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‘Illegal’ Bangladeshis in Akhand Bharat

Inscriptions of Race and Religion on Citizenship

Rimple Mehta ( is at the School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University.

Both the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party respond aggressively to the issue of “illegal” Muslim Bangladeshis, the largest “illegal” migrant group in India. Such a response is rooted in the racial underpinnings of Hindutva ideology, which right-wing political formations have attempted to bring into mainstream discourse, especially after the BJP came to power at the centre in 2014.

I am grateful to the anonymous reviewer for her valuable comments and suggestions. I would also like to thank Aditya Nigam and Nandita Dhawan for their comments on initial drafts of this article. It was presented at the international workshop titled “Race, Criminal Justice, and Migration” organised by Border Criminologies, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford, in September 2016. I thank the organisers Mary Bosworth, Yolanda Yazquez, and Alpa Parmar, as well as the participants of the workshop, for critical discussions.

India is a diverse society, with a range of ethnic and religious groups. But India does not function with a clear articulation of race. Unlike their counterparts abroad, Indian scholars have spent little time examining the relevance of race in Indian society. Yet, as this article will show, some discussion of race and its impact on Indian society has implicitly existed in this country for some time. The challenge for contemporary scholars lies in unpacking the relevance of some long-standing ideas for examining how we understand the world today. “Race” is not a term that is used in criminological studies in India. The presence of large numbers of Muslims and Dalits in Indian prisons (Tiwari 2016) has caught the eye of criminologists and has been discussed and critiqued at length (Raghvan and Nair 2011, 2013). The importance of exploring the intersection of race and religion in the study of criminology, specifically border criminology, emerges when we begin to understand the contemporary treatment of “illegal” Muslim Bangladeshis in India through the lens of Hindutva ideology. The “illegal” Muslim Bangladeshis are the focus of this article, as they comprise the largest number of “illegal” migrants in India. But they will serve as an exemplar to understand the position of not only Muslim migrants from other countries but also Muslims within India.

The term Hindutva1 was coined by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in 1923, and has become the predominant ideology of Hindu nationalism today. In contemporary India, various organisations within the Sangh Parivar—its cultural wing, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS); its political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); its economic forum, the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (SJM); its world council, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), etc—align themselves with Hindutva ideology. Its foundations were laid first by Savarkar and later by M S Golwalkar in the 1960s.2 There have been concerted efforts by the BJP and the RSS to put this ideology in the mainstream. Their objective is to influence a majority of the population and to shape “everything from national security to gender, science and economics to secularism, and identities in diaspora” (Reddy 2011: 439). This mainstreaming process is carried out through cartographical, legislative, and socio-religious processes. I refer to these processes as the “politics of purging”: first an attempt to consolidate the territorial space of Akhand Bharat (undivided India) and then to “cleanse” the space of the “other.” The construction of the “other” draws upon links that Hindutva ideology already has with the idea of Aryanism.

It is difficult to make sense of the cartography of India without referring to partition. Critics have pointed out that partition has long been the focus of border studies and that we need to move beyond it. However, its use as a reference, while using different analytical frameworks, remains inevitable given that the partition of the subcontinent was a territorial settlement based on religious majoritarianism. It is important to understand partition in terms of its varied forms and implications. The Hindutva forces were against partition. Since then, it has been RSS’s resolve to reunite India into Akhand Bharat, including present-day India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Some cartographic representations of India by RSS also include Afghanistan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and, sometimes even Tibet. The RSS purposefully misrepresents the borders of India in most of its publications by using the map of undivided India. Basu et al (1993: viii) point out:

Hindu right talks in two languages: the language of democracy and that of authoritarianism, the language of law and that of force. The BJP claims to function within a constitutional, democratic, legal framework, but the activities of the RSS, VHP and the Bajrang Dal (militant youth wing of VHP) often draw their commitment to legality into question. The politics of the Hindu Right derives its dynamic from the complex relationship between these seemingly opposing tendencies: from their complementarity and contradiction.

Despite being a much-debated issue, it is assumed here that BJP and RSS work in tandem with each other to further the Hindutva ideology. This article aims to outline the political aspirations of the BJP in the context of its reactions to “illegal” Muslim Bangladeshi migrants in India since it formed a government at the centre in May 2014, and the aspiration of RSS to create an Akhand Bharat. The aim is to explore whether the responses towards the Bangladeshis is really about concerns over protecting the sovereignty of the Indian state or whether it is based on the Hindutva idea of national belonging predicated on certain conceptions of race and religion. The Hindutvavadis (followers of Hindutva ideology) have mostly been associated with communalism, but the racial underpinnings of their agenda have largely remained unexplored. I argue that the sociocultural and religious agenda of the Hindutvavadis, together with their racial agenda, work towards the goal of building a “pure” Hindu nation. BJP’s responses to Bangladeshis in India may not be easily decipherable as racial in nature because postcolonial identities in India are primarily articulated in terms of communal, regional, and caste identities, and not race or colour.

Historical Background

The Indo–Bangladesh border and the map of India have a colonial legacy. The British sought to mark a single entity, politically and territorially, as their imperial space (Ramaswamy 2001: 97–114). At the time of partition, the chairman of the Boundary Commissions, Cyril Radcliffe, was charged with dividing 1,75,000 square miles (4,50,000 km2) of territory comprising 88 million people. Radcliffe had never visited India before. He was responsible for marking out the border in a span of six weeks (Butalia 1998: 83–86; Chatterji 1999: 185–242). The commission used maps for the most part, rather than working on the ground. The result was an arbitrary border that ran through some thickly populated regions and even parts of houses such that some rooms were in one country while others fell in another (Chatterji 1999: 25–31). It is estimated that about 12 million people left their homes, either for crossing over to India or to migrate to East or West Pakistan. In 1971, after a prolonged struggle, East Pakistan became independent from Pakistan, and came to be known as Bangladesh (Muhith 1992).

Apart from creating territorial disputes for future generations to negotiate and resolve, the border between India and Bangladesh engendered problems of border maintenance and security. Absolute separation of an area, which consists of plains, riverine land, hills, and jungles, with hardly any natural boundaries, made the Indo–Bangladesh border extremely porous and, in practice, ambiguous. Regions on either side of the West Bengal and Bangladesh border are economically underdeveloped. The porous border, along with its socio-political history, provides a fertile ground for informal border markets, smuggling, and trading in commodities and persons (Sur 2012: 127–50).

The Indian nation state has constantly tried, albeit without much success, to discipline the flows of goods and people across its borders. There are three main security concerns that India has with respect to Bangladesh: territorial disputes, cross-border terrorism, and illegal immigration of Bangladeshis into India. In addition, firing upon and killing Bangladeshis (suspected of illegally crossing over) by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF)3 have continued to be contested issues in Indo–Bangladesh relations. Partly for economic reasons (such as the additional burden of thousands of illegal migrants; revenue losses on account of the “black” cross-border economy) and partly for security reasons (for example, terrorists and criminals taking refuge across the border, money laundering, smuggling of arms) India has been increasingly focusing on extreme border-control practices with respect to Bangladesh. However, due to close sociocultural and economic ties, it is difficult to make the Indo–Bangladesh border completely impermeable. To prevent trafficking, illegal crossing, smuggling of humans, arms, and products, a border-fencing project led by the Government of India was started with Bangladesh in 1986 (Schendel 2005: 212). Fences have been erected after due consideration of various constraints in the area, such as availability of land, presence of nullahs, rivers, villages, etc, and concerns of the local population. Gates are provided to facilitate access of villagers to their lands, which sometimes lie beyond the fences.

Given the nature of the Indo–Bangladesh border, it is important to understand what the response of the Indian state has been towards the flow of Bangladeshis into India at different points of time. Immediately after partition in 1947 a large number of Hindu refugees from East Bengal entered West Bengal and other parts of the country. In the immediate post-partition period, the concern over movement of people was not so much communal, as the majority of refugees were Hindus. Gradually, with increasing socio-economic pressures, Government of India tried to deter people from entering India by not recognising them as refugees and not providing them with rehabilitation, regardless of their religion. The passport system was initiated in 1952 and migration certificates began to be issued from 1956. By 1971, the year of the Bangladesh Liberation War, political discourse had begun to identify the movement of refugees as a communal issue and not as a matter of concern about their rehabilitation (Datta 2008). Datta (2013: 74) points out that in 1971 various individuals and organisations raised objections about treating Hindu and Muslim refugees from Bangladesh in the same way. They argued that India was being unnecessarily generous in providing refuge to both Hindus and Muslims, as it was only the Hindus who were escaping religious persecution in Bangladesh. Historically, Bangladeshi Hindus migrating to India have been viewed as “victims” of Bangladeshi majoritarian politics and, therefore, worthy of “refuge.” Bangladeshi Muslims, in contrast, were considered “infiltrators” who threatened the socio-economic structure of India. The influx of refugees at different points of times has resulted in “a reconceptualisation of the notion of citizenship and who should be allowed to remain within India’s territorial borders, through a series of measures designed to create a more ‘effective’ border” (Datta 2013: 83). The political and socio-economic context has been changing; border controls have become more stringent as a response to the threat of terrorists and insurgents who seek shelter across the border. However, despite several controls and anti-immigration laws,4 everyday cross-border movement of Indians and Bangladeshis continue to this day.

Illegal’ Bangladeshi Muslims in Indian Politics

Border crossings between India and Bangladesh have been an everyday affair ever since partition. What has changed over the years is the legitimacy or illegitimacy that is attributed to certain forms of border crossings. Bangladeshis without valid documents constitute the largest number of Muslim immigrants5 in India. They have been a cause for concern since the late 1980s. Different political parties that formed national governments at various points of times have dealt with the issue of Bangladeshi migrants in their own ways. Some have used Bangladeshis in West Bengal and other neighbouring states as “vote banks”6 by providing them with region-specific benefits (Times of India 2012). At the same time, political parties have been averse to migrants from Bangladesh. While right-wing political organisations perceive the Muslim Bangladeshis as “infiltrators,” posing a threat to the country (Mal et al 2012), left-wing political parties have sometimes responded adversely to lower caste Hindu refugees (mostly Namasudras) from Bangladesh. In 1979, for example, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—CPI(M)—government in West Bengal imposed an economic blockade and, later, evacuated thousands of lower caste Hindu Bangladeshi refugees from an island in the Sundarbans. This was after the government had invited these refugees to come back to West Bengal from Dandakaranya in Chhattisgarh in 1977. The CPI(M) government changed its political strategy and began to perceive the lower caste Hindu Bangladeshi refugees as a burden on the state (Sen 2015). This episode popularly came to be known as the Marichjhapi massacre. In January 2003, about 200 snake charmers, seasonal migrants who crossed the border at certain times of the year, were stranded in the no-man’s-land in the Indo–Bangladesh border at Satgachi in the Cooch Behar district of north Bengal. This was because neither the Indian nor the Bangladeshi BSFs would let them in. The Bangladeshi forces argued that they were Hindus as they worshipped the Hindu goddess Manasa and performed Hindu rituals. Therefore, they claimed that the snake charmers were Indians. The Indian BSFs claimed that they were “illegal” Bangladeshis trying to enter India to make money and create trouble. The situation was resolved with the CPI(M) government in West Bengal facilitating their entry by considering them as Hindu refugees facing persecution in Bangladesh. However, in February of the same year, this group of snake charmers disappeared with no clear evidence of where they went (Ghosh 2015; Sen 2003).

In 1992, the Congress government at the centre tried to deport hundreds of suspected Bangladeshis without valid documents under the banner of “Operation Pushback.” Ramachandran (2003) draws a link between the widespread communal violence in the early 1990s and the state response towards unauthorised immigrants through this operation. According to her, the unprecedented rise of the BJP in the 1990s provided a powerful incentive to the Congress-led government to expel undocumented Bangladeshis from Delhi. But the visibility of the Bangladeshis in India came to the forefront with the strengthening of Hindu nationalism. She further points out, “The Sangh Parivar’s relentless quest in the early 1990s for political legitimacy and authority or hegemony so to speak had, in the first instance, much to do with the sudden hyper-visibility of undocumented Bangladeshis in India” (Ramachandran 2003: 645). In January 1993, right after the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992, the BJP “declared a war” on illegal Muslim Bangladeshis in India and this issue has since then been a prominent theme in national campaigns of the party (Gillan 2002: 78).

The issue of Bangladeshis residing illegally in India has come to the fore since the BJP formed a government at the centre in May 2014. On 20 April 2014, BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi proclaimed in an address in West Bengal: “Note this down. After May 16 [when he would take over as Prime Minister if he won the election] I will send these Bangladeshis beyond the border with bag and baggage” (Barooah Pisharoty 2016). After May 2014 the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiran Rijiju, referred to the Bangladeshis as “illegal migrants,” who were a “concern” and a “national problem.” The Prime Minister thought that Bangladeshi infiltration was an “act of aggression” on India and hence he needed to launch the Bangladeshi Bhagao Abhiyan (Operation for the removal of Bangladeshis). According to him, removal of Bangladeshi infiltrators would imply honouring the Supreme Court of India, which directed the central government in December 2014 to hold talks with Bangladesh to initiate steps for deporting identified illegal immigrants. The BJP member of Parliament (MP) from Jorhat in Assam, Kamakhya Prasad Tasha, told reporters shortly after their landslide victory at the centre:

The campaign [to remove Bangladeshis] will be initiated by Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), the youth wing of the party, within the next 15 days. In the first phase of the campaign, we will appeal to illegal immigrants to leave our land voluntarily in next 15 days. We are also going to launch a house-to-house campaign urging people not to engage these immigrants in any kind of work.7

Such a scenario threatened the livelihoods and, therefore, the survival of Bangladeshis working without valid documents in India. How does one analyse the political rhetoric of the BJP and their vendetta against “illegal” Muslim Bangladeshis?

Race and Hindutva Ideology

Historians like Romila Thapar (1996) argue that it was only in the early 20th century that some of the founding members of the RSS tried to develop the concept of Hindutva or Hinduness. This was because a specific definition of who a Hindu really was did not exist in the past. According to her, the RSS developed the concept by positing the “original” Hindus as Aryans—depicted as a distinctive people indigenous to India—and caste Hindus as their descendants. Although Aryan was “specifically a label for a language, [it] came to be used for a people and a race as well, the argument being that those who spoke the same language belonged to the same biological race” (Thapar 1996: 6). Savarkar, the president of the Hindu Mahasabha—an organisation which was formed to protect Hindus after the formation of the All India Muslim League (AIML) in 19068—argued in his 1923 monograph Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu?:

[T]he Aryan who settled in India at the dawn of history already formed a nation now embodied in the Hindus. Hindutva … rests on three pillars: geographical unity, racial features, and a common culture. (qtd in Jaffrelot 1999: 26)

Savarkar disassociated Hindutva from Hinduism. According to him, “Hindutva embraces all the departments of thought and activity of the whole Being of our Hindu race” (Savarkar 1923: 4). He further argued that at the core of the Hindutva ideology was the identification with India as simultaneously pitribhumi (fatherland) and punyabhumi (holyland).

He translated jati as race, a term that encompassed rites, rituals, ceremonies, and sacraments, as well as identification with a sacred geography (Reddy 2011). Savarkar writes:

The Hindus are not merely the citizens of the Indian state because they are united not only by the bonds of the love they bear to a common motherland but also by the bonds of a common blood. They are not only a Nation but also a race-jati. The word jati derived from the root ‘Jan’ to produce, means a brotherhood, a race determined by a common origin, possessing a common blood. All Hindus claim to have in their veins the blood of the mighty race incorporated with and descended from the Vedic fathers, the Sindhus. (1923: 84–85)

Savarkar, therefore, understood Hindus as a race, bound within a sacred space by a common bloodline and deriving their origins from the Vedic fathers. According to him, Muslims and Christians cannot be counted among Hindus because, though their fatherland is India, their holyland is elsewhere.

RSS leader Golwalkar predicated national belonging on race, defined as ‘‘a hereditary society having common customs, common language, common memories of glory and disaster [and] common origin under one culture’’ (qtd in Reddy 2011: 441). Like Savarkar, the racialist argument is implicit in Golwalkar’s proposition that the people of a nation possess unassailable commonalities and a common origin. Gyanendra Pandey refers to Golwalkar’s discourse in We or Our Nationhood Defined (1939) as an “upper caste racism” which takes the form of sociocultural domination rather than biological claims and racial purity (Jaffrelot 1999: 57). Although there is an inherent tension in Savarkar and Golwalkar’s definition of national belonging as to whether it is based on sociocultural unity, territorial belonging, or racial purity, both of them show a fervour for cultural unity and an implicit reference to racial homogeneity.

On the one hand, Golwalkar’s idea of racism appears to be different from that of Adolf Hitler, because the former laid emphasis on organic harmony in society and not on racial purity, and it is with the latter that Hitler was preoccupied (Jaffrelot 1999). On the other hand, in We or Our Nationhood Defined, Golwalkar refers to race (with culture and language as inseparable components) as an important ingredient of the idea of the “Nation.” In this way, he models his idea of cultural nationalism after Adolf Hitler:

German race pride has now become the topic of the day. To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by purging the country of the Semitic Races—the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by. (Golwalkar 1939: 87)

Hindu nationalists are known to have displayed their support for the European fascists since the 1930s. Savarkar is also known to have written approvingly of the occupation of Sudetenland by Germany on the ground that its inhabitants shared “common blood and common language with the Germans” (Jaffrelot 1999: 51). Further, it is important to compare Golwalkar’s ideology with certain aspects of Nazism, as there are obvious affinities between the two due to their strong emphasis on ethnic homogeneity (Jaffrelot 1999: 61). While both Savarkar and Golwalkar are known to be appreciative of the racism practised in Europe, they were also quick to contrast it with the “civilised” situation in India. Jaffrelot (1999: 52) labels this as the strategy of stigmatisation and emulation of the “threatening Others.” While both Hitler and Golwalkar looked at the state as not an end in itself, Hitler emphasised its importance for the preservation of race and Golwalkar for the preservation of a Hindu culture and society. Though used differently, both aimed at maintaining homogeneity amongst a group of people with an assumed common origin.

These arguments need to be seen in the context of the “Aryan theory” that was propounded by Max Mueller between 1849 and 1874. According to this theory, the original Aryan homeland was in Central Asia; from there it branched off into two directions, one towards Europe and the other towards Iran. The Iran stream was further split and one group went towards north-western India. The group that came towards India was believed to have conquered the dark-skinned dasas. This theory became the lynchpin in the justification of Christian missionary efforts to save the lower-caste dasas from the upper castes who claimed their lineage from the Aryans. According to Thapar (1996), Hindutva ideologues insisted that there was no Aryan invasion because the Aryans were indigenous to India, they spoke Sanskrit, and were responsible for the spread of Aryan civilisation from India to the West. The confrontations, they propounded, were a result of the arrival of foreigners such as Muslims, Christians, and, more recently, the Communists. None of them considered India either their pitribhumi or punyabhumi. This made the Hindu Aryans the victim of invasions and battles waged by foreigners, providing a strong justification for the treatment they advocate towards Muslims. The Aryan theory has been discussed at length and disputed by the Hindutva ideologues in order to focus the national identity on the “antiquity and continuity of the Hindu Arya as the major component of the Hindu nation” (Thapar 1996: 10). The question of the roots of Indian identity has become the mainstay of contemporary Indian politics.

Indianness and the ‘Other’

Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that, in India, racism is understood as “something that the white people do to us. What Indians do to one another is variously described as communalism, regionalism, and casteism, but never as racism” (qtd in Reddy 2005: 570). Countering such an argument, Ratna Kapur (2016) propounds:

“Indianness,” which is a modern, racial and cultural construction and equated with Hinduness, can only accommodate the idea of Indians as victims and whites as perpetrators. Any hint of racial injustice through even the slightest taunt or gesture against any Indian anywhere produces a barrage of official complaints of racism and racial targeting stretching from America to Australia. “Indianness” cannot broker the idea of being a perpetrator of racial intolerance and hatred. And yet it is precisely this feature that is integral to the idea of the Indian nation and the religious, cultural and racial exclusions along which it has been constructed.

Kapur’s contentions are reflected in the ways in which the rhetoric of race and the argument of racial apartheid towards Indians have been used by the BJP at an international level to mask the debates on caste, class, and religious marginalisation in India by projecting threats to the Indian nation as external. The BJP has resisted the accusation of practising communal and sectarian politics by presenting Indian society as one living in organic harmony. Shampa Biswas (2001) points out that the use of the term “nuclear apartheid” by the BJP in 1998 to protest against the reprimands, resolutions, and statements that international bodies made against India’s decision to nuclearise itself is significant. The BJP sought to emphasise that Indians as a “race” were being discriminated through the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. She argues that by pointing towards contemporary exclusions in the global arena, the BJP was using the category of race in the imagination of the Hindu/Indian nation and drawing upon a racist global discourse on Muslims and Islam. In a similar vein in 2001, when Dalits sought to take their struggle to the United Nations (UN) by putting forward their issues at the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held at Durban in South Africa, they were severely condemned by the then BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. It was argued that this was an “internal matter” which could be addressed by the available laws in India (Thorat and Umakant 2004: xxiii). In this way, from Savarkar and Golwalkar in the early phase to the BJP in the 1990s, one sees a strategic use of the rhetoric of race in the construction of an Indian identity. Kapur (2016) points out that being Indian is perceived as being heterosexual, male, Hindu and non-Dalit, where exclusions are justified on the ground that the difference is threatening, or that it might dilute the purity of the race and its culture. She further points out that this was endemic in the writings of the early Hindutva ideologues, but has today become a normalised feature of the Indian mentality.

In this context, the BJP has created an angst against, and “hatred” towards, the Bangladeshis in India by tapping into a covert or latent reserve of emotions against the “other.” This was done by using the rhetoric of “development” to construct Muslim immigrants as the regressive “other.” The epistemology of the right wing as a political conglomerate finds continuity in a neo-liberal economy, because both Savarkar’s and Golwalkar’s texts deal primarily with identity and place, the two analytical categories that are constantly used to understand neo-liberalism. Gautam Ghosh (2015) points out that the so-called “infiltration” by Bangladeshi refugees in West Bengal is an unwanted interruption in the nationalist narrative of the bhadralok (Bengali caste-Hindu middle class) whose presumptions and aspirations regarding their own position in the Indian nation’s trajectory-cum-temporality are believed to be threatened by the presence of the Bangladeshis in India. He further propounds that their fears are grounded in the intermission in their nationalist narrative dating back to the two partitions of Bengal—in 1905 and in 1947—as much as they are premised upon a transgression of territorial integrity. Therefore, economic, ethnic, cultural, and historical factors, when coupled with the Hindutva ideology of race, help one to locate the position of the illegal Muslim Bangladeshis as the “other” in Akhand Bharat. Though Bangladesh may be geographically located within Akhand Bharat, the Muslim Bangladeshis will remain a threat to Indian citizens; the Hindu Bangladeshis, however, can reunite with the “Hindu” race in the undivided Hindu nation.

Legality and Illegality

While there are discursive ways in which Bangladeshi Muslims are projected as the “other,” the processes of redefining citizenship involve definite legal action that aim at “othering” some migrants and marking the contours of “Indianness.” On 19 July 2016, the BJP government introduced a bill to amend certain provisions of the Citizenship Act of 1955. The bill has now been referred to the Select and Joint Committee of Parliament. The object of the proposed bill is to enable Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians who have fled to India from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh—without valid travel documents or whose valid documents have expired in recent years—to acquire Indian citizenship through naturalisation. Under the bill, such persons shall not be treated as illegal immigrants for the purpose of the Citizenship Act (Suryanarayana and Ramaseshan 2016). Rohingyas from Myanmar,9 Muslims from Bangladesh, and Ahmadiyyas from Pakistan, who face religious persecution in their countries, are excluded from the scope of the bill, thus indicating a clear religious bias. An analysis by PRS—an independent research initiative that works for strengthening the legislative process by making it transparent, better informed, and participatory—points out that granting citizenship on the basis of religion may violate Article 14 of the Constitution which guarantees the right to equality.10

The Citizenship Act of 1955, which was meant to deal with conditions of acquisition, termination, and deprivation of citizenship in the aftermath of partition, actually ended up being dominated by issues of religious loyalty (Roy 2010: 91). The act underwent a series of amendments, with the latest one being in 2003.11 This last amendment, carried out during the BJP-led NDA government, introduced the category of Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) for those having ties of blood and descent with India. Furthermore, Indian citizenship was now based upon the citizenship of both or either of the parents. In cases where one parent was in India at the time of the child’s birth, the other should have been a legal resident of India and not an illegal immigrant. Through a series of amendments and proposed amendments to the Citizenship Act of 1955, the BJP has displayed an obvious bias in favour of non-Muslim minorities fleeing from other countries. In addition, attempts at inclusion of the larger “Hindu race” within the fold of Akhand Bharat, through measures such as the introduction of the OCI category, demonstrates the effort at making the Hindutva ideology mainstream. This suggests that though there has been an overt democratisation of the ideas of the Sangh Parivar by Golwalkar in the 1960s, the racial idea of Akhand Bharat, as propounded by Savarkar, persists in the discourse on “illegal” Bangladeshis in India. As Muslims, they do not qualify for Indian citizenship even if India happens to be their fatherland, because their holyland is said to be lying in West Asia. Savarkar’s religio–racist ideology and Golwalkar’s hereditary conception of the rashtra (state/nation) seem to determine BJP’s reaction towards “illegal” Muslim Bangladeshi migrants to India and their invitation only to non-Muslim refugees to live in India. The goal of Akhand Bharat can, therefore, only be achieved through the politics of purging: cleansing the territorial space of undivided India of all the people who do not fit the frame of the “Hindu” race as defined by the Hindutva ideology.


The strategic ways in which racial, religious, and nationalist ideologies are being deployed in contemporary India highlight the ways in which the BJP and the RSS, together or independently, are trying to raise questions of legality and legitimacy around the presence of Muslim Bangladeshis in India. Under the garb of these questions lie the “politics of purging,” which is sought to be achieved through the process of “othering.” Bringing this discourse into the mainstream is essential to the politics of Akhand Bharat, where the “other” is seen as a threat to the sanctity and purity of the nation state. Hierarchies and differences are created through a discursive unity of race, religion, and culture. This is reflective of the inherent tensions and continuities between Savarkar and Golwalkar’s ideas of what constitutes a nation—racial purity, territorial belonging, or sociocultural unity. The Sangh Parivar has used both sociocultural and legal tools to instigate an upsurge against Muslim Bangladeshis while defining notions of belonging, that is, citizenship and “foreignness.” Citizenship has been used as a proxy for racial and cultural purity. This construction of “Hindu” identity is juxtaposed with the newly constructed Muslim Bangladeshi “infiltrator” as a racial “other” who needs to be criminalised and ousted from India. The Hindu Bangladeshi, who may be equally “illegal,” is deemed worthy of inclusion by way of formal citizenship. The ultimate goal is that of homogeneity and limiting spaces for pluralism to flourish.


1 A range of communal organisations and movements use the banner of Hindutva. It is not the same as Hinduism. Hindutva refers to a communal ideology while Hinduism is a religious belief. 

2 The other organisations of the Sangh Parivar may also have a role to play in the anti-Bangladeshi campaign in India; but, for the purpose of this article, I am restricting my focus to the BJP and the RSS.

3 The Border Security Force (BSF) is a paramilitary force charged with guarding India’s land border during peace time and preventing transnational crime.

4 In the absence of a refugee policy, the Indian state deals with all entrants from outside its borders under the Foreigners Act of 1946, the Passports Act of 1967, the Registration Act of 1939, and the Passport (Entry into India) Act of 1920. The Foreigners Act of 1946, under which foreigners without valid documents are arrested, has a colonial legacy and predates the Citizenship Act of 1955 (Banerjee 2010: 11–33).

5 Different records give different figures for the number of Bangladeshi migrants in India. Neither India nor Bangladesh have any strict citizenship identification tool in place yet. This makes the identification of nationalities difficult. It is estimated that about 15 million Bangladeshis are living illegally in India (Datta 2004: 336). The 2001 Census reported about 5.1 million persons as migrants by last residence from across the international border, and of these 3.0 million persons were from Bangladesh. Former BSF Additional Director General P K Mishra stated in May 2014 that nobody can verify the trend of Bangladeshi migrants in India, but it may be estimated that no less than 20 to 60 million live in India (IANS 2014).

6 In several instances, Bangladeshis are found to possess a voter’s ID card in India as well as Bangladesh. India does not recognise dual citizenship and Bangladesh allows for dual citizenship in exceptional cases.

7 There is a long history of struggle against. Bangladeshis in Assam, which revolves around issues of ethnicity and economic opportunities. For details refer to Dutta (2015).

8 Bengal was partitioned into West Bengal and East Bengal in 1905. AIML was formed in East Bengal.

9 In the last few years India has witnessed a spate of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. The article focuses only on the Bangladeshis because of their presence in mainstream discussions and mobilisation against them. The attention received by Bangladeshis in India is because of historical as well as economic reasons, and the large numbers in which they are visible.

10 See the document in the PRS website:

11 To deal with the large number of immigrants in Assam, the Indira Gandhi government enacted the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act (IMDT) in 1983 to detect foreigners and expel them from Assam. The Supreme Court struck down this act in 2005. The IMDT Act was different from the Foreigners Act of 1946 because in case of the latter the burden of proof lay on the accuser. This made the process of deportation of illegal immigrants from Assam a difficult one.


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I am grateful to the anonymous reviewer for her valuable comments and suggestions. I would also like to thank Aditya Nigam and Nandita Dhawan for their comments on initial drafts of this article. It was presented at the international workshop titled “Race, Criminal Justice, and Migration” organised by Border Criminologies, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford, in September 2016. I thank the organisers Mary Bosworth, Yolanda Yazquez, and Alpa Parmar, as well as the participants of the workshop, for critical discussions.

Updated On : 16th Feb, 2018


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