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UTENRIKS-Internasjonale forhold - utenriks- og sikkerhetspolitikk og norske interesser

Stateless in the Bengali borderlands: New technologies and challenges for identity and identification

Alternative title: Statsløs i Bengals grenseland: Ny teknologi og utfordringer for identitet og identifikasjon

Awarded: NOK 6.0 mill.

We are witnessing a major crisis of statelessness in the Bengali borderlands between India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. This region hosts almost half of the world's stateless people. In 2017, more than 740 000 stateless Rohingya had to flee from their homes in Myanmar due to targeted violence from the military. These refugees are still living in Bangladesh, in some of the world's largest and most densely populated refugee camps. In 2019, an update of the Indian citizenship registry and the introduction of mandatory biometric identification, resulted in the exclusion of 1.9 million Bengali Muslims in Assam. These people are now stateless, and Indian authorities have built internment camps where they have incarcerated thousands of the new "foreigners", sparking fears of mass detention and deportation. Aiming to understand the contemporary forms of discrimination that produces loss of citizenship and other fundamental rights, the research project Stateless in Bengal examines the impact of new communication tools and technologies of biometric identification on identity and identification practices in the region. Through the lens of citizenship, the project will generate new knowledge about the relationship between national constructions of Rohingya and Assamese Bengali identity; practices of identification applied by local government agencies; and processes of community self-identification in response to discrimination and oppression. Through anthropological fieldwork, interviews and media surveys, the project explores links between statelessness and ethno-religious populist mobilization by new media and smart phones. It compares the impact of biometric identification of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh for aid delivery, and residents of Assam for e-governance, and examines how schemes intended to provide more effective services and foster social inclusion may instead contribute to exclusion, violent identity politics and deprivation of citizenship. The project is led by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) in partnership with the Arctic University of Norway, Dhaka University and the Center for Peace and Justice at BRAC University. The inception meeting of the project was held digitally on 1 July 2021 with participation from all the project partners. The project team has recruited two doctoral students. Mizanur Rahman, is employed at the University of Tromsø under the supervision of Mohammad Musfequs Salehin and will research statelessness and activism through art and cultural expression. Amena Khatun has been awarded a fellowship position at the University of Dhaka under the supervision of Rafiqul Islam and Marcela Douglas. Her research focus will be Rohingya identity and social media and her doctoral position is financed by the project. The two doctoral students each presented their research project at a project workshop on 13 September 2022. The data collection for the research project started in January 2022 with the first fieldwork trip to Bangladesh. The research was somewhat affected by a new COVID-19 shutdown in Bangladesh, but the data collection was generally carried out according to plan by conducting some of the meetings and interviews digitally. Fieldwork trips to Bangladesh and to North-eastern India were also carried out in November 2022. The research team has focused on data collection and the planning of academic publications on topics related to identity politics and digital governance in border areas. Preliminary findings have been disseminated through participation in conferences and seminars, and through articles and interviews on radio and in podcast episodes.

'Stateless in Bengal' investigates the current crisis of statelessness affecting millions of people in the Bengali borderlands, including the Rohingya population of Myanmar and Bengali Muslims in the Northeast Indian state of Assam. The 2017 mass exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar’s Rakhine state gave rise to a major refugee crisis, and tension between Bangladesh and Myanmar. The 2019 exclusion of 1.9 million Assamese Bengalis from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam has sparked fears of another crisis, with mass detention of “foreigners” and possible deportation efforts looming on the horizon. Studying a region troubled by protracted conflict, this project aims to generate in-depth knowledge of how statelessness is produced, examining Rohingya and Assamese Bengali identity construction as a combination of self-identification and grassroots community-building, governmental projects of discrimination and denial of rights, and enemy “othering” by Rakhine and Assamese ethno-nationalists. We thus aim to explore Rohingya and Assamese Bengali identity as defined by themselves, as described by neighboring communities who seek to expel them, and as rendered stateless by the governments of India, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The project will contribute new empirical and theoretical knowledge to the scholarship of statelessness and disputed citizenship, while also generating policy-relevant analysis for humanitarian agencies and donors, addressing SDGs #16 (solving conflicts) and #10 (reducing inequalities). With the help of multi-sited ethnographic field research, interviews and media surveys, we will explore links between statelessness and ethno-religious populist mobilization by new media and smart phones, and the biometric identification of Indian citizens for eGovernance, examining how schemes intended to foster social inclusion may instead contribute to exclusion, violent identity politics and deprivation of citizenship.

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UTENRIKS-Internasjonale forhold - utenriks- og sikkerhetspolitikk og norske interesser