Indian citizens register excludes 1.9m Assam residents
India’s newest iteration of its controversial citizens register for the tea-growing state of Assam has excluded 1.9m of the states’ 33m residents, leaving them at high risk of being rendered stateless and consigned to an uncertain future.
Those left off the National Register of Citizens were unable to provide sufficient evidence to prove that they or their ancestors lived in Assam before the turbulent 1971 creation of Bangladesh, which led to many mainly-Muslim migrants flowing into India in search of shelter and opportunity,
The number of people excluded from Assam’s citizens list — prepared over the past four years in an arduous, Supreme Court-supervised process at a cost of nearly $170m — has fallen sharply from the 4m kept off an initial draft released last year.
India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party — which has pledged to weed out what it calls illegal Bangladeshi immigrants from the country — says the 1.9m people left off the latest citizens list will have four months to make a last-ditch appeal to one of many new quasi-judicial “foreigners tribunals” being hurriedly established to hear their claims in the border state.
But those who fail to satisfy tribunals of their legitimate claim to Indian citizenship face the bleak prospect of being formally declared foreigners, stripped of the vote and other rights, and left in legal limbo.
The process threatens to make India home to one of the largest populations of stateless people in the world.
“Even if it were true that a lot of people came across after 1971, they have lived here, they have had children here, built a life here,” says Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “There has to be a more sympathetic approach of how to handle the situation.”
“How are you going to disturb these lives? It’s two generations of people who are effectively Indian and have lived in India for decades,” she added.
Tension between Assam’s indigenous communities and those they consider foreign interlopers has sometimes erupted into communal violence.
Lawyers and human rights activists say the citizens register process has put an onerous burden on some of India’s poorest, most disadvantaged people, who have been required to provide documents dating back half a century in a state known for frequent devastating flooding.
The BJP itself has been dismayed that many Hindus — whom it considers its core constituents — have also been excluded from the list, unable to meet the stringent documentary requirements.
“People have felt they are going through a very cruel and harsh process,” says Aman Waddud, an Assam-based lawyer who has helped many people with the process. “If you commit a murder or a rape, the burden of proof is on the state. Here, the burden of proof is on you.”
New Delhi has been ambiguous about the fate of those ultimately deemed to “foreigners” at the end of the process, stoking fears that they could face prolonged detention.
Neighbouring Bangladesh, already struggling with 750,000 Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Myanmar, has made clear it will not accept the repatriation of those that India deems illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and their descendants, many of them born in India.
“I don’t know what will happen,” Mr Waddud said. “If the status quo is followed, if the person is declared foreigner, they may be taken to a detention centre.”
“Most of the people cannot be deported,” he said. “Their country of origin is India. They are born in India. They are Indian citizens, and they are declared as foreigners because of minor anomalies in their documents.”
Visiting Bangladesh this month, Indian foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, called the exercise an “internal matter,” implying that New Delhi would not try to force its friendly neighbour to accept large numbers of deportees.
Authorities are already holding approximately 1,145 people found to be foreigners in Assam. India is said to be constructing large camps capable of holding thousands more prisoners.
During the recent election campaign, Amit Shah, the home minister, promised that the national register of citizens process — now confined exclusively to Assam — would be extended to the entire county.