People queue to check their names on the draft list of the National Register of Citizens in India’s north-eastern state of Assam on July 30, 2018. Reuters

About midnight one night in August, I received a call about an accident not far from Guwahati, a bustling city in India’s north-eastern state of Assam. As a lawyer who works on cases relating to citizenship, I was already aware that many of Assam’s rural dwellers were driving through Guwahati on their way to other parts of the state to deal with a pressing matter: their status as bonafide citizens of India.

At the scene of the accident, a truck carrying molten tar had upended after colliding with a bus full of people en route to hearings set up to determine whether they would be included in the National Register of Citizens, or NRC. The register, essentially a comprehensive list of all Indian citizens living in Assam, was scheduled to be released that month. Those with burn injuries had to be rushed to a nearby hospital, where a woman with her three-year-old daughter sat, both covered in molten tar, weeping as she wondered about the consequences of not making it to her destination the following day. It seemed to me that her anxiety, driven by the possibility of not finding their names in the NRC, had dwarfed the pain caused by her injuries.

Sadly, she was not alone. Entire families had been served notice, some only 24 hours before they were due to attend their hearings. Many had to stump up whatever cash they could to make the journey, like selling their belongings including cattle and gold. For the past four years, a vast majority of the 33 million residents of Assam have been made to endure similar anxiety and hardship just to prove their citizenship. And there is more uncertainty to follow, judging by the pandemonium the release of the NRC in Assam caused on August 31, when the list left out nearly two million residents and put them at risk of becoming stateless.

What is worse is that the same crisis is about to unfold across the country. While Assam is the first Indian state to have its own citizens’ register, politicians in other states like Haryana, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh are calling for the same in their respective provinces. The Haryana assembly elections are due to be held next week and chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar has hinted he might kickstart the process of identifying illegal residents in his state if he is re-elected. What is common with all four state governments – as well as the federal government in Delhi – is that they are all currently being run by prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. The NRC has become its electoral trump card. Home minister Amit Shah, the hawkish party president and Mr Modi’s powerful deputy, recently declared that “the BJP government will make sure every infiltrator is thrown out of the country” by the time the next general elections are under way in 2024.

Escaping from the advancing troops of the West Pakistan army, many Bengalis moved into India during the Bangladesh Liberation War. Michel Laurent / AP Photo

But the story of the NRC began well before 2015, when the exercise to identify bonafide citizens living in Assam began on orders made two years earlier by India’s Supreme Court. Pre-dating the BJP, the register was simply meant to follow on from the first census of independent India, conducted in 1951. It was only after anti-migrant agitations in 1985 that the exercise to detect and deport so-called illegal immigrants was formally approved. It was then legislated that anyone who could not prove that they or their ancestors had entered Assam before midnight on March 24, 1971, would be deemed illegal immigrants. March 25 marks the eve of the Bangladesh Liberation War and Assam shares a border with the country.

In fact, the issue is two centuries old, dating back to when people began migrating to Assam from Bengal when both were provinces of the British empire. Bengali Hindus were the first to arrive, brought in to perform clerical duties and work in tea gardens. Bengali Muslims followed in the middle of the 19th century, mostly rural workers looking for land to till, given that densely populated Bengal had reached its limits. Many yearning to own land knew they did not have to go very far to do so, even though it was going to be an arduous journey. Stories of people sailing up to 500km against the flow of the Brahmaputra river to reach their promised land is not simply the stuff of legend. Encouraged by the British for the purpose of maximising profit, this influx continued into the 20th century. According to the 1931 census, Assam was home to more than half a million immigrants and by 1951, Bengali Muslims alone comprised nearly 25 per cent of the state’s population.

Anti-immigrant sentiment began to grow when descendants of those first settlers on the fertile islands dotting the Brahmaputra were forced to escape floods and erosion, and seek refuge further inland, in larger population centres where their presence was felt. The Bangladesh Liberation War and the events leading up to it in the 1960s also saw thousands of people – mostly Bengali Hindus – move to Assam. However, those numbers came down considerably after 1971.

Assam is famous for its tea gardens and many Bengali Hindus were brought to work on these plantations early in the 19th century.

Yet there was a perception among many Assamese that demographic change was under way, which instigated a nationalistic movement and rhetoric. It gradually fizzled out as an entire generation of Bengali Muslim immigrants gave up their mother tongue and began learning to read, write and speak Assamese (today it is almost impossible to find schools in western Assam – home to many Bengali Muslims – which still teach in Bengali). Matters came to a head in 1979 during a by-election in the Mangaldai parliamentary constituency in west-central Assam, when it was alleged that thousands of illegal immigrants had been included on the electoral rolls. The All Assam Student Union launched a statewide agitation called the Assam Movement, which lasted six years before the Assam Accord was signed and the process of detecting and deporting “illegal immigrants” was started.

Despite this resolution, politicians of all stripes found it expedient to rake up the issue of immigration by specifically targeting the Muslim population and questioning its patriotism. In 1998, for instance, Srinivas Kumar Sinha, the federally appointed state governor, made provocative statements in a report to Kocheril Raman Narayanan, the president of India, calling for a stop to “the silent and invidious demographic invasion of Assam”. The influx of migrants, he said, was turning parts of the state into “a Muslim-majority region” that could lead to demands for “their merger with Bangladesh”. Over the years, the frequent use of dog-whistle politics kept the issue of illegal immigration alive, contributing to the rise of right-wing forces in the state and making possible the chain of events leading up to August 31. And the chaos we see today is the result of the countless discrepancies that appear in the updated NRC, despite four years of laborious work carried out by government officials. Many hundreds of thousands of those left out of the register are genuine citizens who were born and raised in the state after 1971 and have had children there.

With the genie now out of the bottle, the Ministry of Home Affairs in Delhi has sought to allay concerns of detention and deportation by saying: “The non-inclusion of a person’s name in NRC does not by itself amount to him or her being declared as a foreigner”. It has also given assurances to excluded people that they will be able to file appeals to specially created foreigners’ tribunals within 120 days of the release of the NRC. These tribunals have been empowered to issue final judgments but some have made arbitrary decisions in the past, including declaring as foreigners those with minor anomalies regarding their names or ages. There seems to be little hope left for those excluded from the NRC – especially the poor and underprivileged, who can barely afford to pay for legal representation. In the meantime, there are more than 1,000 people detained in camps across the state.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah recently declared that ‘the BJP government will make sure every infiltrator is thrown out of the country’ in five years’ time. EPA

The controversy, quite naturally, has also taken a regional dimension, with Bangladesh expressing concern over the fallout – although during his visit to Dhaka in August, India’s foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said the NRC was an “internal matter”. Indeed, those declared foreigners cannot be deported under international law, unless their country of origin confirms their nationality. However, they can be detained, which is a terrible proposition for them as it would mean being deprived of the basic right to lead a dignified life. The United Nations high commissioner for refugees has launched a campaign called IBelong in its bid to end statelessness by 2024 ­– and yet there is a very real possibility that hundreds of thousands of Assam’s residents could end up not belonging to any country. And it is hard to tell whether there will be a conceivable path to citizenship for them.

Meanwhile, the NRC’s impact on domestic politics is deeply worrisome. Despite the situation in Assam, many leaders within the BJP’s state unit continue to politicise the issue and suggest that the numbers of those excluded from the list should be even higher. And with no active, vocal opposition holding officials to account – either federally or in individual states across India – it is likely that the issue will be used to fan the flames of nationalism and majoritarianism. It will be convenient to do so, especially when the country’s economy is growing more sluggishly than Delhi would like. What is worse, however, is the insecurity that this obsession with the NRC will breed among millions of Indians and the damaging consequences it could have for years to come.

 This story first appeared on October 17, 2019 here.