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Tension mounts in Assam, India, as 4 million people risk being made stateless

The process of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC), to determine who is a citizen
and who is not, has been ongoing in Assam since 2015, and will culminate on 31 July when the final list will be published. Hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – are likely to be excluded from the list, meaning they will have to prove their citizenship or risk detention and citizenship deprivation.

A draft list published in 2018 left behind over 4 million with a disproportionate number of persons belonging to linguistic and religious minorities excluded, in particular Bengali-origin Muslims. Exclusion means being declared an ‘illegal foreigner’, despite having lived in the region for decades. If stripped of their Indian citizenship, the affected people in Assam will be unable to vote, access welfare or own property.

Anita Sengupta, Director of the Calcutta Research Group, compared the situation to that of the Rohingya. “This is looking like the crisis faced by Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine province,” she said to the South China Morning Post. “If it affects the whole of India’s northeast, things could get worse.”

What is the National Register of Citizens?

The register is meant to be a list of Indian citizens living in Assam. For decades, the presence of migrants, often called ‘bahiragat’ or outsiders, has been a loaded issue there. Assam saw waves of migration, first as a colonial province and then as a border state in independent India.

The first National Register of Citizens was compiled in 1951, after the Census was completed that year and since 2015, Assam authorities have been in the process of updating the 1951 register. One of the stated aims of the exercise is to identify so-called ‘illegal foreigners’ in the state, many of whom are believed to have entered into Assam after the Bangladesh War of 1971.

A multi-ethnic history

Assam is one of India’s most multi-ethnic states as well as one of the poorest. Among the residents are Bengali- and Assamese-speaking Hindus, and a medley of tribespeople. A third of its 32 million residents are Muslims, the second-highest number after Indian-administered Kashmir. Many of them are descendants of immigrants who settled under British rule.

But illegal migration from neighbouring Bangladesh has been a concern for decades now. The Partition of the subcontinent and communal riots triggered vast population exchanges at the border. A six-year indigenous protest – during which hundreds of people were murdered – led to a 1985 pact between the federal government and protesters. It was agreed that anyone who entered Assam without proper documentation after 24 March 1971, the day before Bangladesh declared independence, would be announced to be a ‘foreigner’.

On 31 July, the final list of the NRC will be published and anyone excluded will be considered an ‘illegal foreigner’ and be at risk of being rendered stateless. In total, four million people are at risk.

“That’s a huge population running the risk of becoming stateless and losing citizenship,” Ranabir Sammadar, a migration expert at the CRG, told the South China Morning Post. “They have lived in Assam for decades, most of them own property and have integrated into Assamese society. To now deny them citizenship will create a huge humanitarian crisis.”

Discrimination of ethnic minorities

Rights activists and lawyers say Assam’s system of ‘foreigners tribunals’, detention centres and its ‘border police’ – a unit in charge of checking illegal immigration – is biased against the poor and against Bengali speakers, who are deemed to be from Bangladesh. A review of orders issued in recent years by Assam’s tribunals – quasi-judicial bodies set up for illegal immigration cases – shows many people of Bengali descent have been declared foreigners because of discrepancies in their names and other details on identity documents.

On 3 July, UN experts expressed their grave concern over the ongoing update of the National Register of Citizens and its potential to harm millions of people.

“We are seriously concerned over the current implementation of the NRC update in Assam and its potentially far-reaching consequences for millions of people, in particular persons belonging to minorities who risk statelessness, deportation or prolonged detention,” the experts said.

They also issued warnings on the rise of hate speech directed against these minorities in social media, and the potential destabilising effects of the marginalisation and uncertainties facing millions in this part of the country.

“This process may exacerbate the xenophobic climate while fuelling religious intolerance and discrimination in the country,” warned the experts.

What happens next?

If a person is excluded from the NRC, they have the right to have their case tried in one of the ‘foreigners tribunals’, but, as mentioned above, there have been reports of bias and discrimination against Bengali speakers in those courts.
Neither the state nor the Federal Centre has clarified what happens to those who lose their cases in the tribunals, whether they will be detained, deported or allowed to stay on without the rights and privileges of citizenship. In the past, those deemed to be foreigners have been transferred to detention centres in the state.

If hundreds of thousands of residents are declared illegal, Assam is far from ready to deal with the situation. The six detention centres in the state are already overcrowded. They held 1,133 illegal immigrants as of 25 May, the government said. So-called foreigners have languished there for years in a legal limbo because while the Indian state has declared them foreigners, there is no repatriation treaty under which they can be deported to Bangladesh.

Kula Saikia, the chief of police in Assam, told Reuters there was no clarity on what would be done with those who don’t make it onto the citizenship register. He and other officials say they are awaiting orders from India’s Supreme Court, which is supervising the process.

“It’s impossible” to detain hundreds of thousands of more people, said Bharali. “We will have to create one whole town for these people.”

“I also want Assam to be free of illegal migrants,” he added. “But at this point, I am 100% sure that this is not a correct NRC.”

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