The registrar general of India announced on Monday that some four million people have been removed from citizenship rolls in the northeastern state of Assam, which borders Bangladesh.
The citizenship list has been criticized as unfair to minorities and a prelude to mass deportations, although the registrar offered assurances that ample opportunity for appeals will be provided and no legitimate citizen need fear deportation.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) project asked residents of Assam to present either valid citizenship papers or proof that their family has been in the state since March of 1971 when a wave of Bangladeshis fled across the border to escape the war of independence with Pakistan. The idea was that families which came to Assam during the war would be “grandfathered in,” but those who crossed the border more recently and could not produce the proper documents would be investigated as potential illegal immigrants.
Defenders of the NRC argue that most of the 32 million applicants were cleared, the others have until September to file claims for correction, the current citizenship list is merely a draft document, and there is no reason for panic. The project has been underway for three years, supervised by the Indian supreme court. An earlier draft version of the citizenship list omitted 19 million residents, so the new figure of four million is much lower.
“Adequate and ample scope will be given to people for making objections. No genuine Indian citizen should have any fear,” the registrar, who uses the single name Sailesh, said on Monday.
“It is only a draft and not the final list, each one will be given a chance to make a claim of citizenship and any objections. Only after that will a final list be published. Some people are trying to create an atmosphere of fear,” said Home Minister Rajnath Singh.
Singh told the Indian parliament on Monday that he has ordered no immediate action be taken against people who did not make the list of verified citizens.
Deutsche Welle cited fears that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party wants to drive Muslims of Bangladeshi extraction out of Assam. Critics suspect the appeals process will be unduly complicated and unfair, pointing out that many residents of the wetlands region are nomadic and have poor documentation. They worry Bangladesh will refuse to accept those India eventually chooses to deport, creating a stateless refugee crisis similar to the plight of the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar.
As numerous Assamese of Bangladeshi extraction have pointed out in interviews, there are families which arrived after 1971 that have lived in the Indian state for two generations now, so it would be very difficult to “return” to a country their children and grandchildren have never known.
“It is nothing but a conspiracy to commit atrocities. They are openly threatening to get rid of Muslims, and what happened to the Rohingya in Myanmar could happen to us here,” Bengali activist Nazrul Ali Ahmed told the BBC on Monday.
The BBC pointed to the lyrics of a song written to promote the civil registration project on Facebook as a grim omen, which says, “A new revolution, to defeat the alien enemy, is beckoning. Bravely let us shield our motherland!”
Thousands of paramilitary troops were deployed to the region to prepare for unrest when the draft citizenship list is released. Indian states bordering on Assam are increasing security due to concerns that people will panic and flee Assam to escape deportation orders or mob violence. Riots in 1983 saw 2,000 Muslim immigrants killed in machete attacks in a single night.
Hindu residents of Assam feel the large immigrant population is forcing political and cultural changes in Assam they never agreed to. “In the past two decades, loads of Muslims from Bangladesh have settled around us. Twenty years ago, Hindus formed 75 percent of my town’s population. Today, the Muslims are in the majority,” one such Assamese citizen told the UK Guardian in February.
“Twenty to 25 percent of the state’s population are illegal immigrants; they take away our jobs, the jobs of indigenous people. They swarm to the lower Assam region in huge numbers and drive away our indigenous tribes. We are becoming refugees in our own homelands,” the founder of an anti-immigration group told Al-Jazeera.
Supporters of the NRC note the Bangladeshi government was obligated by treaty to prevent further migration into India after the war for independence from Pakistan ended, and the same treaties give the Indian government the right to check for valid citizenship papers and deport illegals. Bangladesh claims it knows nothing about illegal immigrants and has not discussed repatriation with the Indian government.
Some of the BBC’s local correspondents suspect the NRC is just a political stunt intended to whip up Hindu nationalist fervor for the benefit of Modi’s BJP party ahead of the next election, pointing to the suspicious lack of resources in place for processing mass deportation orders. On the other hand, a new detention center for violators of immigration law has been under construction in Assam since early this year.