Nearly two million people have been excluded from a list of citizens in India’s northeastern Assam state, raising fears they could be rendered stateless.
The list, known as the National Register of Citizens (NRC), was published on Saturday after a years-long exercise aimed at identifying legal residents in the impoverished border state.
A total of 31.1 million people were included in the final list, leaving out 1.9 million people, according to a statement from the Assam government.
“The entire process of NRC update has been meticulously carried out in an objective and transparent manner. Adequate opportunity of being heard has been given to all persons at every stage of the process. The entire process is conducted as per statutory provisions and due procedure followed at every stage,” it said.
The government said it carried out the mammoth exercise to detect and deport undocumented immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, but critics viewed the exercise as an attempt to deport millions of Muslims, who make up a third of the state’s population.
Resentment against immigrants has simmered for years in Assam, with residents accusing outsiders of taking their jobs and land.
Millions of Bangladeshi refugees, both Muslim and Hindu, arrived in India following the country’s 1971 war for independence. The mass influx of refugees into Assam has sparked violent anti-immigrant campaigns in the past.
The NRC is unique to Assam and was first prepared in 1951. Work on the latest list began in 2015 and was overseen by India’s Supreme Court. Only those who can demonstrate that they or their forebears were in India before 1971 could be included in the list.
Officials checked documents submitted by roughly 33 million people for a draft released last July. That list left out more than four million people.
On Saturday, a steady trickle of people lined up to check their names on the final citizenship list in Buraburi village outside one of the many offices that have been set up across Assam for residents to verify the status of their citizenship applications.
Mijanur Rahman, a 47-year-old farmer, found himself, his 21-year-old son, and two of his daughters aged 16 and 14 included in the list. However, his wife and his other three daughters – all under the age of 10 – were excluded.
“I am really worried. We will see what the government does now. Maybe they will offer some help,” a teary-eyed Rahman told The Associated Press news agency.
Those excluded have 120 days to prove their citizenship at hundreds of regional quasi-judicial bodies known as foreigner’s tribunals. Up to 200 more tribunals are expected to be set up on top of the existing 100.
The tribunals must decide on the cases within six months.
Human rights activists fear those excluded from the list may face possible jail time or deportation, and they may be deprived of their right to vote, among other civil rights.
The government has already announced its plan to build 10 more detention centres. Nearly 1,000 people are being held in Assam’s six detention centres for undocumented migrants.
‘No need to panic’
But Assam’s Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal sought to placate those fears on Saturday.
“These cases will be taken special care of. We will provide all the possible assistance. So, there is no need to panic. I would appeal to all the people to maintain peace and harmony,” said Sonowal.
Assam is on high alert and additional security forces have been deployed to the state in anticipation of violence following the list’s publication.
The Hindu nationalist-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which fully backs the citizenship project in Assam, has often promised to roll out a similar plan nationwide.
But Himanta Biswa, a minister from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), criticised the process, saying “so many genuine Indians” had been left off the NRC.
“We have lost hope in the present form of the NRC,” Sarma told reporters, saying that the party was already mulling a “fresh strategy on how we can drive out the illegal migrants“.
The BJP governs Assam and critics say the NRC process reflects the BJP’s goal to serve only people of the Hindu faith.
In January, India’s lower house passed legislation that grants citizenship to people who moved to India from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan as recently as six years ago – as long as they are not Muslims.
Critics say the BJP was planning to pass new legislation to help Hindus who have been excluded from the NRC get Indian citizenship.
Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah, Modi’s right-hand-man, has called for the ejection of “termites” and said before the BJP’s thumping re-election victory in May that it would “run a countrywide campaign to send back the infiltrators”.
Samujjal Bhattacharya from the All Assam Students’ Union, a key driver of the NRC, said the register was necessary to protect Assam’s indigenous “sons of the soil”.
“We are not ready to live here like second-class citizens in our own motherland,” he said.