New Delhi has continued to milk the issue of citizenship for political gain, leaving 1.9 million people stateless and virtually unable to prove otherwise
Shahjahan loves teaching science to his students at a government school in the Morigaon district of India's northeastern state of Assam. But for the past year, the 28-year-old teacher has started each day feeling as though he's living a lie. Shahjahan, whose name has been changed at his request, hasn't told anyone at his school that he was not included in the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) that the Indian government published last year. He worries that if the school authorities or his colleagues find out, they'll discriminate against him. "I also fear that I may be suspended, as I heard of another government schoolteacher who was suspended after the NRC list excluded him," he said.
First prepared as part of independent India's first census in 1951, the NRC is the official register of Indian citizens in Assam, the northeastern Indian state that shares a 163-mile-long border with Bangladesh. Over the years, the government claimed that the NRC's main purpose was to identify and deport Bengali immigrants who'd illegally crossed the border from what started as East Pakistan and then became Bangladesh. The updated list, released on Aug. 31, 2019, was created with a similar intention: It's excluded 1.9 million people, primarily Bengalis—both Muslim and Hindu—leaving them potentially stateless until proven otherwise.
Yet proving one's citizenship is not easy, and for the time being, it's nearly impossible. Even if an individual has the right documents, they're still stuck in limbo, since the Indian government has delayed the appeals process for anyone excluded by the NRC. Human rights activists say that this yearlong period of government inaction is politically motivated, perhaps even a way for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling party of India, to lay the groundwork for yet another NRC that will exclude far more people—especially Muslims—than the nearly 2 million already affected.
In the state of Assam, the determination of citizenship has long been a contentious political issue that's rooted in the linguistic and cultural divides between the Assamese and Bengalis. In the 19th century, the British brought Bengalis into the state from the neighboring state of Bengal to work its paddy fields. India's partition in 1947, followed by the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, led to a mass movement of people across the border that's only heightened tensions around identity and citizenship. Today, some Assamese claim that foreigners, or Bengalis from Bangladesh, are occupying their land.
In 2013, the government updated the 1951 NRC in Assam in order to deport those immigrants. The massive undertaking, which started in 2015, was completed last year. It cost 12.2 billion rupees ($166 million) and required some 50,000 government officials to examine the documents of more than 32 million people. For the people who didn't make the cut, their only recourse is to appeal their case in a quasi-judicial court called the Foreigners Tribunal—or face detention or deportation.
But people can only go to the Foreigners Tribunal once they've received a slip from the NRC office stating the reason they were rejected from the register. And more than a year after the final list was published, the government still hasn't issued a single rejection slip.
This state of limbo has torn apart the lives and livelihoods of the nearly 2 million people excluded from the list, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many have spent their entire savings on legal aid as they've prepared to prove their citizenship to the tribunals. Some haven't been able to access government relief despite the lockdown and recent floods caused by the overflowing of the Brahmaputra River that have affected more than 3 million people in Assam.
Shahjahan, who has a 75-year-old father, a wife, and a toddler, has spent more than 95,000 rupees ($1,300) on lawyers and documentation fees. "I have managed to get all my documents, including a land deed from 1930 and 1950," he said. "I don't want to live in fear every day."
The government's delay in issuing rejection slips is intentional, Aman Wadud, a human rights lawyer based in Guwahati, Assam's largest city, told me over the phone last month. He's been taking on citizenship cases pro bono. According to Wadud, the government has publicly revealed that it was discouraged by the fact that only 2 million people were excluded from the register, since it had hoped the NRC would affect millions more. "Since the numbers don't match the [BJP] government's propaganda …they don't want to confirm this NRC list and instead want to conduct another NRC," said Wadud.
In recent years, the BJP has turned an age-old regional identity issue over linguistic differences in Assam into a national issue over religion. Many of the BJP's actions have been anti-Muslim, including the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act, a law that fast-tracks nationality for only non-Muslim minorities from neighboring Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. The government has also stated its intentions to pave the way for a nationwide NRC.
Indeed, in November 2019, Amit Shah, India's minister of home affairs, said in Parliament that an NRC will be created for every region in India—including a new one in Assam—which would presumably disproportionately affect Muslims. The nationwide protests that followed have since pushed the Modi government to backtrack on the announcement. Still, the delay in addressing last year's NRC in Assam has led to fear and anxiety that the people of Assam may have to go through another similar process.
For now, the NRC state coordinator, Hitesh Dev Sarma, claims that the delay in starting the appeals process is due to legal and technical anomalies. When asked for a timeline, Sarma told me over the phone that the government will issue rejection slips in phases that will likely start this October.
Sarma's promise, with no definitive timelines, is of little comfort to individuals caught in limbo.
Jiyad Ali, a 65-year-old resident of Assam's Barpeta district who carefully followed the government's instructions for submitting all the required documents, doesn't understand why he was rejected and is desperately waiting for his rejection slip in order to appeal it.
Ali, a Bengali Muslim, was born in the Barpeta district of Assam in 1965, but his birth may not automatically make him an Indian citizen, in part because citizenship depends largely on the status of an individual's ancestors on significant dates. One such date is March 25, 1971, which marks the start of Bangladesh's war of independence from Pakistan. If Ali's parents crossed over to India illegally on or after this date, he would not be considered a citizen.
This March 25 date informs the present-day NRC and the Citizenship Act of 1955, or the law that defines citizenship in India. In the late 1960s, the All Assam Students' Union, a student organization in Assam, rallied around this date—the day before Pakistan launched an operation in then East Pakistan which kicked off the war of independence—as part of a six-year movement to oust immigrants, mostly Muslim, who had come from Bangladesh. The movement culminated in the historic Assam Accord of 1985, which set a March 25, 1971 deadline for citizenship. After the accord, New Delhi added an amendment to the Citizenship Act, which mandated that individuals living in Assam submit birth or legacy documents to establish family residence and ancestry.
Ali has such documents to prove that his family lived in India before the deadline—including an electoral roll and a land deed—and he said those brittle pages, now yellow-brown with age, are the only valuable things he now owns. This year has been particularly hard for his family of four. "My house was destroyed by the floods in Assam. My family was pushed to live on the streets," said Ali, from his new house—made of mud and bamboo mats—by the roadside. To make matters worse, Ali's exclusion from the NRC prevented him from accessing public rations during the pandemic.
Wadud, the human rights lawyer, said that cases like Ali's are few but unsurprising. Yet "there is nothing on paper that says that the state can curtail the rights of these people before they are declared foreigners by the Foreigner's Tribunal," Wadud said.
Ethnic Bengalis may be the primary target of Assam's NRC, but as with many such efforts, the effects of the NRC have disproportionately harmed women and the poor.
In November 2019, Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression, a grassroots effort by a nationwide network of women from diverse backgrounds, visited Assam and found that the burden of producing documentation was much harder for women, who have historically been denied entitlements of land and lineage.
For the NRC, individuals have to state their patrilineal legacy to prove their citizenship. That's what kept Lal Bhanu, whose husband, children, and two brothers were included on the updated NRC, off the list. Bhanu has no legacy documents from her paternal side, and the NRC does not allow for citizenship through marriage.
Bhanu's plight is only exacerbated by her financial circumstances. Those who can afford it can try to acquire the right documentation or legal assistance, but the poor "have no choice but to declare themselves dead to avoid this process," said Ashraful Hussain, a youth leader and social activist who has helped people with their documentation.
"If [the police] come for me, I'll tell my children to tell them I am dead," said Bhanu. "If I spend all this money on lawyer fees, how will I feed my family during coronavirus when no one has jobs?" As a "dead" person, Bhanu would not have to either be detained or go through the rigmarole of trying to prove her citizenship. But it would also mean that she'd never be able to access government social programs again, which is a right of every citizen.
Despite the toll on Assam residents such as Bhanu, the government has chosen to milk the issue of citizenship for political gain instead of letting it die out, even though 35 years have passed since the Assam Accord. "These people will be stateless perennially, and they will become an issue not just in the upcoming state assembly election in April, but election after election," said Wadud, the human rights lawyer.
In order to address this issue, Wadud said that the government should not only give the 1.9 million people excluded from the NRC a chance to appeal, but also issue national ID cards to protect the 31 million who made the final list.
Shahjahan, meanwhile, hopes that his 1-year-old son who, thanks to the NRC, was born stateless, will not have to live his entire life proving to authorities why he is Indian. He is determined to sort this out now. "I have all my documents ready to appeal my case," Shahjahan said. "Give me the rejection slip, get the process started, so me and my family can live with dignity and with our identity restored."
Priyali Sur is a social development expert and journalist focusing on migration and refugee rights. She is the founder of The Azadi Project. Twitter: @priyalisur
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on foreignpolicy.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.