India declared 1.9 million people effectively stateless on Saturday, when it published a controversial list of citizens in Assam, a north-eastern state that borders Bangladesh and has a population of 33 million.
The list is part of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which was first compiled by India in 1951 and has since only been updated now, for Assam, as part of a measure to identify illegal immigrants. In Assam, the term inevitably refers to Muslims from Bangladesh.
The government intends to detain anyone it finds is not a legitimate citizen and deport them to Bangladesh. Around the state, roughly 1,000 people are already being held in six detention centres, which are housed in district jails. Ten more detention facilities are planned. The first of these, expected to hold 3,000 people, is being built in the district of Goalpara at a cost of 460 million rupees (Dh23.5m).
But the updating of the NRC over the past four years has come under a cloud of criticism over how it was conducted and who has been included.
Everyone living in Assam was asked to provide documents and family histories to prove that they or their ancestors were residing in India before March 26, 1971. The date was deliberately chosen. On that day, the war of Bangladeshi independence began, as the region then known as East Pakistan began to liberate itself from its western half on the other side of India.
Tens of thousands of refugees from the war streamed into India at the time, Muslims as well as Hindus. Since the war, more Bangladeshis have crossed the border illegally, although there has never been a reliable count of their numbers.
In pockets of Assam, particularly along the border, resentment against these immigrants is strong. Many residents claim that they take away jobs and state welfare and change the demographic profile of the state. The 2011 census found that Assam was 61 per cent Hindu and 34 per cent Muslim. In 1961, the last full census before the Bangladeshi war, Muslims formed 23 per cent of the population.
But large parts of Assam are poor, and record-keeping was spottier five decades ago. As a result, people often have few or no documents that can attest to their families’ long-term residency: land deeds, bank records, educational certificates, or even birth certificates.
The verification process involved huge challenges as well. “For some people, their parents may be from elsewhere in India – Uttar Pradesh, or Mumbai or Bihar,” said Nani Gopal Mahanta, a political scientist at Gauhati University. “Then the government has to be able to authenticate that in those other states.”
When a draft of the NRC was published last year, 4 million residents of Assam were excluded – a figure that stirred fears of homelessness and deportation, and that raised questions about the robustness of the process.
People could appeal their status in 100 “foreigners’ tribunals” that were set up across the state. But the tribunals' process has proven opaque and inconsistent, and their decision-making arbitrary. Many residents were summoned at short notice to appear at re-verification hearings, often held in tribunals hundreds of kilometres away. Early in August, a bus carrying appellants slammed into a truck, killing two people and injuring 30. The passengers had been given 40 hours’ notice to reach their tribunal 450km away.
On Saturday, Assam’s residents awoke into an uncertain future. Shocks awaited 1.9 million of them. Mijanur Rahman, a 47-year-old farmer living near the village of Buraburi, was included in the NRC, along with a son and two daughters, but his wife and three other daughters were not.
“I am really worried,” Mr Rahman told the Associated Press. “We will see what the government does now. Maybe they will offer some help.” He has 120 days to prove his family’s citizenship at a tribunal; the tribunals will then have six months to make their decision.
Critics have pointed out that the NRC process, administered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, overwhelmingly targets Muslims. Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is founded on a plank of Hindu nationalism. Amit Shah, the party president and India’s home minister, called Bangladeshi immigrants “termites” earlier this year and threatened to throw them into the Bay of Bengal.
A similar fate might await others in India. During the election campaign this summer, the BJP promised to extend the NRC exercise across India. On Saturday, some of the party’s leaders in other states called once again for citizenship lists to be drawn up in their regions.
“The situation in Delhi is becoming so dangerous that it is necessary to have NRC,” Manoj Tiwari, a BJP leader for the capital territory, said on Saturday, without explaining the dangers. “Illegal immigrants who have settled here are the most dangerous.”
Where these expelled people will go is uncertain. Bangladesh has shown no sign of agreeing to take in the nearly 2 million who might be turned out of Assam. As a result, these might languish indefinitely in detention centres, rejected by the country in which they live – and have lived, in many cases, for decades.
Aakar Patel, who heads Amnesty International’s India chapter, said that “Assam is on the brink of a crisis which would not only lead to a loss of nationality and liberty of a large group of people but also erosion of their basic rights, severely affecting the lives of generations to come.”