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Ambivalence of Citizenship in Assam

The process of identifying "citizens" through the preparation of the National Register of Citizens for Assam, coupled with changes in the Citizenship Act, 1955 that apply specifically to Assam and allow for a "hyphenated" citizenship-- "Indian" and "Assamese"--continues to be troubled issues that have not abated since the 1980s.

The foreigners’ question that festered in Assam in the 1980s endures today. However, its resolution is no longer sought in the violent elimination of the non-Assamese-speaking outsiders or solely through the legal mechanisms of the Foreigners Act, but through bureaucratic intervention, pushed by a political consensus on identifying those who belong. Towards this end, Assam has seen over the past two years an unprecedented bureaucratic exercise of identifying “citizens” to prepare a “National” Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam.

The history of identification of citizens and sifting out non-citizens goes back to the Assam movement and the Assam Accord. The present moment, however, is significant for its coalescence with the changes made in 2003 in the Citizenship Act, 1955, which eliminated citizenship by birth and gave precedence to descent. The absence of a “political” contestation in Assam over the NRC, and the approval it has among people across Assam, is symptomatic of the continuing appeal of an “authentic” Assamese identity, which is currently being officially debated in the state, and of trust in an “efficient” mechanism of identification of citizens, painstakingly developed by the NRC commissioner of Assam.

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