documents to prove their claim to citizenship, including land and tenancy records, voter IDs or passports. According to officials, some four million of Assam’s residents are illegal foreigners. The BBC reports that about 100 residents – mostly Bengali speaking Muslims are interned in detention camps. Those affected are suddenly deprived of a nation, citizenship, unable to vote, access welfare or own property.  This seems to mirror what is going on in the United States where the narrative of the “undocumented” and the political control over their lives has been overwhelmingly sad. Families separated, infants without their parents cordoned into cells waiting to be deported tell the gut-wrenching tale of anti-immigrant wave in the country.

It is true that Assam has absorbed a lot of migration from Bangladesh during the 1971 war with Pakistan. With limited resources the state has suffered from decline in land ownership, economic opportunities and there are estimates of “illegal” foreigners who live in 15 of Assam’s districts. The Indian government hopes to deport this population – primarily Muslims to neighboring Bangladesh. Some argue that this move is innately communal since Hindus who are illegal continue to remain in the state. This can have disastrous consequences to stoke xenophobic and communal fires in a country that has moved past the dark days of colonial rule.

As we are reminded of freedom from colonial legacy and the subsequent building a “sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic, republic”, some introspection is deserved on modern political measures. Migration has resulted in people moving to states they were not born in. If those states were to follow Assam’s example, too many people will be rendered “outsiders.” One finds people from Gujarat and Rajasthan in Delhi and people from Delhi thriving in Bangalore. Many of the metropolitan cities are quite easily melting pot of multiple cultures and have contributed to thriving economies in different states.

In developing a national identity there needs to be an openness and acceptance in a modern world that migration is a continuing process – both national and international. There is an ever-changing demographics and to understand each ethnicity and incorporating and including differences might only benefit to adding to the rich heritage of the country. The potential that every “outsider” can be assimilated as a contributing citizen needs to be explored. How about giving significance to the four decades and more of establishing roots in a place – this in the case of Assam? Each of those journeys in time and space can chart the course for a welcoming, progressive nation. This comes from the child of parents who came to India as refugees from East Pakistan and lived in Delhi and then moved to the U.S.

(Rajashree Ghosh is a Resident Scholar at WSRC, Brandeis University.)

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