Assam conjures images of verdant tea plantations cushioned between towering mountainous landscapes. Because of this, the north-eastern Indian state has lent its name to one of the most well-known teas in the world. Yet, in recent times, it has witnessed a resurgence of xenophobia that could see millions be stripped of their citizenship.
To be listed as an Indian citizen, locals – many of whom are poor and illiterate – must prove that they or their ancestors were residing in the country before March 24, 1971 – the eve of the Bangladesh war of independence. After the war, large numbers of refugees from present-day Bangladesh made their way to India resulting in ethnic strife with many wanting the new foreigners to be deported.
In 2014, the authorities began to update to the National Register for Citizens – a list that registers those who were born in India or who migrated, but it had not updated since 1951. The move was done to pinpoint migrants from Bangladesh who had settled illegally in the country.
The process, however, has been riddled with shortcomings, errors, and prejudices. In the first draft, 19 out of Assam’s 32 million inhabitants were awarded citizenship rights. The second draft omitted 4 million people who were then stripped of their citizenship. Since then, the situation has spiralled out of control. With the authorities constantly changing their previous decisions, countless people have been asked to prove their citizenship time and time again.
Those deemed to be “irregular foreigners” have been detained and held in detention centres within prisons. There is little segregation between these “irregular foreigners” and convicts who are also imprisoned for various crimes. Furthermore, not only are detained families separated, but there are also children in the facilities with their mothers. And as there is no statutory limit to the duration of their incarceration, some have found themselves imprisoned for months or even years without the possibility of parole. Under international law, this automatic detention of migrants is considered to be illegal.
Kismat Ali, a 69-year-old man whose Indian citizenship was recognised – but only after he spent more than two years in a detention centre – told Amnesty India:
“The room had a capacity of 40 people. When we reached it was filled with around 120 people. There was no space. We had to live on top of each other. Ashraf (another former detainee) and I slept next to the bathroom. It was dirty. We couldn’t get any sleep. You’d get around 1.5-2 feet space for yourself. We weren’t allowed to take more space. If we did, we were threatened. The convicts get much bigger and broader beds. At that time, we were all put together – we shared space with convicts, all mixed. Each day the numbers kept increasing. It was very hot, there was a fan, but still it was hot. There was no space or peace.”
The selection process of those deemed to be Indian and non-Indian has also been marred by controversy. Sometimes, it can take a neighbour making an accusation because of an existing feud, and before long, someone whose ancestors has lived in India for generations may find him or herself in grave danger. Moreover, shoddy investigations and poor record-keeping by the border police mean that numerous legitimate citizens are being classified as “irregular foreigners”.
Since the outbreak of the crisis, many have committed suicide due to the fear of what losing their citizenship could spell. In an interview with Scroll, psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakkar explained, “The fear of losing citizenship does not cause suicide but can produce excessive mental pain in the vulnerable who already lack the capacity to modulate painful emotions. The driving force behind almost every suicide is mental pain.”
Congress leader, Shashi Tharoor, highlighted the problem with the National Register of Citizens last week stating that “57 people have committed suicide because the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has excluded them. Ironically, the majority of these people are Hindus.”
The BBC reported on one such person, 88-year-old Ashraf Ali, who told his family that he was going to get food to break his fast for Ramadan and instead, killed himself with poison. He and his family were initially proven to be “Indian” but Ali was again asked to prove his citizenship after a neighbour challenged his inclusion. A fellow villager said that Ali feared that he would be taken to a detention centre and his name excluded from the final list.
Another man, 49-year-old Bhaben Das, committed suicide after he could no longer afford to repay loans for the legal fees he incurred on the salary of a labourer. Even though his lawyer petitioned for his name to be included in the register, it was still not listed.