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The Identity Flux of Illegal Migration

While political records often try to give humans a homogeneous identity, personal narratives entail a completely different tale. This shift of identity can be seen in the transition of citizens becoming illegal migrants as definitions of home, and belonging go through multiple shifts. The question then arises how to determine where one belongs. What happens when a nation becomes incapable of protecting its people who then have to take refuge in the enemy's home? While borders and boundaries seem extremely powerful, are they capable of giving people an identity? This article by Isha Sharma addresses many such questions. 

The Identity Flux of Illegal Migration

Humans assume multiple identities defined not just by personal factors but also more poignantly by societal, political, cultural, and many other varied dimensions. Interestingly, these identities are in flux, in the process of continuous making. Within a flicker of time, they are capable of changing grounds and painting lives in a uniquely different fashion. Public history that provides explicit records of the past sometimes fails to account for the shift that personal narratives have to experience for there have remained many unheard stories of oppression where the stake is put on ‘citizens.’

In general discourse, the term ‘citizen’ is used to define an individual belonging to a particular nation-state. What happens when that nation itself robs an individual of that sense of belonging? How to entail the pain when borders and boundaries turn people into illegal residents in their own homes?

There have been numerous instances where violence and war have resulted in sheer madness taking center stage, people losing homes and being ready to cut the throats of the ones whom they once called their own. One such instance that remains obscure from public archives is the transition of citizens to becoming illegal migrants of the land they call home only because their religion aligns with the ‘enemy’ side.

The year is 1970. The strains between East and West Pakistan are augmenting each day. While public archives in Pakistan do not register these records, the tensions were appalling, signalling an imminent war that altered the character of not one but three nations forever. To save themselves from the horrors of violence, many East Pakistanis began to migrate to Assam in 1970. It is significant to note that the land that the East Pakistanis believed to be their home wasn’t able to provide them with the security and sense of homeliness that they as ‘citizens’ deserved. It was for this reason that they had to move towards the ‘enemy’ side.

The issue of illegal migration from neighbouring Bangladesh has been rampant in Assam since the 1970s and continues to be so. Its population has grown nearly sixfold since 1901 when it had a population of 3.3 million; India’s population has grown less than threefold over this period. Had Assam’s population increased at the same rate as the rest of India from 1901 to 1981, her population would now be 9.5 million rather than 19.9 million, a difference of 10.4 million. Since there is no evidence that Assam’s rate of increase was significantly different from that in the rest of India, the difference can only be accounted for by net migration. Immigration has created a delicate fabric of multi-ethnicity in Assam causing tensions between the two groups, namely the sons of the soil i.e. the Assamese and the so-called invaders, Bengali Muslims. This multicultural aspect is captured in the political mantra ‘Ali-Coolie-Bengali’ which politicians use often to win elections. In her essay, ‘The Political Demography of Assam’s Anti-Immigrant Movement’, Myron Weiner remarks, “Assamese tend to view Bengalis as “cultural imperialists”, who, if given the opportunity, would attempt to assimilate the Assamese, especially since the Bengali language is seen more advanced, its literary traditions stronger, and its cultural institutions dominating.”

However, extreme effects of these differences were observed on the 14 of February 1983, when a large group of Boro tribals from the Lalung tribe along with supporters of the pro-poll Plains Tribal Council of Assam, attacked and killed over 4000 persons, most of whom were Bengali Muslims. This was the infamous Nellie Massacre, named after one of the affected villages. In her essay, “Nellie Massacre 1983: Keywords from Memory, Kalyan Sonowal mentions, “The Nellie Massacre, as it has since been described, presented the “highest death tolls” in any single violent event of communal nature since independence.”

Another instance where these migrants became subject to the brutality of ‘residents’ was the killing of around 20,000 migrants by the students of the All Assam Students Union. A demand was made that anyone who was not living in India by 24 March 1971 should be declared an illegal migrant. As per the records of 2015, there are about 20 lakh people in India who weren't able to prove their citizenship and therefore are not included in the Citizens list. Even after spending more than 3 decades on Indian soil, how do these individuals give proof of their loyalty? Do these people hold any place in the story of Pakistan, a nation that was once their home? Where do they belong?

Another indignant facet of the society that these events explore is that of ‘identity politics.’ The concept of ‘self’ and the ‘other’ leads to categorizing certain groups as invaders or foreigners when they belong to the place as much as any other community or group. In her essay, ‘Nellie Massacre 1983’, Kalyan Sonowal talks about sidelining the atrocities committed on the Bengali Muslims. “Sirajuddin Ahmed from Nellie-2 Borpai Village, questions the legitimacy of declaring the attackers who had lost their lives as Martyrs by the State Government, but the innocent Muslims who lost their lives were ignored. Irrespective of the hue and cry, many of the East Bengal-origin Muslims are officially termed as doubtful voters and exploited repeatedly based on having a root in East Bengal.” Commenting on the same, Vani Kant Borooah in her essay, ‘The Killing Fields of Assam: Myth and Reality of its Muslim Immigrants’ writes, “Consequently, what is overtly billed as an economic issue- a struggle over land and livelihood between indigenous people and people who are in the state illegally – covertly morphs into a communal issue predicated upon an economic and cultural struggle with the “other” regardless of the legitimacy of the “other’s” presence in Assam. As a leading Indian magazine expressed, “What angers Muslims is the ignominy of being labelled ‘illegal.”’

The attempts on the part of people to protect themselves from violence often put them on the blurred lines between legality and illegality. How come making efforts to ‘survive’ when your home isn't able to do so makes one illegal? What we often fail to realize is that not all individual identities can be defined in a black-and-white manner. Many like the Bengali Muslims do not fit in the clearly defined lines of citizens or illegal migrants. A nation’s inability to safeguard the interests of its people often puts them in scenarios where identities remain mixed and sometimes even unknown.

Between roots and routes, one often loses their ‘home.’ Sometimes, it might even be known but remains unknown. The odyssey of migration on the part of Bengali Muslims is one example of how the powerful lines of cartography aren’t able to give humans a homogenous existence. Contradictions amidst the blurring of lines and within them identities are the only truth. The truth that the personal bears and the public record ignore.


1. Weiner, Mynor. The Political Demography of Assam’s Anti-Immigrant Movement.

Population Council. June 1983.

2. Sonowal Kalyan. Nellie Massacre 1983: Keywords from Memory. Indian History

Congress. Vol 78, 2017.

3. Borooah Kant Vani. The Killing Fields of Assam: Myth and Reality of its Muslim

Immigrants. Economic and Political Weekly. Jan 26, 2013.

Cover Picture Source: Reuters


Isha Sharma

This Article is written by Isha Sharma. She recently completed her graduation in Majors in English at Delhi University. She is extremely passionate about the process of translating her emotions into verses. Half sunk between dreams and reality, she often thinks about borders and boundaries and the dwindling humanity in between. From Bulleh Shah to Chitra Bannerjee, she finds a home in words. 

Currently, she is working as a remote content writer with one of the leading search engines for graduate programs in the US. Her works, including articles and poems, have been published in Kitaab International, Borderless Journal, Indian Express, Indian Review and many other literary portals. 

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