This essay considers the fraught issue of clandestine migrations from East Pakistan/Bangladesh into India through a close reading of Prafulla Roy's Bengali short story “Stateless.” By drawing attention to the Indian state's slippery construction of the “illegal migrant” and to the increasingly constricting definition of Indian citizenship, I argue that the “illegal Bangladeshi” is a deeply unstable category, open to misuse and translation by different state actors/agencies. “Stateless” enables us to imagine the precarious existence of the sans papiers as de facto stateless persons and illustrates the importance of citizenship as legal status for those who don't have it.

In the past few decades, there has been an explosion of interest in migration and diasporas, largely sparked off by new migration from the global South to North America and Western Europe. Within this broader context of people on the move, population movements from South Asia to the global North have attained a new visibility and significance such that South Asian migrants in affluent Western countries are often publicly commemorated and courted by both homeland and receiving nations at the expense of other migrant formations. Scholarship on diaspora, migration, and transnationalism has remained similarly concerned with migrant populations in the West and the North, even though the majority of the world's migrants have remained in the global South, within or close to their countries or regions of origin. As Claire Alexander, Joya Chatterji, and Annu Jalais point out: “The South is not just a ‘source’ of migration, but its preeminent destination. South-south diasporas are the largest in the world, yet this simple fact has not been taken into account by most scholars of diaspora.”1 

While the larger project, of which this essay is a part, seeks to look at south–south migrations within the South Asian region across Partition's western and eastern borders, this essay considers the fraught and hotly debated issue of “illegal” or clandestine migrations from East Pakistan/Bangladesh into India by focusing on questions of citizenship and statelessness through a close reading of Prafulla Roy's Bengali short story “Stateless” (Desh Nei) (1996/97).2 I begin by asking: When did the Indian state come to designate migrations across Partition's eastern border as “illegal migrations” and/or “infiltration”? When did the Indian state move from an official narrative of “homecoming” (to use Willem van Schendel's term) toward Hindu and Sikh Partition-era migrants fleeing from violence to one of overt hostility toward people from East Pakistan/Bangladesh, even if there was a vast discrepancy in the way the central government had dealt with refugees from East Pakistan as compared to the refugees from the Punjab in terms of the allocation of resources and rehabilitation programs?3 Initially, both India and Pakistan did their best to accommodate the citizenship claims of millions of displaced people who moved across the new borders—their assertions on the two new states reflecting their sense of entitlement on India or Pakistan based on their religious identity—even as local communities and governments across the subcontinent, from Sindh to Assam, tried to resist the overwhelming influx of refugees. Article 6 of the Indian Constitution was meant to deal with the citizenship claims of Hindu and Sikh refugees from what had become Pakistan and was a largely uncontroversial clause in the Constituent Assembly debates, given the immense sympathy generated by the Hindus and Sikhs who were fleeing from the bloodbath in the Punjab, as well as the violence in Quetta, Balochistan, in 1947. In the aftermath of the gigantic movement of people across the new borders, the Constituent Assembly adopted jus soli citizenship—based on an individual's birth on the soil of the nation—as the basis of Indian citizenship; it remains the defining principle of Indian citizenship, at least in the “constitutional citadel.”4 However, since the mid-1980s, the law on citizenship has been recurrently amended in an effort to stem unauthorized migration from Bangladesh, moving Indian citizenship irreversibly toward a jus sanguinis (descent-based) principle of citizenship that attests to the enduring impact of the divisive legacies of Partition on the construction of legal citizenship in India.

This essay argues that the “illegal Bangladeshi” in India is a deeply unstable and historically shifting category by drawing attention to the Indian state's slippery and expedient construction of the “illegal migrant”—depending on which political party is in power—and to the tightening of the boundaries of citizenship inclusion, especially since the 1980s.5 I draw attention to the discursive construction of the illegal Bangladeshi and suggest that this category is liable to slippages with those who share affinities of religion, language, or place of origin, as well as misuse and translation by different state actors, agencies, and civil society.

The story I examine, Roy's “Stateless,” illustrates the importance of citizenship as legal status from the perspective of those who don't have it—refugees, undocumented migrants, stateless people—as opposed to the emphasis on thick citizenship in political theory. “Stateless” tells the story of an East Bengali Muslim migrant proletariat, Asad, in Bombay who is constituted as an “illegal migrant” by petty functionaries of the state, despite the fact that he had been living in Bombay for 30 years. Asad is eventually evicted from the Indian nation-space because he is a Muslim of East Bengali origin, and because he does not have any papers to validate his legal status. Roy's story pivots around the importance of documents for authenticating citizenship as legal status and for the right to settle in India, irrespective of the frequently changing and increasingly constricting legal definition. The story centers round a particular Indian document that, until recently, served as a de facto national identity card: the ration card.6 It shows how the lack of citizenship authenticating papers can constitute one as a non-person—a de facto stateless person—in the eyes of the state, someone who can then be evicted from the nation-space with ease and impunity. “Stateless” enables us to imagine the precarious existence of the sans papiers, especially those who have been constructed and declared as “illegal migrants” or infiltrators in our midst.


In this section, I provide a brief account of the longue durée of migrations into India across Partition's eastern border and trace how the post-Partition state's initial narrative of refugees “coming home” transmuted into the overlapping—yet also diverging—discourses of “illegality” and “infiltration.” Two partitions in 1947 and in 1971 engendered immense displacements and migrations in the Bengal delta, which occurred in waves over the years.7 About 20 million Hindus and Muslims sought shelter across the new borders with almost all of them settling in the region itself.8 Whereas population exchange in the Punjab was sudden, massive, and almost complete in 1947–48, the movement of people in Bengal was less dramatic and happened over a much longer period of time. While most refugees are viewed as a disturbing problem, deeply threatening to the national order of things, Partition refugees were constituted as would-be citizens who were joining the nation to which they belonged—Hindus and Sikhs as Indians and Muslims as Pakistanis.9 Their journey across the border and their arrival in Pakistan or India were constituted as a “homecoming,” while their suffering and traumatic uprooting were represented as sacrifices to the nation.10 (The notion of a homecoming was a founding narrative of Pakistani nationalism in particular precisely because Pakistan was conceived as a [sacred] homeland for India's Muslims.)

To be sure, however, the homecoming narrative was compromised at the outset as refugees increasingly encountered hostility, especially in borderland areas, with local communities and provincial governments, overwhelmed by the influx, trying to limit the numbers of the displaced. This hostility—or at best lack of hospitality—toward Partition's displaced was very much in play in the instance of Bengali Hindus from East Pakistan to West Bengal who were seen as a liability by the West Bengali elite and the government. Left to their own devices, many of the earlier—pre-1950—migrants from East Pakistan settled in and around Calcutta, but post-1950 migrants—who came with few possessions, capital, or skills—found it difficult to claim a place in the truncated state despite their shared Bengali “Hindu” identity, which had to do with differences in the class and caste composition of the two groups.11 In 1964, India introduced a policy that declared that no direct rehabilitation was to be given to the new migrants from East Pakistan in West Bengal, that is, people who moved after 1 January 1964.12 

If the massive migrations that took place in the aftermath of the 1946 Bihar riots and Partition in 1947 constituted the first (staggered) phase of mass migration, the refugee narrative reached its second crucial phase in 1971 during the liberation war of Bangladesh and the second partition of the subcontinent. Millions of refugees fled from the atrocities of the Pakistani army. By the end of the war, it is said that about 10 million refugees had crossed the border into India, although this figure is impossible to verify.13 Moreover, the war also led to millions of internally displaced people, including thousands of non-Bengali-speaking Muslims—“Biharis” as they came to be termed in Bangladesh—who were seen as collaborators of the Pakistani army. Almost a million “Urdu-speakers” were forced to leave their homes and seek refuge in slum-like conditions all over the country.

While most East Pakistani/Bangladeshi refugees returned to their homes after the end of the war, a considerable number—both Hindus and Muslims—stayed on in India; subsequently, these ethnic networks facilitated large flows of Bangladeshis into the northeast of India, particularly into the neighboring state of Assam. As Ranabir Samaddar points out, “Without 1971, and more generally without the period of 1971–75, migrations in the 1980s were inconceivable. The migration and refugee trails have led deep into both the countries.”14 Migration into Bangladesh slowed down considerably after 1971; however, people from Bangladesh—both Hindus and Muslims—have continued to migrate into India for a variety of complex reasons, including outbreaks of violence, political persecution of religious and linguistic minorities, and, more often than not, forced by desperate hunger and poverty. Indeed, many of the more recent migrants from Bangladesh are Muslims migrating in search of jobs and a better life. These more recent instances of migration across Partition's eastern border into India attest to the fact that what we are dealing with is a “spectrum of forced and voluntary migration” as in many other parts of the world.15 Many Bangladeshi peasants clandestinely migrate to India from what are known as “monga-prone areas” as a survival strategy in defiance of post-Partition cartographies and statist conceptions of legality and illegality.16 

But when and how did migrations from East Pakistan into India come to be designated as “illegal”? The aftermath of the 1971 war is a watershed moment in this history. The Indira–Mujib pact of 1972 declared 1971 to be the official cutoff year for establishing cross-border migrations across the eastern border as “illegal.” The pact held that Bangladesh would not be held responsible for persons who had migrated to India before the birth of the new republic, “prior to 25 March 1971.” By establishing post-March 1971 migrations to India as illegal, the pact marked an explicit shift away from the homecoming narrative of the Partition era—even if things on the ground were far more varied and complex, as we have seen. At the same time, it also served, paradoxically, as a way of accommodating the many thousands of migrants from that region who were already in India. (This is especially pertinent if we keep in mind that Assamese politicians had wanted to establish 1951 as the cutoff date for demarcating illegality.17) Indeed, the eastern border remained porous, especially during the Mujib years; what is more, different Indian state actors and agencies continued to accommodate East Bengali migrants for an extended period (at least until the mid-1970s) by providing food subsidies and voting rights, depending on where in India they had migrated to, often for expedient reasons. Many East Bengali migrants were given access to rights and benefits usually reserved for Indian citizens. This was especially true in Assam, where the Congress-led government “took a nondiscriminatory and open-to-all approach to the electoral rolls” for many years such that almost any adult in Assam could get enfranchised. Things changed, however, with the onset of the Assam students’ movement in the 1980s, a nativist movement that targeted Bengalis in particular as outsiders.18 The leaders of the Assam movement claimed that millions of people in the state were likely foreigners, and that the state's electoral rolls included the names of thousands of such foreigners. Labels such as “Bangladeshi,” “illegal migrant,” “foreigner,” and “infiltrator” gained traction during this time.

While, the terms “illegal migrant” and “infiltrator” are often used interchangeably, especially with reference to Bangladeshi migrants in India, it is important to keep in mind that the discourse of infiltration has its own unique history, which predates the law's demarcation of illegality. The narrative of infiltration first emerged in the states of Assam and Tripura in the 1940s and 1950s to withhold citizens’ rights, especially land rights, to Bengali migrants from East Pakistan, before becoming widely prevalent, once again, in Assam in the early 1980s.19 Hindu nationalist forces also took up the narrative of infiltration in the 1980s and 1990s and made it into a national issue. These right-wing forces have played a crucial role in bringing unauthorized migrants from Bangladesh to the center stage of national politics by constructing them as a health threat, a law-and-order problem, a burden on society, and a security threat to the Indian nation, who must be expelled from the country.


In order to understand the (Indian) state's production of illegality, I examine who can (or cannot) be a citizen of India and how the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion have shifted over the years, especially in response to heightened anxieties surrounding in-migration from Bangladesh.20 Indian citizenship started on an inclusive jus soli note—according to the Citizenship Act of 1955, anyone born in the territory of India could be an Indian citizen—but it has moved in the direction of a more restrictive jus sanguinis model, reflecting the growth of exclusionary leanings in Indian society and politics since Independence.21 The tendency in scholarship on citizenship has been to view this movement as a linear model of regression; however, Niraja Jayal questions this standard narrative from “virtuous jus soli to less virtuous jus sanguinis, with the moment of rupture occurring in the 1980s” through the implementation of the Assam Accord and the first amendment to the Citizenship Act in 1985.22 She shows how the tension between these two conceptions of citizenship was present at the founding moment of the republic, which was especially evident in the Constituent Assembly debates around Article 7 of the Constitution—“the most intensely contested Article on citizenship in the Constituent Assembly”—which had to do with the citizenship claims of Muslims who had fled during the Partition riots but had returned to India under a permit of resettlement.23 

Despite these tensions between the principles of jus soli and jus sanguinis, which were reflected in the Constituent Assembly debates, jus soli remains the defining doctrine of citizenship as laid out in the Indian Constitution. The move from jus soli to jus sanguinis has happened gradually with time and is reflected more visibly in statutory law, particularly in recent amendments to the Citizenship Act, beginning with the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 1985. The 1985 amendment to the Citizenship Act gave legal manifestation to the Assam Accord, introducing a new section that “created categories of eligibility for citizenship based on the year in which a person had migrated to India.”24 The Accord agreed on various cutoff dates of entry—all those who had migrated before 1966 from East Pakistan were deemed Indian citizens, while those who had migrated between 1966 and 1971 could stay in India so long as they registered as foreigners and their names were deleted from the electoral rolls. They could apply for citizenship after ten years. Finally, those who had migrated after 1971 were simply to be treated as “illegal imigrants.” In many ways, the Assam Accord endorsed the definition of the “illegal migrant” in the Indira-Mujib pact by making 1971 the official cutoff year for establishing illegal migrations. (This was also the cutoff date set by the Illegal Migrants [Determination by Tribunals Act] of 1983.25) However, what was left unsaid in the pact, but made explicit in the 1985 amendment, was that all migrants from East Pakistan who migrated before 1971 would in effect be deemed Indian citizens. Thus, Sanjib Baruah notes that the Citizenship Amendment Act “effectively gave de facto amnesty to all those who had crossed the border into Assam” before 1971, “irrespective of whether they were Hindu or Muslim,” and legalized their status in India without an explicit conferral of citizenship.26 

At the same time, there is no getting away from the more exclusionary aspects of this and subsequent amendments—1992 and 2004—to the citizenship law. According to these moves, the principle of jus soli would apply only to those born in India before 1986; those born after 1986 could claim citizenship only if one of their parents was a citizen of India at the time of their birth. The 2004 amendment to the Citizenship Act made these exclusions even more evident, excluding those born in India who had one parent who was an illegal migrant at the time of their birth.27 Thus we see how the principle of jus soli gets diluted over the years as the Indian state laid out a series of exclusions that were meant to prevent “Bangladeshi” migrants, in particular, from claims to Indian citizenship. It is apparent that, while seeking to define the subject/the self of Indian citizenship, the Indian state was, in fact, implicitly producing the category of its “other” (or one of its others)—the “illegal migrant.”


Roy's short story “Stateless” tells the story of Asad, an East Bengali Muslim migrant worker who has been living in Bombay for over 30 years and knows no other home, but it ends with his expulsion from India because he is unable to authenticate his legal status as an Indian. The story doesn't specify dates, other than indicating that Asad had crossed the eastern border with his parents sometime before the crucial cutoff year of 1971, when he was just five years old. “Stateless” opens on a scene of happy anticipation as Asad, his soon-to-be-wife Jahura, and her sister Zorina sit overlooking the Arabian Sea. Asad is looking forward to his upcoming marriage after many years of working as a construction worker, but the narrative arc of the story moves from this scene of hopeful anticipation to complete hopelessness and despair at the end as Asad is deported and left adrift on the border with Bangladesh, a victim of the political discourse of infiltration.

After his day out with his fiancée, when Asad returns to his home in the slum of Dharavi, he learns from his friend Rajibul that the police have been looking for him because they believe him to be an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh. Rajibul advises him to lay low for a few days and go to a locality called Ghatkopar, where there are other East Bengalis like him. Subsequently, Asad learns about the deportation drive being conducted by the police. He hears about how the police went to the home of his acquaintance Hamid, who had come to India at the time of the Bangladesh war in 1971, and asked to see his ration card. Because Hamid is able to produce a ration card—one of the acceptable documents of identification—they leave without a “fuss” (268). Asad and others like him are bewildered as to why “after all this time the police should be seeking out people who had come from East Pakistan thirty and forty years ago” (269). A pervasive sense of fear and dread runs through the story, leading up to the inevitable moment of eviction from the nation-space.

There appears to be a brief respite when Asad returns to Dharavi after waiting it out for 10–12 days. Both he and Rajibul want to believe that the worst is over, but catastrophe strikes once again in the form of “several pairs of booted feet” that come knocking at his dwelling one evening and accuse him of being an “illegal Bangladeshi immigrant” (279). When Rajibul tries to come to his aid and tells the police officers that Asad has been living in India for the past 30 years, they insist that he must have come recently and demand documentary proof of residence or legal status. Asad, who had worked for years as a migrant proletariat in Mumbai and had barely managed to survive, thinks to himself that he had no permanent address, so how could he even procure a ration card? Despite Rajibul and Asad's protests, the constables drag Asad to their jeep and take him to the police station.

“Stateless” illuminates how the category of the “illegal” Bangladeshi migrant is a fuzzy and blurred one and susceptible to slippages with indigent Bengali-speaking Muslims, especially those who do not have the papers to validate their legal status as citizens. Roy shows how Asad's Muslim identity comes into play in the construction of his identity as an “illegal immigrant.” When the sub-inspector first sees Asad, he asks him, “Are you Asadul Mian?” (278; emphasis added), and when he gives the order to take Asad to the station he says, “Take this Asadul Mian away” (282). It's almost as if the inspector needs to confirm and reiterate Asad's Muslim identity by the repeated use of the term “Mian” to justify that he is indeed a foreigner who must be evicted. As a Bengali-speaking Muslim living in the slums, Asad is declared an illegal migrant by state officials, unless he can authenticate his claims by means of documentary proof of citizenship. The story shows how the very definitions of legality and illegality get transformed and translated in the discourses and practices of state actors, and how the lack of documents can exclude one from the rights and benefits of citizenship.

Once Asad goes to the police station, he meets many others “without proof of identity” who are being held as “illegal immigrants” and who are on the verge of being deported across the border (282). This issue of possessing—or rather not possessing—the right documents for authenticating one's legal status becomes key in “Stateless.” Pointing to the increasing dependence of modern states on documents to identify their members, Kamal Sadiq suggests that the documentation of individual identity is part of an infrastructure of citizenship that seeks to create “a citizenship from above.”28 Documentation is a means of controlling and monitoring the population both for the purposes of domestic administration and, crucially, as well, for differentiating citizens from foreigners. Sadiq traces how the systematic documentation of individuals first appeared in the 19th century in Western countries as a means of securing the state from foreigners. Since the Second World War, documents such as national censuses, national databases, identity cards, and passports became crucial for embodying the individual identity of a citizen and for connecting the individual to the state. In newly independent post-colonial states that sought to emulate their European counterparts, the acquisition of paperwork by citizens became more and more important as states began to have meaning in the “everyday life of their residents” and expanded their functions through taxation and poverty-alleviation programs.29 To utilize public distribution systems, hospitals, dispensaries, schools, banks, and utility services, one needed to show identification documents. As Sadiq argues, “Documentation has become fused with individual identity to create a distinctive feature of modern developing states [such that] your document is your identity.”30 

Because Asad does not possess any of the documentary proofs of identity and/or residence—in this instance, a ration card—and because he happens to be a Muslim of East Bengali origin, his legal status as an Indian can easily be called into question. “Stateless” does not specify when exactly Asad crossed the border from East Pakistan, but the story makes clear that he had migrated before the crucial cutoff date of 1971—hence he is not an “illegal migrant” even by the official statist definition. However, his nationalist credentials will always be suspect because of his belated entry into the nation-space—and because he is a Muslim. The story draws attention to the plight of the sans papiers as de facto stateless people, who are deeply vulnerable, especially if they happen to be Muslim and Bengali.31 

Indeed, Asad and the omniscient narrator do not seek to provide a legalistic justification for his right to stay in India; rather, they keep reiterating the moral argument about his length of residence—the fact that he has lived in India for 30 years and has known no other home. “Of course, whether they [he and Jahura] hailed from Bihar or Bangladesh, Mumbai was indeed home to them now, as they had lived there for so many years and had set their roots deep in this city. They could not even think of leaving it for anywhere else” (251–52). When the police officer abuses Asad, calling him “a bastard illegal immigrant,” and calls into question his “Indian” identity, Asad pleads with him saying, “I came to India when I was five years old. India is my home” (281). Unlike the emblematic exilic and diasporic narratives about Partition by writers such as Qurratulain Hyder and Intizar Husain, there is no nostalgia for the ancestral homeland here. All Asad would like to do is stay on in Mumbai, where he has been living for most of his life. Thus, when he is taken to the West Bengal border, Asad feels like he had “left a familiar world and had landed on some unknown planet” (283).

At the border, Asad is confronted with the official Bangladeshi narrative of denial, emerging in part from Bangladesh's intense sense of vulnerability toward its big and powerful neighbor, India. Until the early 1980s, Bangladesh would accept “infiltrators” handed over by the Indian Border Security Force, even while denying cross-border population flows from Bangladesh into India. However, after 1982, India's “push-back” policies met with outright resistance from Bangladeshi border guards. Bangladesh kept insisting that there were no illegal Bangladeshis in India; rather, the deportees were Bengali-speaking Indian Muslims (even though many of the migrants identified themselves as Bangladeshis who had been living in India for years, according to press reports in both India and Bangladesh).

Roy's short story depicts the plight and suffering of deportees. When the Bangladeshi border officials interrogate Asad, he can't even recall the name of his ancestral village. What is more, the Bengali he speaks is inflected with a mixture of Hindi, Urdu, and Marathi, leading one officer to tell Asad in an echo of his Indian counterpart, “You don't belong to this country. Get back to India” (284). The story ends with the poignant image of Asad walking toward the Indian border, caught in the no-man's-land along with others like him, knowing that they would be sent back again. The space of the no-man's-land as a liminal—and potentially utopian—space between nation-states is a recurrent and emblematic one in South Asian fiction and film, most famously deployed in Saadat Hasan Manto's Urdu story “Toba Tek Singh” in which the protagonist dies in the no-man's-land between India and Pakistan. Roy's story ends with the narrator's meditation on Asad's liminal identity: “Asad was born an East Pakistani. Then for thirty years he was an Indian, during which time East Pakistan became Bangladesh. After all these years it was determined that he was not an Indian, nor was he a Bangladeshi. He was stateless” (284). Denied the legal status of citizenship by both states, Asad is literally caught in the middle and by the end finds himself a de jure stateless person—someone with no state willing to recognize or guarantee his/her rights.32 


In her recent work, Emily Apter underlines how “the lexicology of migration is fraught with linguistic racism, the politics of exclusion and imperial violence.”33 This linguistic racism was very much in evidence in India recently, when Amit Shah, president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, described irregular migrants from Bangladesh as “termites” who need to be “uprooted” from the body politic. A number of commentators have been quick to point out the parallels between Shah's speech and the rhetoric of authoritarian leaders elsewhere, which has often been a prelude to genocidal violence. Victims of the Holocaust, the conflicts in Darfur and Cambodia, the Balkan wars, and Tutsis in Rwanda, have all been likened to vermin, at some point or the other, as a means of denying them their humanity.34 

Invoking Etienne Balibar's work on cosmopolitics, Apter underscores the urgent need for “righting the language of migration (in the sense of putting it back on political course, restoring political rights to those whose language is treated as suspect or whose claims remain unlanguaged in any tongue)” as part of a larger project of rethinking Europe as a territory of cosmopolitical right.35 In the same spirit, my essay seeks to ask: What might it mean to recognize the rights of people like Asad in Roy's “Stateless” who have lived for decades as de facto stateless people, but whose claims remain inarticulatable in any tongue? How might we think about the right of every human being “not merely to survive but also to thrive somewhere on earth”?36 

Recent developments in India, however, have not been fortuitous. The recently undertaken National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise that was conducted in Assam to establish the legal status of people living in the state has raised many concerns about those who have been left out—about 4 million people from the first draft—and although they will get a second chance to submit their applications, the final NRC is still likely to exclude a sizable number of people. Situating the NRC exercise within the context of the proliferation of borders and illegality regimes that came to be normalized with decolonization and the end of European empires across the world, Sanjib Baruah writes, “The NRC is an extension of this project that has grown out of the anxiety of the incompleteness of India as a normal nation-state with normal immigration controls, especially across the Partition's borders.”37 What will happen to those whose names are not included in the NRC? As Baruah reminds us, we are in uncharted territory here.38 Although the silence of the Supreme Court and of those in power on the question of deportation can be read as a positive sign, as many as 4 million people may be declared stateless at the end of this exercise of demarcating legal citizens from illegal residents.

What makes matters even more complicated is the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, by the Lok Sabha, which muddies the NRC process in Assam. This bill effectively introduces into Indian citizenship law a distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim immigrants (something that until now was done only in the Citizenship Rules rather than in the body of the Act) and sneaks in religious difference into a law that is currently religion-neutral.39 It provides that Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians—everyone but Muslims—from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan “shall not be treated as illegal migrants for purposes of this Act” and that they shall be eligible for citizenship after 6 years of residence in India rather than 12 years, even if their names are not included in the NRC. In effect, the bill seeks to provide citizenship to non-Muslim minorities from these countries on the grounds of religious persecution. By doing so, the 2016 amendment confirms the tendency toward a majoritarian concept of citizenship that establishes Hindus as the core, organic nationals of India (a narrative that has always been latent in different strains of Indian nationalism—including Nehruvian secular nationalism40). Thus, a defense often provided for the bill by its advocates is that Hindus have nowhere else to go, while Muslims have many other lands that they can go to. If the bill becomes law, it will effectively incorporate into Indian citizenship laws “the idea of Hindu immigration as homecoming”—and the notion that India is above all the land of Hindus—something that was not ratified in law even in the tumultuous years after the Partition when displaced Hindus and Muslims were flooding into post-Partition India.41 Muslim residents of migrant origin, especially those who are unable to authenticate their legal status, will continue to be constituted as illegal migrants and infiltrators and their fate will remain precarious and uncertain. At best, such vulnerable residents will be deprived of any social welfare programs, rights, or benefits; at worst, like Asad they may well find themselves in a state of liminal legality—“existing in the shadows of two states, but devoid of citizenship in either.”42 

Roy's “Stateless” is remarkably prescient in the ways it illuminates and foreshadows the fate—expulsion or de facto statelessness—of marginal Muslims migrants from East Pakistan/Bangladesh, who have been consigned to surplus status in their country of arrival, like unwanted migrants in many parts of the world.43 


Claire Alexander, Joya Chatterji, and Annu Jalais, The Bengal Diaspora: Rethinking Muslim Migration (London: Routledge), 2 original emphasis.
Prafulla Roy, “Stateless,” in Set at Odds: Stories of the Partition and Beyond, trans. John W. Hood (New Delhi: Srishti, 2002), 249–84. Hood, the translator of Prafulla Roy's stories, told me that many of Roy's stories were born in serial form in magazines and Puja numbers. This story, Desh Nei, came out in a Puja number of 1996/7. I am grateful to John for responding to my queries and for sharing some of his forthcoming translations with me.
Willem van Schendel, The Bengal Borderland: Beyond State and Nation in South Asia (London: Anthem Press, 2005), 193. For more on the Bengal Partition and the uneven resources given by the central government for the rehabilitation of East Bengali refugees, see Joya Chatterji, The Spoils of Partition: Bengal and India, 1947–1967 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): “Long after the number of refugees in West Bengal had outstripped those in the East Punjab, such funds for their relief and rehabilitation as the central government was persuaded to sanction remained hopelessly inadequate and far too belated to resolve, or even to alleviate on the margins, one of the most intractable problems which partition had created” (129–30).
Niraja Gopal Jayal, Citizenship and Its Discontents: An Indian History (Ranikhet, India: Permanent Black, 2013), 62.
See Sujata Ramachandran, “Capricious Citizenship: Identity, Identification, and Banglo-Indians,” in The Human Right to Citizenship: A Slippery Concept, ed. Rhoda E. Howard-Hassman and Margaret Walton-Roberts (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 115–29.
The ration card is one of the most easily acquired forms of documentation in India and can be easily forged or acquired through fraudulent means.
Of course, these migrations also took place in the opposite direction, but my focus in this essay is on cross-border migrations from East Pakistan/Bangladesh into India.
Alexander, Chatterji, and Jalais, The Bengal Diaspora, 1.
For more on refugees as a problem within the national order of things, see Liisa Malkki, “Refugees and Exile: From ‘Refugee Studies’ to the National Order of Things,” Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 495–523.
van Schendel, The Bengal Borderland, 193.
Many of the later arrivals belonged to low-caste groups engaged in occupations such as fishing, boating, paddy cultivation, and carpentry. See Gyanesh Kudaisya, “Divided Landscapes, Fragmented Identities: East Bengal Refugees and Their Rehabilitation in India,” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 17, no. 1 (1996): 24–39; A Republic in the Making: India in the 1950s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 17.
Similar trends could be seen on the other side of the eastern border, as well. Impoverished Muslim refugees, especially those who migrated later, were not welcomed in East Pakistan and were called “refuz”—“a new word that soon acquired pejorative connotations” (Alexander, Chatterji, and Jalais, The Bengal Diaspora, 85).
I derive these figures from Willem van Schendel, A History of Bangladesh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 164.
Ranabir Samaddar, The Marginal Nation: Transborder Migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999), 71.
Sunil Amrith, “Reframing Migration: A Conversation with Historian Sunil Amrith,” interview by Varun Nayar, 9 November 2017,
Monga, or “hunger months,” refers to a seasonal famine between the months of September and November, whose impact is felt most intensely by those dependent on agricultural labor and marginal farming. Sujata Ramachandran, “Devouring the Map: Diasporas, Discourses, Discrimination, and Banglo-Indians,” South Asian Review 32, no. 3 (2011): 211.
In the 1960s, the Congress Chief Minister of Assam, Bimala Prasad Chalia, and his colleagues launched a campaign to deport immigrants from Assam, including Bengali Hindus who had settled in Assam, and set January 1951 as the cutoff date. A large number of Muslims had fled to East Pakistan after the 1950 riots in Assam, but many of them came back after the 1952 Nehru–Liaquat Pact. Accordingly, there was a sharp increase in the Muslim population in the 1961 Census Report, which made Assamese nationalists feel threatened about Muslim migration from East Pakistan. See van Schendel, The Bengal Borderland.
Sanjib Baruah, “Partition and the Politics of Citizenship in Assam,” in Partition: The Long Shadow, ed. Urvashi Butalia (New Delhi: Zubaan, and New York: Penguin, 2015), 89.
van Schendel, The Bengal Borderland, 195.
There are three aspects of citizenship: citizenship as legal status, citizenship as a bundle of rights, and citizenship as a sense of identity and belonging. For more on the different dimensions of citizenship in India and how each is deeply contested, see Jayal, Citizenship and Its Discontents.
To be sure, national citizenship, by definition, is exclusionary since nationalism is an “organic ideology” that rests upon the “formulation of a rule of exclusion, of visible or invisible ‘borders.’” “Exclusion,” as Etienne Balibar writes, “is the very essence of the nation-form” and is materialized in the laws and practices of citizenship (We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004], 23). At the most obvious level, these are external exclusions that serve to differentiate foreigners from nationals or citizens, but, of course, exclusions also function internally along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, religion, language, and caste, among other axes of inequality. For more on religious difference as an important axis of inequality in its own right in liberal secular nation-states and how many ostensibly secular states are implicitly institutionalized along the lines of the dominant majority religion, see Priya Kumar, Limiting Secularism: The Ethics of Coexistence in Indian Literature and Film (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), especially Chapter 1, “Rethinking Secularism.”
Jayal, Citizenship and Its Discontents, 52.
Jayal, Citizenship and Its Discontents, 58.
Niraja Gopal Jayal, The Caravan: A Journal of Politics and Culture, 19 February 2017,
However, there remains confusion about what should be the cutoff point between the earlier hospitable narrative of homecoming and the more recent discourse of illegal migration because of differing definitions by local politicians and the governments in Delhi and Bangladesh. Thus a 2000 accord between the central government and the state government of Assam once again pushed that date back to 1951. See van Schendel, The Bengal Borderland, 219, 241.
Baruah, “Partition and the Politics of Citizenship in Assam,” 89, 91–92 emphasis added.
Jayal, Citizenship and Its Discontents, 66.
Kamal Sadiq, Paper Citizens: How Illegal Immigrants Acquire Citizenship in Developing Countries (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 102.
Sadiq, Paper Citizens, 107.
Sadiq, Paper Citizens, 107 emphasis added.
De facto stateless persons are those “who lack the ability to prove their nationality or who cannot rely for protection on the state of which they are citizens” (Victoria Redclift, Statelessness and Citizenship: Camps and the Creation of Political Space [London: Routledge, 2013], 3). I am grateful to Victoria for sharing her illuminating work on Urdu-speakers in Bangladesh with me.
A de jure stateless person is one who is not considered a national by any state under the operation of its law, much like Hannah Arendt's refugee; however, not all stateless people are refugees.
Emily Apter, “Cosmopolitics,” Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon 4: The Balibar Edition (n.d.):
Suchitra Vijayan, “Amit Shah’s ‘Migrant Termites’ Speech Echoes Leaders around the World Who Orchestrated Mass Violence,” Opinion, Scroll, 2 October 2018,
Apter, “Cosmopolitics,” emphasis added.
Joan Cocks, “Between Nativism and Displacement: Citizens, Strangers, and Surplus Status in the Contemporary Age,” Current Sociology (forthcoming). I am grateful to Joan for sharing her thoughtful contribution with me.
Sanjib Baruah, “Non-citizens and History,” Frontline, 31 August 2018,
Sanjib Baruah, “The Missing 4,007,707,” Indian Express, 2 August 2018,
Jayal, Citizenship and Its Discontents, 106.
For more on some of the shared ground between Hindu nationalism and Nehruvian secular nationalism, especially when it comes to affirming the autochthony—and hence the prior claim—of Hindus on the nation-space of India, see Priya Kumar, “Beyond Tolerance and Hospitality: Muslims as Strangers and Minor Subjects in Hindu Nationalist and Indian Nationalist Discourse,” in Living Together: Jacques Derrida's Communities of Violence and Peace, ed. Elisabeth Weber (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 80–103.
Sanjib Baruah, “The Fire in Assam,” Indian Express, 15 January 2019,
See Ramachandran, “Capricious Citizenship.”
On the looming surplus status of migrants fleeing crises in their countries of departure and popular animus in their countries of arrival, See Cocks, “Between Nativism and Displacement.”