Fear and Confusion Grips India’s Northeast as 1.9 Million People Face Statelessness

Ethnic Bengali Muslims from Nellie village who were excluded from the citizenship list published in 2018, which had left out over 4 million people. Photo by Vishal Arora.

Ethnic Bengali Muslims from Nellie village who were excluded from the citizenship list published in 2018, which had left out over 4 million people. Photo by Vishal Arora.

Twenty-nine-year-old Ahmed Toweb has been an Indian citizen all his life, but a question mark hangs over his credentials now. His name was missing from a citizenship list released Aug. 31 in Assam, the most populous state in India’s northeast.

Toweb, a student leader, is among more than 1.9 million people at risk of statelessness after their names were not included on the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a list four years in the making aimed at deporting illegal immigrants who’ve entered the hilly green region from neighboring Bangladesh. 

“My family has lived here for generations,” said Toweb, whose ancestors migrated to Assam in the late 19th century from the Bengal region of British India, which is now Bangladesh. “My grandfather was born here, so was my father, and so am I. How can I be called an immigrant in my own country?”

The undertaking by the Assam government was ordered in 2014 by India’s Supreme Court and  required 32 million people to apply for verification of their nationality voluntarily, rather than a home-to-home inspection.

Critics have called the citizenship list an attempt by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is also the ruling party in Assam, to target and deport millions of minority Bengali-speaking Muslims living in the state. Many BJP leaders, including chief ministers of various states, support the NRC and have pledged to roll out the exercise in the whole country.

Last year, an initial Assam citizenship list had excluded about four million people. Those left out applied again for reconsideration. 

To be considered legal citizens of Assam, the applicants had to show they had roots in Assam before 1971, the year when millions of Bengali Hindus and Muslims migrated to the Indian state of West Bengal and Assam from East Pakistan as it became independent and renamed Bangladesh. People whose names appeared in the first NRC written in 1951, or on an electoral voting register before midnight March 24, 1971, or descended from someone named in those documents were considered legal residents.   

The latest NRC list in Assam, fuelled by decades-long resentment against Bengali-speaking immigrants, has been widely criticized in the state and other parts of the country for leaving many genuine citizens off the list. According to media reports, even Sajid Ali Ahmed and his family, who are close relatives of India’s former president, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, have been left off the list.

Similarly, in Toweb's case, who is a Bengali-speaking Muslim, his parents and siblings made it onto the list while only his name is missing.

“I had applied properly, presented all the documents needed for verification before the authorities, but I don’t understand why my name is not there,” he said. He has documents of land ownership by his grandfather that date back to 1944.

Many people in Assam supported the NRC because they wanted an accurate count of illegal immigrants, but that count is still not clear.  

“In the beginning, all of Assam welcomed the NRC,” Rohini Mohan, an author and journalist who has covered the issue extensively, said. “The majority Assamese speakers felt it would weed out people they considered illegal immigrants, and the much-attacked minority Bengali speakers, many of them Muslim but some also Hindu, thought it could be the final time they had to prove they were Indians.”

The problems came when the Supreme Court monitoring the NRC process, and the administrators executing it, introduced so many changes over time that allowed village officers, the police and the state government to make subjective decisions, Mohan said.

Ethnic Bengali Hindus, who were left off the preliminary citizenship list published last year, protesting against the NRC in Assam in 2018. Photo by Vishal Arora.

Ethnic Bengali Hindus, who were left off the preliminary citizenship list published last year, protesting against the NRC in Assam in 2018. Photo by Vishal Arora.

According to one BJP lawmaker, Hindus are refugees and ‘Muslims are infiltrators’

After the Aug. 31 list, Assam BJP leaders expressed their disappointment. They believe the number of illegal immigrants, especially Muslims, is much higher than what has come out in the list. They are also worried because the list left off many Bengali Hindus, the party’s vote bank. 

“I’m not that concerned about the genuine people left off, I’m more concerned about the Bangladeshi Muslims who have been included in the citizenship list,” said Shiladitya Dev, a BJP lawmaker in the state. Calling Bangladeshi Muslims living in the state a “national threat,” Dev said that “Hindus who have come from Bangladesh are refugees as India is their country, but the Muslims are infiltrators and must be deported as soon as possible.”

Reflecting the general ideology of the Hindu nationalist party, which believes India is the home land of Hindus first, Dev said that after India’s partition, Muslims got their own country, either Pakistan or Bangladesh, which was East Pakistan before 1971, where they can go. Dev thinks 8-10 million Bengali Muslims are living in Assam, mostly illegally and undetected by the NRC process.

India’s constitution doesn't discriminate against people based on their religion. However, under Modi-led BJP rule since 2014, hate crimes against religious minorities, particularly Muslims, have significantly increased without convictions of the perpetrators.

The Indian government plans to re-introduce a controversial citizenship bill in the parliament, which would offer citizenship to immigrants of any faith from neighboring countries, except Muslims. The party had first introduced the bill in 2017, which lapsed in the Upper House without majority support.

In May, Amit Shah, India’s interior minister, tweeted, “First, we will pass the Citizenship Amendment bill and ensure that all the refugees from the neighbouring nations get Indian citizenship. After that NRC will be made and we will detect and deport every infiltrator from our motherland.”

The government’s stand has caused fear among the ethnic Bengali Muslims left off the list, who have no other homeland.

“The BJP tried to mould an existing anti-Bengali paranoia (in the state) into an anti-Muslim paranoia, which it used outside Assam as well,” said Mohan. According to her, although the propaganda succeeded electorally in Assam, the party is facing a dilemma there. “They did not expect so many Bengali Hindus to be excluded from the NRC,” which is why they can soon enact the citizenship bill which will save ethnic Bengali Hindus from being disenfranchised.

However, the Assamese people who have been demanding such an exercise say that the NRC is only meant to protect the cultural and demographic identity of Assam, which shares several hundred miles of its border with Bangladesh, and has nothing to do with the religion of the immigrants.

Many Bengalis migrated to Assam during the British era for agriculture-related work, but the largescale migration of Bengalis, Hindus and Muslims occurred in 1947, when the British partitioned India to form Pakistan. Later in 1971, the liberation of Bangladesh (then East Bengal) from Pakistan set off another round of migration. But some Bengali Muslims never left India.

The anti-immigration sentiments run deep into Assam’s indigenous population, who feel that the ethnic-Bengali people have changed the demographics of the place and gained significant political clout that endangers their interests.

In the 1980s, following largescale anti-immigrant protests in the state, India’s federal government entered an agreement with Assam’s state leaders in 1985, known as the Assam Accord. Under the agreement, there would be a vetting of legal residents of the state to weed out the undocumented immigrants.

Because the government didn’t act on the accord for a long time, the Supreme Court in 2014, while hearing several petitions filed by the locals regarding the NRC, ruled that the government must resume updating the citizenship list in the state. It has since been monitoring the process.

Process to appeal relies on local leaders’ judgement

Those excluded from the list can appeal before the quasi-judicial Foreigners Tribunals in the state to prove their citizenship. Experts believe that the tribunals are opaque and have a record of discrimination. A recent investigative report by Mohan found grave negligence and discrimination happening in Foreigner Tribunals operating in the state. Such quasi-judicial bodies are presided over by people who aren’t judges, like hired lawyers, which raises questions on their biases and competence.

“In Foreigners Tribunals, most of the things happen illegally,” said Toweb. Despite producing proper documents, many are declared foreigners.” In any case, settling the claims of nearly two million people won’t be an easy task.

India doesn’t have any treaty with Bangladesh, a densely populated and impoverished nation, to deport the people it declares "foreigners." Many experts believe that Bangladesh, which is already taking care of a vast number of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, won't be able to absorb millions from India.

The people excluded from the list could end up in detention centers if they are found to be "foreigners" by the Tribunals. The government is building huge detention camps in the region. Fearing detention and deportation, many ethnic Bengalis, Hindus, and Muslims, have committed suicides in the state.

However, many BJP leaders see it differently. "Since they have come to our country, we will have to bear them as such a large number of people can't be sent back to Bangladesh or kept in detention centers here, but we will strip them off the political rights. They can live here on work permits," said Dev.

After the list was released, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, urged the Indian government to ensure that no one is left stateless as a result of the NRC. “Any process that could leave large numbers of people without a nationality would be an enormous blow to global efforts to eradicate statelessness,” he said.

Responding to the international obligations that India has over this issue, Dev said that before Prime Minister Modi came to power, international bodies could put pressure on India for various things. However, under his decisive leadership, the country will do everything possible to deal with the Bengali Muslims who are "infiltrators," no matter what the international community says, he added.

“It is a maze of confusion in Assam. Everybody is confused, including civil society groups, political parties, governments, and individuals,” said Rajeev Bhattacharyya, a senior journalist covering Assam. “The confusion of the government is best illustrated in the absence of a post-NRC plan.”

Toweb thinks that he can successfully fight in the court to prove his citizenship, “but there are thousands of illiterate people who don’t understand the bureaucratic process,” he said. “There is no hope left for them.”