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In India’s Assam State, Campaign against Illegal Immigrants Jeopardizes Millions

FILE - Activists shout slogans during a protest in front of Assam House against the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the northeastern state of Assam, in New Delhi, Aug. 4, 2018.

In India’s northeastern Assam state, anxiety and panic is mounting among nearly four million people who fear they may no longer count as Indian citizens although many have lived in the country for decades.

As part of a campaign to root out illegal immigrants, authorities will publish on Saturday a final list of the state’s bonafide citizens.

The hundreds of thousands whose names were excluded from a preliminary list last July have scrambled through a bureaucratic maze for the past year, trying to dig out documents from government offices or engaging lawyers they often cannot afford to fight for their inclusion in the citizens’ register.

Waiting to hear their fate, they fear being packed to detention camps or becoming "stateless" and stripped of benefits such as voting rights.

“People are going around with bundles of hope, wrapped in plastic, waiting for hearings, lining up to get on to the register,” says Sanjoy Hazarika, international director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and an Assamese scholar.

The process to identify illegal immigrants has the strong backing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, although it was mandated before they came to power by a Supreme Court order to update the state’s citizens’ list. Assam had been wracked by an “anti-foreigner movement” in the 1980’s as indigenous communities complained of being swamped by hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim, illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

Tracing roots to before 1971

The state’s 33 million residents, many poor and illiterate, were called on to show documentation that they or their ancestors had lived in Assam before Bangladesh’s independence in March 1971. It turned out to be a veritable nightmare for many, say human rights activists.

“Can you imagine working class people like rickshaw pullers keeping with documents dating back 50 years? It’s an incredibly unfair and slanted process where the poor find themselves at the wrong end of the process,” says Colin Gonsalves, a senior lawyer and founder of Human Rights Law Network, who visited Assam to hear about the travails of people running from pillar to post to prove they are of Indian heritage.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a youth rally organized by the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) ahead of Assam state elections in Gauhati, India, Jan. 19, 2016.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a youth rally organized by the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) ahead of Assam state elections in Gauhati, India, Jan. 19, 2016.

Poor people such as daily wage workers in India often have no bank accounts or do not own property.

Critics also point out that the campaign is not targeting recent immigrants but those that may have migrated decades ago.

“Fifty years you have been here, you never thought you would be questioned. You have children, some of them have grandchildren and suddenly you are asked to prove you are Indian,” says Gonsalves. “It’s a thoroughly arbitrary and a biased system.”

The arbitrariness was highlighted when a war veteran, Mohammed Sanaullah was identified as a “foreigner” in May and packed off to a detention camp – he was released days later by the state’s High Court on bail when the case made headlines.

Muslims especially worried

Worries run specially high among Muslims in a state where they make up one third of the population, far higher than in other parts of India. And as many Muslims complain of bias against them, critics have slammed the BJP for exposing communal fault lines and using them as a political target to build their support base in the state.

Among those who have scrambled to prove that they are Indians are 70 members of school principal Mansur Ahmed’s maternal family whose names never made it to the citizens’ list published last year. The problem: his grandfather’s name appeared with different spellings on land records that date back to the 1930’s — a common problem in India, where record keeping in the past was never accurate.

Ahmed says the family has appeared over 12 times before officials hearing appeals. “They are becoming tired, appearing in interviews again and again. Still they are in confusion whether their name will come or not,” he says. “It is very distressing for all people, specially Muslims, they are in great fear,”

Selling assets to prove citizenship

The BJP has strongly countered charges of anti-Muslim prejudice and pointed out that the 4 million who were excluded from the citizens’ list includes hundreds of thousands of Hindus also.

Indian children stand by a fence on the India-Bangladesh border at Jhalchar, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam.
Indian children stand by a fence on the India-Bangladesh border at Jhalchar, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam.

Many of these poor people have pledged their land or sold their farm animals as they frantically try to raise funds to prove that they are of Indian heritage, according to Mubarak Ali, a retired army soldier who is now with the voluntary group Citizens for Peace and Justice.

“They have to bribe to get documents and sometimes travel as far away as 400 kilometers to appeal at the designated office. And they have to carry all members of the family with them,” he says. “Poor people don’t have so many funds.”

And as tens of thousands stare at uncertainty, Sanjoy Hazarika points out that authorities have not prepared a roadmap on how to deal with those whose names do not figure on the list.

“What happens afterwards? I don’t think governments have addressed that issue very clearly except speaking in rhetorical flourishes,” he says. “The whole thing is a mess.”

Widespread criticism

Deportations are not an option — Bangladesh has said the citizenship exercise is India’s internal matter. But many fear being sent off to detention camps — six in the state already have about 1000 inmates and 10 more are being set up. Or they could just be left in limbo, with no access to rights such as voting, healthcare and education.

The government has said that those excluded can appeal to foreigners tribunals, whose numbers are being expanded. It is also promising legal aid to the poor although it may be difficult for poor people to negotiate long legal battles.

Despite widespread criticism of the controversial exercise, the government is not backing off. In fact, Home Minister Amit Shah, a close aide of Prime Minister Modi, who during an election rally called illegal immigrants “termites,” has said the campaign to root them out will go nationwide. So far Assam is the only state in the country to have a citizens list.

The contentious issue of citizenship has been further muddied by a BJP-backed proposed law that would grant citizenship rights to non Muslims such as Hindus and Sikhs from neighboring countries, but exclude Muslims.

For the time being, all eyes will be on the numbers that do not make it to Assam’s citizen’s register on Saturday — human rights activists worry it could add up to the a massive stateless population.