Why 4 Million People in India Are Now Effectively Stateless
Those left off Assam’s National Register of Citizens could be stripped of their rights.
The Indian government published a draft list of citizens in Assam on Monday as part of its ongoing effort to update the state’s citizenship records, but rights groups say the list effectively renders approximately 4 million people stateless.
India’s northeastern state of Assam — known for its eponymous tea — shares borders with Bhutan and Bangladesh. The state is home to nearly 33 million people, many of whom fled to India as refugees after Bangladesh declared its independence from Pakistan.
To be considered an Indian citizen and included on the National Register of Citizens (NRC), people must now be able to provide documentary evidence that they have been in Assam since before March 24, 1971.
This means that those who fled the conflict that began just two days after that date, when Bangladesh declared independence, will not be considered “legitimate” citizens. Some 4 million Assam residents left of the list are now worried that they will be stripped of their rights, the BBC reported, including the right to vote or own the land they have lived on for decades.
NRC Coordinator Prateek Hajela emphasized that the list is a draft and Assam residents left off the list should not be afraid.
"If their names are not in the final draft, it doesn't mean that these people are illegal," Hajela told Al Jazeera. "This is just a draft and I'm telling you that these people will be given ample opportunities for claims and objections. So, there is no reason to fear."
Those left off the list will have a chance to appeal to be included on the list and to submit proof of citizenship, according to the Guardian. However, accurate paperwork may be difficult for those who live in the wetlands and lead a more nomadic life to produce for authorities, the BBC reported. The rate of poverty in Assam is higher than the national average, and poor families and people who are illiterate will also likely struggle to produce evidence of citizenship.
In the meantime, those left off the list are stuck living in limbo and are effectively stateless.
“What will happen to me?” Shafiuddin Ahmed, a Muslim teacher in Assam asked the New York Times in a telephone interview. “They may send me to a detention center. How will my family eat and live? I have all these uncertainties in my mind.”
Critics have pointed out that Muslim migrants were disproportionately left off the list, despite the fact that many submitted their passports and other official documents to be registered to the NRC, according to the New York Times. Though the list is called the “national” register, it is unique to Assam and only records the names of citizens in the state, not India as a whole.
Experts and activists say Bengalis, an ethnic and linguistic minority in Assam, could be most at risk of becoming stateless as a result of the list and have criticized the move by the government as discriminatory. In recent years, Bengalis — both Hindu and Muslim — in Assam say they have been harassed and discriminated against by law enforcement authorities attempting to identify and deport foreigners.
Parallels are already being drawn to Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, a majority-Muslim ethnic minority. Myanmar, then Burma, revoked the Rohingya’s citizenship rights in 1982, arguing that they were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The view of Rohingya people — who have ties to the land reaching back centuries — as “illegal immigrants” contributed to inter-communal conflict and the current refugee crisis.
How the Indian government will proceed with addressing citizenship claims and amending the list remains to be seen. So far there is no process laid out for the deportation of those left off the list, but rights activists are already condemning the move and exclusion of millions from the NRC.
"The National Register of Citizens is the biggest exercise for disenfranchisement in human history,” Suhas Chakma, Director of the Rights and Risks Analysis Group, said in a statement.