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Millions in India's north-eastern Assam state at risk of losing citizenship

Huge crowds at a polling booth in 2nd phase of Assam Assembly Election-2006 at Rupahi, Nowgaon, Assam on April 10, 2006. Image via Flickr by Public.Resource.Org CC BY 2.0.

Approximately 1.9 million people are now facing the possibility of becoming stateless in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam after being excluded from the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC).

According to the Assam government, the exercise of updating 33 million citizen records in Assam is to detect and deport undocumented immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. As tensions and emotions continue to run high, the consequences of this process have already become fatal after one 60-year old women jumped into a well upon hearing a rumour that she had been excluded from the list.

Last June, a draft version of the registry was released, which left out 4.1 million applicants. The latest publication has drawn criticism from within the government's own party and has left the fate of excluded Assam residents up in the air.

What is the NRC?

The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a government register containing the names and relevant information for the identification of all Indian citizens. The register was initiated after the 1951 Census of India and, until recently, it has not been updated. The north-eastern state of Assam is the first state in India to update the NRC.

To apply for the NRC, people in Assam had to show documentary evidence that they or their ancestors were born in Assam before March 25, 1971, the official cut-off date. Politicians say the solution for the ethnic and religious clashes will come through the citizens’ register as the state has two-thirds of the Bengalis who are also predominantly Muslim.

Overcrowded train transferring refugees during the partition of India, 1947. This was considered to be the largest migration in human history. Image via Wikipedia. Public Domain

Overcrowded train transferring refugees during the partition of India, 1947. This was considered to be the largest migration in human history. Image via Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Anti-Bengali sentiment runs deep in the state of Assam. After the 1947 partition of India on the basis of religion, a mass migration took place as Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh moved to neighbouring Indian states, such as West Bengal and Assam among others, while Muslims from those places migrated to Bangladesh. However, this mass migration created tension among the local inhabitants and the indigenous Assamese people which led to the creation of anti-Bengali movements like Bongal Kheda (kick the Bengalis out).

The anti-immigrant movement was bolstered in Assam in the 1970s after the liberation war of Bangladesh which saw another influx of refugees from Bangladesh. In 1980, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) submitted the first memorandum demanding an update to the NRC in order to expel “foreigners”. In 1983, more than 2000 Bengalis were killed in Assam in a racial massacre as fallout after then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's decision to give immigrants from Bangladesh the right to vote. Not a single perpetrator was convicted. Within India, the label of “Bangladeshi” is often used as a slur, and Bangladeshi migrants are often automatically thought of as Muslim and illegal.

The process of updating Assam's NRC started in 2013 when the Supreme Court of India passed an order on a petition by an NGO called Assam Public Works. As the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government steps ahead with the registry, many Bengali Muslims in Assam feel they are the primary targets of exclusion.

A flawed idea, not just a flawed process

There are a lot of allegations and criticisms against this final NRC list, among these criticism are the irregularities in the chosen names — some family members have been added to the list while others were left out. Even the ruling BJP has criticised the final NRC.

A former member of parliament and minister Jyotiraditya M. Scindia tweeted:

Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of the State of Bengal tweeted:

An editorial at the Indian Express stated:

Instead of blaming the process, political parties need to recognise, perhaps, the flaw that lies in the imagination that produced the NRC. Modern societies are shaped by migration and it may be futile to engage in costly exercises to identify “outsiders”.

What will happen to the excluded?

Those who are excluded from the NRC will get 120 days to appeal and to prove their citizenship at regional quasi-judicial bodies named foreigner's tribunals, some of which are already at work. The tribunals will decide on the cases within six months from the date of the appeal. According to reports, up to 400 tribunals are expected to be set up to deal with the list.

It is being reported that out of the 1.9 million who were excluded in the list, 1.3 million are Hindus of which 1.1 million are Bangladeshi Hindus. The BJP government had promised that they will provide refuge for persecuted Hindus from all over the world. So it remains to be seen how they deal with the outcome of the list after the judicial process.

According to reports, after all the remedies available under the law have been exhausted, those identified as “illegal” migrants will be locked-up in detention camps until they are deported.

Assam's Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma is optimistic that “India's friend” Bangladesh will take these people back.

However, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen reacted to the news by saying that the NRC is India's internal issue. He doesn't think that those left out of the list were from Bangladesh:

There is no reason why Bangladeshis should move to India. Bangladesh is doing much better and therefore it does not look like there is any interest in any Bangladeshi to go to India.

Human rights organisation Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) is helping people in distress by opening a toll-free helpline in four languages to provide people with correct information about the process.

However, for millions of people excluded from the list, the future looks bleak.

Vishal contributed to this post.

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