What is the impact of travel and identification documents on migration and citizenship in colonial and post-colonial India?

Haimanti Roy, associate professor of history, will spend a nine-month, senior-research fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies finding out. Her research will focus on the development of documentary identity — passports, visas, ration cards and caste certificates — and trace the ways in which they impacted groups such as migrants, immigrants, refugees, welfare recipients and beneficiaries of caste reservation policies.

“The intersection of legal and bureaucratic policies and the expressions of ordinary people provide new ways to understand the framing of citizenship in post-colonial India,” explained Roy.

She also will examine the ways in which members of these groups encountered and resisted the implementation of such documentary regimes. 

“India now has the largest biometric identification process in the world,” she said. “Known popularly as the Aadhaar scheme, it started in 2009 with the aim of providing every Indian — and there are more than 1 billion of them — with a card with biometric identification and a number. It’s similar to the Social Security card or driver’s license that we carry, except this one will have your retina information and your fingerprints.”

India’s central government has pushed citizens to link their Aadhaar numbers to passports, bank accounts and mobile SIM cards, among other services. That has led to debate and court challenges related to issues of privacy, security and surveillance.

“The Indian state is telling us the Aadhar is an attempt to simplify and put everything on one card, but this is not new,” she said. “What we are seeing is yet another card, and no one is getting rid of anything else.”

The goal of Roy’s research project is a book, tentatively titled Paper Trails: Mobility, Identity and Making of the Indian Citizen: 1920-2015. Roy already has started publishing her initial research, including an article in the Journal of South Asian Studies about the emergence of documentary identities in post-colonial India.

 “Dr. Roy’s fellowship is an extraordinary honor in itself, given the very competitive field of proposals that are usually submitted,” said Juan Santamarina, associate professor and Department of History chair. “It’s a testament to the relevance, importance and originality of her current work on state documentation. Her first-rate scholarship is broadly relevant to questions of citizenship and associated rights across countries.”

Headquartered at the University of Chicago, the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) was established in 1961 to further the knowledge of India in the United States by supporting American scholarship on India. More than 6,000 scholars and creative artists have received AIIS support, with their work spanning the humanities, social sciences, social policy and natural sciences.


Roy, who specializes in the political and social history of modern South Asia, recently wrote "The Road to India’s Partition" in The Conversation. She has also authored two books: Partitioned Lives: Migrants, Refugees, Citizens in India and Pakistan, 1947-65, and The Partition of India (Oxford India Short Introductions).