GAUHATI, INDIA – Almost 2 million people in northeast India were left facing statelessness Saturday after 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. 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 religious and ethnic tensions. Sporadic violence has included the 1983 massacre of around 2,000 people. This has led to pressure from those who see themselves as genuine Assamese for a lasting solution.
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, the lower house passed legislation that grants citizenship to people who moved 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-strong 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 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 is already mulling a “fresh strategy on how we can drive out the illegal migrants.”
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 centers with a view to possible deportation, although Bangladesh has yet to signal its cooperation.
Ten new such camps have been announced. One, with space for 3,000 people, is being constructed in Goalpara, west of Assam’s capital, Gauhati.
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 released him in August.
“I just want to ask them what is my crime? I was born here and lived in Assam all my life,” he said. “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, a key driver behind the NRC, said the register is 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.