Violence at the limits of liberal governance: on claims about Aadhaar as a “vote bank” nexus

The last posts suggested some concerns around Aadhaar and Universal ID in Assam circulate around a second figure of the duplicate—not the cheater whose proliferating instances of identity must be de-duplicated, but the presumptively illegal Bangladeshi migrant whose passing as an Indian citizen may be legitimated if s/he gains access to an Aadhaar card and identity.

Assamese-Bangladesh border

Much of both popular and expert literature on the effects of migration across the Assamese-Bangladeshi border is neither dispassionate nor particularly empirical. A problem is proposed—large scale illegal migration and “land grabbing”—but few local studies helping to specify the stakes either in border districts or large towns and cities are cited. Such studies may exist—these questions are new for me—but an unscientific survey of several dozen policy or news reports through the medium of the Internet has not yet revealed them. What does clearly exist is a language that moves quickly into the specter of a national struggle between the Assamese and the Bangladeshis, a struggle framed both in a language of demographic invasion and cultural genocide and, iteratively, as a struggle over Islamicization and de-Hinduization. Hindutva groups like the VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad, see the classic article by Jaffrelot in Dalmia et al] are not surprisingly perhaps well-represented in debates over the disappearance of Assam; but the range of commentary is far broader.

It would be unfortunate if my point was taken as a dismissal of the effects of large-scale migrations. If the tenor of the debate tends toward the inflammatory, framing the migrant through a presumptive psychology of a rapacious “land hunger,” part of the challenge is to understand the conditions of this slippage.

In this context, UID is debated as a means either to establish security and identify the false claims of the migrant, or as a failed enterprise in being conceived not as a register of citizenship but rather residency. Some articles focus on the technical and historical conditions of UID’s database and its complex relation to census instruments, but most focus on the politics of the ruling Congress-Party led alliance as it gears up for elections and courts “vote banks”: here the presumption is that Congress needs the “minority [Muslim] vote” and that its attitude toward UIDAI reflects the contingencies of not seeming too harsh on Muslim migrants.

What emerge are a set of challenges to UIDAI, presumed by articles, reports, and blog posts either to be responses by parties in power to electoral considerations by weakening or attacking UIDAI, or to be responses by parties out of power and especially the Hindu nationalist parties to UID’s claimed role in weakening proof of citizenship and thus weakening state security.

I have elsewhere termed such a political imaginary “the nexus”—in that any position toward an institution, here the UIDAI, is taken to reveal a prior set of “vested interests” benefiting the powers behind a political formation. What is interesting is that rival visions of the impact of migration and of state response may both be organized around a critique of UID /Aadhaar.

Rather than detailed commentary, let me just throw out a brief discussion of and citation from 2 citations that exemplify this range of problematization and the shared critique of UID.

(1) from Shantanu Bhagwat’s blog, Satyameva Jayate: Dedicated to “Bharat” and “Dharma” in a post entitled “This weekend, worrying about Assam”:

Mr. Bhagwat cites another blogger, Nitin, who argues for regularized work-permits as part of “the solution” to the security problem of Bangladeshi migration and who suggests that UID can also be used to keep track of who is a citizen. Nitin frames the program in the longue durée:

“Probably the most important event in (Assam) during the last 25 years — an event, moreover, which seems likely to alter permanently the whole future of Assam and the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilization — has been the invasion of a vast horde of land-hungry Bengali immigrants, mostly Muslims, from the districts of (Bangladesh).”

You might think I am quoting a contemporary BJP leader. These are, in fact, words of C S Mullan, census commissioner under the British Raj. He made these comments in 1931. If you thought that the issue of “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh” is a recent one, then think again.

Demographic change in the erstwhile Assam province in the first half of the twentieth century was at the heart of the Muslim League’s demand, in the 1940s, that the territory be given to Pakistan. So those who argue that large-scale immigration from Bangladesh is one of the biggest long-term threats to India’s national security are right.

Nitin’s move is interesting: he differentiates himself from the Hindu nationalist BJP and grounds his concern rather in the colonial era census. In other words: reason, not passion, should guide a planned response: thus work permits and UID as the solution as opposed to the violent means advocated by some.

His response is dual: use the Bangladeshi project of Universal ID, cross-nationally in collaboration with Bangladesh, to survey and control numbers of migrants. This is the “negative” part of the solution (“You might be surprised to know that as many as 85 million Bangladeshis have biometric National ID Cards (NIDs) which were issued ahead of the 2008 elections. These cards are now required for opening bank accounts, applying for passports and accessing public services”)

And, the positive: use the Indian UID to assess who is really a citizen. Vote-bank politics, by which Nitin like many commentators suggests the Congress Party soft-pedals control of Bangladeshis to garner the needed Muslim vote in its coalition building, have garnered the dividends of Congress (neoliberal, non-Hindu nationalist) Rule. Here Nitin identifies with these dividends, but marks a limit in the figure of the migrant. The security threat of Bangladeshis flooding in must be tackled. But the solution extends the liberal promise of Congress through the rationalized distribution of cross-national labor through cross-national biometrics.

In contrast, Mr. Bhagwat notes that UID is not organized around citizenship rolls and therefore cannot function to address any security issue here.

I am pretty certain he [Nitin] realises that UID is not about citizenship – it is more about establishing an “identity” – and to the best of my knowledge, it is going to be based on the National Population Register. The population register is not the same as a record of citizens (or citizenship) and it would therefore be wrong and misleading to use that as  the basis for establishing citizenship (the fact that this is exactly what is very likely to happen is  a topic for a separate discussion).

Mr. Bhagwat then cites a series of article excerpts by the Assamese journalist Wasbir Hussain, including the following:

As a result of population movement from Bangladesh, the spectre looms large of the indigenous people of Assam being reduced to a minority in their home state… This silent and invidious demographic invasion of Assam may result in the loss of the geo-strategically vital districts of Lower Assam [on the border with Bangladesh]. The influx of these illegal migrants is turning these districts into a Muslim majority region. It will then only be a matter of time when a demand for their merger with Bangladesh may be made…

This concern [staged in Husain’s signifiably Muslim but Indian and Assamese voice, again not in a Hindutva voice] makes Bhagwat wonder if the regularization of work permits is enough. He leaves the alternatives unvoiced.

His lone respondent voices an alternative, a figure of counter-violence. “Seadog” cites the positive example of the Maharashtra based Shiv Sena party and writes:

Watch and hit hard. Don’t slacken off, ever. Boycott them. Track them relentlessly. Recently, with the threat of imminent violence in Assam, a lot of infiltrators fled back to Bangladesh.

They [those who threatened this imminent violence] could take lessons from the Sena, maybe even some help.
Liberty does not come cheap.

Here, a rational-liberal discourse of formalizing illegal/informal migration marks its own limit in the difficulty of keeping population based and citizenship based form of surveillance separate. At that limit, if Seadog can be taken to mark the effects Mr. Bhagwat’s silence both potentiates and elides, calls for extreme violence may proliferate.

(2) In a response to a web post on the 24/7 News channel NDTV’s website, the posting being about growing opposition to UIDAI, one commentator writes:

There are lots of illegal immegrants from pakistan and bangladesh. This comes to many millions, with UID, everyone is going to get legal ID for them. which is very dangeros for the countries security. Question is how to identify them, Indians borders were opened all these years. It is unfortunate. In Assam there were only 2% minorites, today some analysts are mentioning this figure is about 35%, how did this happen?. UPA government is playing Vote bank politics , compromising on counrties security.

Here the presumptive nexus is between the Congress-led UPA government and the [unnameable, within the norms of contemporary Indian political discourse] Muslim “vote bank.” UID becomes the instrument of such pro-Muslim “vote bank politics.”

Behind this claim, however, one might need to ask what other kind of politics exist. There seem to be two kinds of political theory that haunt such a claim and resistance to it.

More recently, there is the much discussed argument of Partha Chatterjee that “most of the world” in its ever burgeoning squatter-settlement global cities inhabits a form of “political society” in which relations with state agencies and other powerful formations must be negotiated by informal, brokered, aggressively collective, often criminalized means (the squatters and illegals need the means to live and thrive and entertain self-respect; what I am calling the powerful formations need to govern the population and its milieu), as opposed to “civil society” with its formals and legal relations to land (ownership and tenancy and taxation) and labor (taxation and regulation) and electoral, individualized politics. Surely the blogs cited above are haunted by the potential collapse of local civil society (but here linked to the racialized imaginary of the nation) and the need either to through the identity card create some intermediate position between the fully formalized and the dangerously proliferating informal migrant, or, through threats of imagined counter-violence, to descend to the presumed level of political society.

But there may be another trajectory, through the sociologist M. N. Srinivas from his 1955 concept of the vote bank and a series of debates on the “demand polity” that emerge in conversation with him. This trajectory may offer other ways to think through UID as it gets pitched as the failed (duplicate?) protector of civil society. This trajectory may not exercise in the same way the presumptive and for me deeply flawed sociology of “India” as a persistently split entity, here between the dualism of political and civil society.

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3 thoughts on “Violence at the limits of liberal governance: on claims about Aadhaar as a “vote bank” nexus

  1. Thank you for referring to a post on my blog.
    Can you pl correct the surname? It is “Bhagwat” not “Bhagat”.
    Secondly, there are a series of posts on the problem of illegal infiltration on my blog (and some notes that formed part of an online discussion earlier this month).
    I am posting the links below for reference.

    http://satyameva-jayate.org/2010/06/03/indigenuous-cultures-demographic-invasion/
    http://satyameva-jayate.org/2009/11/24/2007/05/03/islamisation-of-northeast/
    http://satyameva-jayate.org/2009/11/24/2008/02/15/startling-stats-from-the-eastern-front/
    http://satyameva-jayate.org/2012/01/03/infiltration-demographics/
    http://satyameva-jayate.org/2010/06/05/northeast-weekend-reading/
    etc

    • Thanks for the post, and I am very sorry (!!!) that the majority of spellings of your name were wrong: I have fixed these. Thanks for bringing this to my attention so quickly, I am grateful.
      “Infiltration” in my understanding presumes specific strategy and intent among migrants: in my own state of California similar languages were used a century ago to make presumptions about and in many cases to attack migrants from India. But I certainly will keep these posts on the blog.

      • Re. “Infiltration”, would a change in label/nomenclature make this problem any less grave – or reduce its scale and profound impact?
        The consequence of such unrestricted and unchecked movement of people is not merely a shift in population (and population density). The impact is deep and far-reaching and beyond the most obvious (econmical and political).
        The nature of migration and the socio-cultural background of the migrants is changing the nature of communities where the migrants are settling down – for the worse.
        I am saying this based on first-hand information and personal observations.
        I do not have the necessary background and knowledge to comment on what happened in California but it is widely known that migrants to USA actually adapted themselves to the culture and traditions of local communities instead of imposing their own values and customs.
        Secondly, the scale of this uncontrolled movement has no comparison with what happened in California.
        Finally, whether there is a specific strategy or not, these groups are being leveraged for political gains in the most blatant manner. See e.g. http://satyameva-jayate.org/2010/05/11/illegal-settlers-vote-banks/
        I would welcome further discussion on this over at my blog, perhaps at this post: http://satyameva-jayate.org/2010/06/03/indigenuous-cultures-demographic-invasion/ where I am reproducing this brief exchange.
        Thank you.

        P.S. Thanks for making the changes and sorry to nit-pick but there is one more instance of wrong surname: Bhawgat (should be Bhagwat). Thanks

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