The Usual Suspects

By Syantani Chatterjee

Lanes in Mumbai where the author conducted fieldwork. Photo by the author.

We will ensure implementation of NRC in the entire country. We will remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddha, Hindus and Sikhs.
– Amit Shah, April 11, 2019.

Whether the NRC come here or not, we have always been under suspicion.
– a Bengali-speaking Muslim, living in an informal settlement in Mumbai.

In 2017, a few days before I left Mumbai for New York, I had been introduced to Hakim by a common acquaintance in Shivaji Nagar, so we could speak to each other in Bangla.[1]  “Agar ghar ki yaad aa rahi ho” (If you miss home), the acquaintance had suggested. By then, I had been in the field for 18 months, and although this was a home of sorts, I did miss home. Hakim invited me to tea at a stall near the Shivaji Nagar Bus Depot. We chit-chatted in Bangla about this and that, and nothing in particular, straining a little to understand each other’s dialects. He asked me where my parents grew up in West Bengal. He lamented that, like me, his son had been born and raised “desher baire” (outside home).[2] A couple of days later, Hakim and his son were arrested, after a special branch of the Mumbai Police received an “anonymous” tip that Bangladeshi infiltrators were living in Shivaji Nagar. During my fieldwork, many of my interlocutors spoke anxiously of the specter of being hauled into detention centers on nothing but suspicion of being a foreigner. These rumors and suspicions compound the structural discrimination faced by vulnerable populations in India, particularly the Muslim urban poor. While I was there, I heard rumors that Hakim and his son may have been sent to a detention center. Only recently, however, I read that a Mumbai court had acquitted them on the basis of their Indian passports, and voter identity cards.

Long before the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, Mumbai’s Bengali-speaking Muslims lived with the fear that they may be arrested on suspicion of being infiltrators. As has been systematically the case in Assam, and now in emerging cases in other places like Hyderabad and Mumbai, anyone can anonymously accuse anyone of being a foreigner. This mere accusation, without any material evidence, may suffice to get the accused arrested. Under the Foreigner’s Act of 1946, the burden of proof lies with the person accused of being a foreigner. However, in the absence of any government declaration or court precedent to stipulate which documents meet the burden of proof, there exists much confusion. For instance, although Assam courts have repeatedly refused the Election Card or the voter identity card as a valid documentary proof of citizenship, the High Court in Mumbai recently ruled that they were. In the case of Hakim and his son, acquitted in December 2019, the court ruled that their passports and voter identity cards sufficiently evinced their citizenship.

The central government’s narrative has been that the NRC was implemented in Assam to end the suspicion that there were infinite “ghuspetia” (infiltrators) trickling into India from neighboring Bangladesh. After its completion in 2019, 2 million people whose names did not appear on the list were rendered stateless.[3] Debabrata Saikia, a leader of the opposition in the Assam assembly and a senior member of the Congress Party who has criticized the implementation of the NRC, however, acceded on its completion that the publication of the list “will stop harassment of people dubbed as foreigner merely on suspicion.” However, as the Foreigner’s Act of 1946 does not provide any mechanism through which a “foreigner” may be identified, in practice, suspicion and doubt have served as the primary mechanisms for such detection. Furthermore, due to the disastrously flawed and arbitrary implementation of the NRC in Assam, those whose names have not appeared on the list must go through additional bureaucratic and legal hurdles, such as the Foreigner’s Tribunal, to undo the presumed suspicion that they are ghuspetia. Even those whose names appear on the list are not sheltered from suspicion, as the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now claims that many included in the list are foreigners and must be excluded.

Shaq par hi toh gorment qāyam hai, madamji. Aur shaq hame barbād kar rahī hai” (The government is founded on suspicion, madam. And suspicions are ruining our community), Nawaz, a waste worker living in an informal settlement in Mumbai told me over the phone, dismissing outright Saikia’s assertion.[4] Nawaz suggests that enumerative projects, and legal moves such as the NRC and the CAA, reveal that suspicion is constitutive of the structural discrimination faced by vulnerable populations like the Muslim urban poor. “Pehle kahte the ki atankawadi ho, ab kahte hai ghuspeti ho” (Earlier they used to say you are a terrorist, now they say infiltrator), Nawaz continued.

When I conducted my fieldwork in Mumbai in 2017, Nawaz had lost many of his identification documents for the second time. He had stored his Aadhar card, Ration card, and his PAN card, among others, in a folded blue tarpaulin sheet to save them from getting wet. But unbeknownst to him, the folded sheet had developed a tear, and his Aadhar card and Ration card had slipped out. Ever since his hut was flooded in 2015, and everything he had was destroyed, Nawaz had vowed not to lose his new papers. So, he had carried the folded sheet with him as he collected scrap every day. In carrying all of his government-issued identity documents with him to protect them, he had lost those very papers.

News of a nationwide NRC began to spread in Nawaz’ neighborhood during the 2019 election campaign. He and his neighbors feared they would have to furnish documents to prove their citizenship, and as a majority of them identify as Muslim, either Shia or Sunni, they would be under immediate suspicion of being ghuspetia. “Only a few of us are Bangali, par kahte hai ki yeh ghuspetiyon ka mohalla hai” (but they say this is an infiltrators’ neighborhood). The criminalization of Muslim mohallas (neighborhoods) have intensified their ghettoization for decades (Hansen 2001, Shaban 2010), and frequent eviction drives have been a relentless source of precarity for the urban poor (Bhide 2009). However, the renewed threat of evicting impoverished Muslim residents of the city, and placing them in detention centers purely on suspicion of being “foreigners,” is an additional mode of marginalization.

Promptly following the completion of the NRC in Assam, and while the CAA was being discussed in the Parliament, the Maharashtra government announced that it had identified a plot of land in Nerul in Navi Mumbai, just outside Mumbai, for a proposed detention center. The narrative of a large number of Bangladeshi immigrants living in Mumbai is not a recent one. The Shiv Sena has been using this discourse to drum up support for its “Maharashtra for the Marathi Manoos” slogan for years.  The vow to remove ghuspetia from India through a nationwide implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has been a common refrain of the BJP, and many of its prominent members. BJP’s Sankalp Patra, the 2019 campaign manifesto, proclaimed that a nationwide NRC would be implemented were the party to be re-elected. Before the CAA was passed in the Parliament, the Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, reiterated that “NRC aane wala hai” (NRC is coming). Shah has not only repeatedly suggested that a nationwide NRC would be the inevitable next step following its implementation in Assam, but he has also frequently connected the NRC with the CAA.

However, it is noteworthy that after the CAA was passed amid widespread nationwide protests, the BJP, the Prime Minister and the Home Minister have altered their messaging, suggesting that the NRC and the CAA must be de-linked, nationwide NRC is not currently on the agenda, and besides, the NRC is “just a process.”

Many from the most vulnerable populations in India have viewed these denials with suspicion, as they have been privy for far too long to the effects of the “aane wala hai” form of governance that hangs like Damocles’ Sword. This form of governance—the forever-deferred, the always-arriving, the ready-to-strike—is predicated upon weaponizing suspicion into a tactic of governance. An aspect of the cunning of recognition is “the transformation of the discourse of demand into a discourse of recognition” (Povinelli 2006: 54). The processual logic of the NRC offers this transformative mechanism through which the demand that specific, albeit ambiguous and arbitrary, evidentiary papers be produced becomes the ground on which Nawaz may be recognized as a citizen of India, and not a ghuspeti. Whether Nawaz is or is not an Indian citizen is irrelevant to the processual logic that privileges suspicion. Under this logic, Nawaz is a ghuspeti even if he were to provide every last document that the process demanded.  No matter what Nawaz does, his actions will be lodged within the discursive universe of the aane-wala-hai form of governance, always already apprehending him as a ghuspeti or aatankwaad (terrorist).

Nawaz had found it difficult the third time to convince different civic officials that he had indeed lost his papers a third time, and was not pilfering his documents to his illegal immigrant family members. One angry official had dismissed his application, and his proof of address, a document called a Photopass, by questioning its veracity. He had asked him to prove that the man in the photograph on the Photopass was indeed none other than him. Upon hearing that Nawaz was from Shivaji Nagar, the official had accused him of being an illegal immigrant masquerading as the man in the photograph. It was arbitrary, this anger of the official, Nawaz explained to me. The same Photopass had sufficed the previous two times as proof of address. The Photopass is a provisional document that allows families who were at a settlement before or during a cutoff date stipulated by the Maharashtra State government under the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme to evince their domicile. This document itself is a photograph of the members of a family in front of their residential structure. By some stroke of luck, Nawaz had managed to keep this document safe so far, but now after 20 years, neither he nor any of his family members quite resembled the people pictured in the photo.

Poor urban migrants like Nawaz, who do not possess documentary evidence of domicile, legacy, birth, or other identification, or whose forms of documentation are rejected as “farzi” (counterfeit) by civil and legal authorities, fear that the CAA and NRC enshrine everyday suspicion as a key technology of state-led disenfranchisement.

Syantani Chatterjee is an Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on urban citizenship and questions of belonging in contemporary India.


[1] A pseudonym has been used.

[2] Desh in Bangla translates into nation, but in this context, it is more appropriately “native place” or “village.”

[3] The government of Bangladesh made it clear that it would not accept any of the disenfranchised people who were not on the list, stating that the NRC was an internal matter of India.

[4] A pseudonym has been used.

Works Cited

Bhide, Amita. 2009. “Shifting terrains of communities and community organization: reflections on organizing for housing rights in Mumbai.” Community Development Journal 44 (3): 367-381.

Hansen, Thomas Blom. 2001. Wages of violence. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jaffrelot, Christophe and Laurent Gayer (ed.). 2012. Muslims in Indian cities: trajectories of marginalization. London: Hurst & Company.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2006. The Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality. Durham: Duke University Press.

Shaban, Abdul. 2010. Mumbai:  political economy of crime and space. New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan.


About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s