Reflections on “Citizenship in Crisis?: A Panel Discussion on India and Myanmar”

by Nico Millman (PhD Candidate, English)

On Friday, January 19, the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) and the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania co-sponsored an urgent and compelling event, “Citizenship in Crisis?: A Panel Discussion on India and Myanmar”. The discussion featured commentary by academics and human rights lawyers, including Niraja Gopal Jayal (Professor, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University); Aman Wadud (Lawyer, Justice and Liberty Initiative); Elliott Prasse-Freeman (Assistant Professor of Anthropology, National University of Singapore), and Syantani Chatterjee (Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Pennsylvania). Ishani Dasgupta, a joint PhD Candidate in Anthropology and South Asia Studies at Penn and Graduate Fellow at the Andrea Mitchell Center, moderated the discussion between the panelists and the audience Q&A. The conversation focused on the way citizenship laws in both India and Myanmar function as “instruments of exclusion.” The dialogue illuminated similar patterns of nation-making in these two former British colonies, particularly the state’s use of “religious rhetoric” to rank citizenship, and the “overlaps in technologies of persecution” through “detention camps and mass expulsion”.

In her opening comments, Ishani Dasgupta brought up the legislative histories that have generated resonant cries over the question of national belonging. In 1982, Myanmar stripped the Rohingya minorities of citizenship and reclassified them as “resident foreigners.” This preceded a government-led genocide against the Rohingya in 2017, which rendered this minority group stateless and generated a refugee crisis. In December 2019, the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of India passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which designates religion as a basis for citizenship for refugee Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists, Jains, or Christians from neighboring countries but considers Muslims from these countries ineligible. This law came on the heels of a nationwide establishment of the National Registry of Citizens (NRC), which was first implemented in the northeastern state of Assam and made 1.9 million citizens subject to renewed scrutiny and persecution. These unprecedented attacks against citizenship were met with waves of protest in both India and Myanmar; to this day, none of these laws have yet been repealed.

Niraja Jayal situated the CAA in a longer historical context, claiming it represents a “departure, as well as culmination” of decades-long legal and political trends in postcolonial India. The amendment represents a “foundational shift” from the provisions in India’s 1947 constitution by introducing religion as a criterion for citizenship. Secular law originally defined citizenship based on jus soli (or “birth on the soil”) and ensured universal, equal citizenship regardless of faith. However, the current amendment creates a graded hierarchy of citizenship according to religion. It offers an accelerated pathway to citizenship for certain religious communities migrating from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, while entirely excluding those of Muslim faith from those same countries (as well as neglecting Myanmar and Sri Lanka). The amendment is simultaneously a product of a longer, deliberate erosion of civil liberties. Dr. Jayal pointed to discontent around increased in-migration to Assam in the mid-eighties, which preceded a 1986 amendment that differentiated eligibility based on the migrant’s year of arrival to India. Subsequent laws inserted even narrower requirements—citizenship can no longer be claimed on the basis of one’s birth in the country, but on the question of descent and parentage, which “covertly signals” the religious identity of many migrants (especially from Bangladesh). The specification of religion in the most recent amendment “makes the exclusion more explicit.” These legal developments operated in tandem with the mainstreaming of Hindutva politics in 1990s, a right-wing Hindu nationalist movement that imagines Hindus as the only ‘natural’ citizens of India. This mobilization, which has its roots in late-colonial India, has transformed India’s democratic institutions, undermined secular constitutionalism, and created a hostile atmosphere for migrants.

Elliott Prasse-Freeman, whose scholarship centers on Myanmar and comparative politics, reminded us that Myanmar was formally part of India until 1937. Though the political trajectories that India and Myanmar have taken since then are not identical, the shared experience of British empire enabled scholars to use similar approaches to understand the relationship between “state” and “citizen” across these contexts. Referencing the historiographic work of Partha Chatterjee, Bernard Cohn, and Nicholas Dirks, Dr. Prasse-Freeman outlined that “ethnicity is a vexed term” in Myanmar law. State-defined “ethnicities” do not necessarily match how communities on the ground understand themselves. Scholars generally understand 1982 Myanmar Nationalist Law as a “watershed moment” for the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya as the military junta did not declare them as one of the 135 “national races” eligible to claim citizenship. The state calls the Rohingya “Bengali immigrants” as a strategy to efface their modes of self-understanding and belonging, as well as to associate their movements across borders with supposed “illegality.” Contemporarily, the Rohingya in Myanmar are kept in “apartheid-like conditions” in an area on the northern border of the Rakhine state, which abuts Bangladesh. As such, they are construed as the “thin edge” of a larger Muslim threat invading the boundaries of the nation-state. Anti-Rohingya state racism in Myanmar exemplifies the mutually reinforcing character of ethnic and religious prejudices, an ideology that exclusionary citizenship law enshrines.

The production of stateless populations also takes place in India at the intersection of regional and religious affiliation. Aman Wadud has firsthand experience of working in Assamese detention centers an advocate for those deemed “doubtful citizens” or “declared foreigners” by the state. Many in India responded to the 2019 CAA as an assault on constitutional rights, and those in Assam understood it as part of a prolonged attack on forms of culture and the languages indigenous to the Northeast. Although the implementation of the CAA faces delays due to the pandemic, it has licensed state authorities to detain individuals more freely, which intensifies pre-existing issues for migrants as well as for the undocumented rural poor. Detainees live under egregious conditions. The facilities do not provide adequate food quality or space, and those detained are not given right to parole or a minimum wage. The detention centers are meant to deport detainees without rightful Indian citizenship to their supposed countries of origin, yet Wadud claims it is more accurate to understand them as a node in a complex apparatus to render communities stateless.

Syantani Chatterjee urged us to understand citizenship in postcolonial India not simply as a set of rights to acquire, but as a mode for governing migrants and minorities. Chatterjee conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Mumbai within primarily Muslim informal settlements, noting that many living within these settlements “spoke anxiously” about the realities of mob lynching and incarceration. Chatterjee theorized that a culture of “suspicion” fuels these anxieties; the anticipation one’s religious and citizenship status being placed “under suspicion” is not incidental, but “a procedural tool” for citizenship governance and a feature of political life in India. Suspicion is enacted through an “economy of gestures,” from slight allusions to outright accusations, and ultimately reveals itself as an embedded process that “leans towards predetermined outcomes” whether in the law or by mob violence. This mode of governance “self-proliferates” its language, so that to be called a “meat eater, arsonist, anti-national, or infiltrator…ensnares the object of suspicion.” This is a “technique for running a state” that “mobilizes multiple forms of power” across “networks of complicity,” from ordinary denizens to the police. Suspicion is thus an integral part of state power, one that empowers vigilante politics, and informs the lived experiences of religious minorities in India.

Women protesting the CAA, NPR, and NRC at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, India.

In the Q&A session, Dr. Ania Loomba, Catherine Bryson Professor of English at Penn, asked if panelists could address whether these new developments with the CAA are or will disproportionately affect women or not, considering that women headed many protests in Delhi. Niraja Jayal’s response called attention to a history of women’s political mobilization in Delhi, from the history to the student movement to the response to the 2012 gang rape, which likely contributed to women’s involvement in the CAA demonstrations. The leadership, comprising Muslim and elderly women, may have been enabled by their “experience of education and work,” as well as by their being witness to the “manifest reluctance” of ruling political parties to protect them. Jayal also emphasized that this law posed an “existential threat” for many women, especially those already excluded from the NRC and who have been deprived of basic identification documents. Aman Wadud agreed that this is the reason many women are vulnerable, especially because many are married off before the minimum age to work, which contributes to an “inherent gender bias” in the CAA. Ishani Dasgupta added that daily laborers face unique barriers to participation in mass mobilization. Work is often a “matter of life or death”; for them to participate in a morcha (an organized march) means that they lose wages and cannot eat the next day. Therefore, it is important to maintain “an expansive sense of what resistance can be constituted of [because of] labor,” especially when contemplating political agency itself. Further, Dasgupta speculated on possible solidarities across groups of people, such as women, Dalits, Adivasis, queer and trans peoples, who face differential but shared challenges around supplying the kinds of documents demanded by the state.

Another participant asked in what ways the post-9/11 War on Terror and global Islamophobia contributed to the citizenship crises in India or Myanmar. Elliott Prasse-Freeman stated that “Islamophobic narratives generated at the grassroots find common travelers with right-wing nationalism across the world” through social media platforms, which does create a kind of global, right-wing “common ground.” Niraja Jayal expressed some hesitancy to attributing anti-Muslim exclusion in Indian citizenship as a neat byproduct of War on Terror. She places the “well-springs” of Indian Islamophobia more firmly in a domestic context, primarily out of the “unfinished business of Partition,” though the War of Terror may have provided a “convenient narrative” and “happy coincidence” for some to politically leverage.

Jayal’s concluding commentary reminded me of the writings of Arun Ferreira, a current political prisoner booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in 2004 and more recently implicated in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon case. In his prison diaries, Colours of the Cage: A Memoir of an Indian Prison, he explains that the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in the United States provided India a rationale to fine-tune domestic repressive policies. National security became “a key aspect of state policy” not only for the United States, but also for India. The government revamped older anti-terror laws, like the UAPA, and introduced new ones, such as the 2002 Prevention of Terrorism Act, which permitted the police to use methods of torture perfected by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and gave it greater leeway to arrest political dissidents. Additionally, India upgraded colonial-era sedition laws, which the British originally introduced to quell anti-colonial dissent, and repurposed them to clamp down on anyone questioning the postcolonial nation-state. The anti-Muslim fervor that fueled the global War on Terror offered India an opportunity to update its legal, carceral, and militaristic institutions; now, the postcolonial nation-state wields that same machinery against the minority groups most vulnerable to dictates of the CAA.

Protests in Myanmar against the coup.

Further, in an interview on Democracy Now!, Dr. Maung  Zarmi, a lawyer and co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition, noted that the January 6 takeover of the United States capitol directly inspired the Myanmar military to advance the recent February 1 coup against the democratically-elected government less than a month later. Since then, the military has used violence against peaceful protesters, with security forces killing over 38 people with the use of gunfire and tear gas. Immigrant communities across the United States are coordinating peaceful protests condemning the coup. Protests are also taking place in Philadelphia by Myanmar immigrants whose families are facing violence from the military. They are calling for sanctions against Myanmar and the “boycott of local businesses whose owners are related to or descended from Myanmar military.”

Taken together, both Ferreira and Zarmi’s commentary illuminate some of the ways that the War on Terror and the United States have invigorated Islamophobia and repressive national security policies globally, which, in turn, right-wing nationalists politically leverage in India and Myanmar. In sum, this was an important and valuable discussion convened by CASI and the Andrea Mitchell Center. A video of the event is now available on YouTube.