Like the rest of the world, the new year of 2021 started with new hope in India, one of the worst covid-affected countries. But not all ‘Indians’ are hopeful of a safer future, like the millions living in the northeastern state of Assam. These people are afraid of being citizens of nowhere since the land they were born in does not want them.
What is the citizens’ registry of Assam?
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) was created in 1951 to detect the people born in Assam (hence Indian) and those who migrated from neighboring East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The procedure to update the register for the first time since 1951 was taken in 2015. It was required for the families living in Assam to prove to the authority that they came to the state by March 24, 1971, before Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan. Those failing to provide documentation of their lineage would be regarded as ‘illegal foreigners’. The Indian government says it was needed to identify illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Finally, on August 31, 2019, the final list of ‘Indian citizens’ in Assam was published, which excluded over 1.9 million people born and living for generations in the state.
A haunt for the minorities in the name of citizenship registry?
Concerns have been raised inside and outside India that the register will justify discrimination against the Muslim minority in the state. The Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been in power in India since 2014. The ruling party always showed a tougher stance on illegal migration but started prioritizing the NRC in recent years. Amit Shah, the president of the ruling party declared in a campaign in 2019 in West Bengal, a state bordering Bangladesh to ‘remove every single infiltrator’ from India excluding Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs. The implementation of the NRC has been proven the apparent way to do so since most of the out-listed are Muslims by faith.
Months after the NRC controversy, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was introduced in 2016, which offered citizenship for non-Muslim migrants of neighboring Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The exclusion of persecuted Muslims was widely criticized as it violated India’s constitutional secular position.  Writer and political activist Arundhati Roy says the CAA an ‘anti-muslim law’. Mr. Apoorvanand, a distinguished professor of the University of Delhi says, the government act regarding citizenship can lead to a major upheaval in society, and ‘Muslims could be targeted’.
The accusations of anti-muslim rhetoric against the BJP are nothing new. In 1992 BJP linked Hindu nationalists were alleged of the destruction of the Babri Mosque; a subsequent riot took 2000 lives in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. A decade later, while the current PM Narendra Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat, violent fighting between Muslims and Hindu left 1000 people dead. Not to mention, the majority of the victims were Muslims. “When the BJP was re-elected with an even bigger mandate in the last general election in 2019, they have carried on with the Hindu nationalist agenda,” says Al Jazeera India correspondent, Elizabeth Puranam. The tormenting memories are still vivid in the Muslim community, so the NRC and CAA came as no surprise to them. Apart from Bengali-speaking Muslims, a sizable number of Bengali-speaking Hindus and indigenous communities living in Assam were also left out on the NRC list, escalating the ethnic tension in the region. Experts say along with religion, language and culture were also used in the NRC to draw the lines.
Nationwide protest and police crackdown
A violent protest broke out in Assam following the published NRC list and the CAA introduction in the parliament. The CAA eventually passed in late 2019, the consequence of which left five people dead in Assam. The spark spread quickly throughout the country including New Delhi, the capital city.
The bloody riot of February 2020 got to the point that a working-class Muslim neighborhood was demolished and burned down in the capital with the cost of 53 precious lives –the majority from Muslims. The role of the police force was highly suspicious since they entered universities to detain protesting students. 27 people were killed in Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka during that crackdown.
The public anger and demonstration were forced to come to an end amid the covid-19 surge in India, but the harassment and crackdown of the activists continued by the police force. Liberal students, university professors, and activists have been arrested and sent to prison since February last year. Some of them were detained under the strict Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, known for harsh bail provisions.
Foreigner at home: what does it take to be Indian?
“I was completely numb after hearing that I have been declared a foreigner. For 30 years I have served my country but now I am treated so badly”- says Mohammad Sanaullah, a former soldier in the Indian Army born and living in Assam. “It’s better to not live than live like this,” says Jaharna Nisa, a woman born, raised, and married in Assam. Her two children were struck out from the so-called ‘citizen list’, while all her grandparents, parents, husband, and herself were enlisted. “Did the children come to their mother floating from someplace?” questions Jaharna out of desperation.
The confusion is getting bigger among the left out people, why the state they were raised in is trying to make them stateless. The fear becomes real when people are taken to detention centers accused of being a foreigner. Halima, born and raised in Assam was arrested in 2009 on suspicion of being a ‘foreigner’. 2 years of jail was not enough for this mother of 4, since she had to pass another 9 years in detention in the women’s detention center, established to detain female foreigners. “In the detention center, life was punishment. We cried every day, desperately seeking help”-says Halima remembering the dark chapter of her life. Halima’s husband was finally able to take her out of the detention center with all his life savings, but the sufferings are not done yet. Halima has to travel 7 km from home every Monday to the local police station in Assam to mark her attendance. Despite living all her life in Assam, the state claims her to be a non-Indian. Halima is not the only one going through the ordeal for decades. Similar stories are abundant throughout Assam and a lasting solution seems far away.
The government gave 120 days for the left out to appeal. Many of the non-listed families were unable to do that due to illiteracy, poor record-keeping, and sometimes due to financial inability to file a legal claim. ‘The Foreigner’s Tribunal’ set by the Indian government to handle these cases was described by Amnesty International as ‘shoddy’ and ‘lackadaisical’. Rohini Mohan, a journalist who analyzed over 500 judgments made by these courts revealed some interesting yet not surprising findings to the BBC in 2019. Mohan found more Muslims were announced as ‘foreigners’ than other people of faiths, and around 78% of the verdict was given without the alleged being ever heard. The police claimed them to be ‘absconding’ while Mohan found many of the declared foreigners living in respective villages completely unaware that they had been declared foreigners in the land they own.
Fretful wait: what happens to the non-citizens?
Deportation- the worst nightmare of the non-listed Assamese is not possible just yet. The legal fight of the non-citizens and the strike of the pandemic although became able to calm the situation down, the clouds of uncertainty are still afloat. Detention is the immediate step that the government can afford to do right now. A massive detention center with a cost of 6.4 million USD is under construction in a remote site of Matia, Assam. Many believe that the excluded people from the NRC list might end up here. It is unclear whether the people stripped of their citizenship will be given access to resources or not. But one possibility is stronger according to the experts that they will not be allowed to vote.
Critics say the sudden rise of the NRC case is to increase the communal narrative in Assam, a state sharing the highest percentage of Muslim population among the states of India. An environment filled with communal tension never failed BJP. With the assembly poll ahead, the local BJP already made ‘bringing a true NRC’ in its electoral promise. With no country to call home, the fate of millions in Assam is uncertain for the years to come.
Experts say the NRC case of India is going to create a new cohort of stateless people in South Asia, echoing the Rohingya situation in Bangladesh. India’s search for ‘genuine citizens’ already cost the country around 180 million USD, but what about the cost of the xenophobia and distrust it resulted in among its own people? With the densified regional crisis, it is maybe too early to predict who wins at long last, but the subdued certainly is humanity.