Almost two million people in India were left facing statelessness on Saturday after the state of Assam published a citizenship list aimed at weeding out “foreign infiltrators”, in a process the central government wants to replicate nationwide.
A total of 31.1 million people were included in a final National Register of Citizens (NRC), but 1.9 million were deemed ineligible, according to a statement from the Assam government in northeast India. Most of those excluded were expected to be Muslim.
Assam, an impoverished isolated state of 33 million, has long seen large influxes from elsewhere, including under British colonial rule and around Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence when millions fled into India.
For decades this has made Assam a hotbed of inter-religious and ethnic tensions. Sporadic violence has included the 1983 massacre of around 2,000 people.
Security was beefed up in Assam ahead of the release of the NRC, with some 20,000 extra personnel brought in and gatherings banned in some locations.
Only those who can demonstrate that they or their forebears were in India before 1971 could be included in the list.
But navigating the complex process is a huge challenge for many in a region of high illiteracy where many lack documentation.
Members of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party run Assam and critics say the NRC process reflects the BJP’s goal to serve only its co-religionists.
In January India’s lower house passed legislation that grants citizenship to people who moved to India from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan as recently as six years ago as long as they are not Muslims.
This has stoked fears among India’s 170-million Muslim minority for their future.
Home Minister Amit Shah, Modi’s right-hand-man, has called for the ejection of “termites” and said before the BJP’s thumping re-election victory in May that it would “run a countrywide campaign to send back the infiltrators”.
Those left off the NRC have 120 days to appeal at special Foreigners Tribunals, which the government says are being expanded in number.
But critics say that tribunal members can be underqualified and are subject to “performance” targets, and that the entire process has been riddled with inconsistencies and errors.
The number of errors has also turned some in the BJP in Assam against the process, with Himanta Biswa Sarma, a BJP minister in the state, saying it had left off “so many genuine Indians”.
“We have lost hope in the present form of the NRC,” Sarma told reporters, saying that the party was already mulling a “fresh strategy on how we can drive out the illegal migrants”.
Camps and suicides
Those who have been rejected by the tribunals and have exhausted all other legal avenues can be declared foreigners and -- in theory -- be placed in one of six detention centres with a view to possible deportation, although Bangladesh is yet to signal its cooperation.
Ten new such camps have been announced. One with space for 3,000 is being constructed in Goalpara, west of Assam’s capital Guwuhati.
The camps currently hold 1,135 people, according to the state government, and have been operating for years.
Nur Mohammad, 65, spent almost 10 years in one such camp until a Supreme Court order saw him released this month.
“I just want to ask them what is my crime? I was born here and lived in Assam all my life,” he told AFP. “I don’t know if my name will be in the NRC or not.”
Media reports say that there have been more than 40 cases of suicide caused by concern over the NRC.
Samujjal Bhattacharya from the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), a key driver behind the NRC, said the register was necessary to protect Assam’s indigenous “sons of the soil”.
“We are not ready to live here like a second-class citizens in our own motherland,” he said.
Minister Hubert Minnis said. “The price you may pay for not evacuating is your life.”