Residents of the Indian state of Assam are faced with a lingering citizenship crisis which could leave millions declared non-citizens. The region is a common destination for Bangladeshi migrants, but many are insistent that they are Indian nationals, often contending that they were born in Assam. The Indian government, however, has opted to take a hardline position on the issue and after a decades-long effort to establish a National Register of Citizens (NRC), is set to release an official list by August 31.
The process has been long and arduous for both the government and residents of Assam. Many of those who live there are impoverished and illiterate. For an uneducated person, proving citizenship is a difficult undertaking which requires birth certificates and high school diplomas, among other support documents. Complicating matters, a draft of the NRC was released last year, but left four million people off of it, people who claim that they are citizens and should have been included. Originally, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the NRC to be finalized by the end of July, but granted a one-month extension this week after the state requested more time based on errors in the registry which had incorrect exclusions and inclusions.
The outcome of the NRC has broad implications, from rendering residents unable to work to effectively making them stateless, a violation of international law. Already, the process has caused strife even for those who are working and insist they are citizens. In the case of Tapan Debnath, a Tripura resident, Debnath was in possession of the citizenship certificate of his father which would ordinarily be enough to prove his own citizenship. However, government officials stated that it wasn’t sufficient evidence because of the proliferation of forgeries in Assam and imprisoned Debnath last week.
Debnath had repeatedly ignored notices from the police and a Foreigners Tribunal (FT) which handles such cases where citizenship is in question. Moreover, he continued to evade authorities by dodging phone calls and switching his residence continuously. His case is now essentially closed as the police said the opportunity to petition the FT has come and gone.
In another instance, N. Hussain’s entire family except his 9-year-old daughter has been placed on the NRC. His daughter, now declared a foreigner, is listed on an exclusion list for reasons unknown to Hussain. After an appeal on July 5, government officials promised she would be added to the updated list and blamed the error on “mistaken identity.”
To solve issues such as these, India has setup tribunals to evaluate contested cases. Currently, there are only 100 such panels in Assam, but the government aims to have 1,000 in total, but like all things pertaining to the NRC, it is a goal that takes time. Unable to reach that quota by the September deadline for the NRC, the government is rolling them out in phases of 200 tribunals each. The problem is that the first additional 200 will only begin operating on September 1. It will take another two years before all the tribunals are created, which will handle cases referred to them from the Assam Border Police.
Assam residents already live difficult lives without facing citizenship battles, often struggling with the harsh reality of living on chars – islands formed in the middle of rivers. These narrow strips of land are formed from silt. Due to the nature of rivers, over time chars will disappear, submerged in water, while others will form. When this happens, residents transport the few belongings they have by boat to the nearest char. Their homes are made from tin or thatch, bound together by string. When it comes time to move, they take down their homes and transport them.
Many of Assam’s residents are Muslim which adds another dimension to the story of the NRC. Efforts within the Indian Parliament since 2016 have attempted to change the way in which citizenship is granted. Since 1955, it has been based on birth, but the Citizenship Amendment Bill seeks to change that to jus sanguinis – by right of blood. This would enable “persecuted minorities” from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to become naturalized after six years. Indian nationalists are against the bill because they fear it will enable migrants to seek refuge in India for its easy citizenship path. However, Muslims are excluded from those minorities.
In January, the bill passed the lower House of Parliament and provoked backlash that it is anti-Muslim. Few in Assam actually support the bill. Either they are against it because of the perceived anti-Muslim component or because it will make citizenship easier to acquire. Regardless of whether or not the amendment becomes law, four million Assam migrants have to cope with the arduous process of proving themselves to tribunals and, if denied, will encounter even more bureaucratic obstacles.
Many of them are Bangladeshi migrants and their descendants who immigrated before prior to Bangladesh’s indolence from Pakistan in 1971. For them, life on the chars in Assam is the only life they’ve known. Even if they don’t have all the documents to prove their Indian citizenship, it is their home and they are just as much a part of India as anyone else.