The authorities in Assam, a state in India which borders Bangladesh, have excluded four million people from its citizenship register, claiming that they are illegal immigrants. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a list of people who are able to prove that they had arrived in India before Bangladesh declared its independence from neighbouring Pakistan in 1971. However, the timing has raised questions as to whether the Indian government is trying to deport Assam’s ethnic minorities, as the government has spoken against the groups before.
During Bangladesh’s war of independence against Pakistan in the early 1970s, hundreds of thousands of people settled in Assam. However, under the Assam Accord, signed by the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985, those who cannot prove that they arrived in Assam before 24th March 1971, a day before the independence, will be expelled as they are not legal citizens. Thirty-two million people submitted documents to the NRC to prove their citizenship but around four million have been excluded.
The state government has stressed that the four million people who have been excluded will be allowed to appeal to prove their citizenship and will not be sent to detention centres. Sarbananda Sonowal, the chief minister, told the Hindustan Times that an “ample opportunity will be given to applicants to prove their eligibility”. Many fear that violence will erupt in the region and a witch hunt against Assam’s ethnic minorities will begin, as tensions in the region against Bengali-speaking Muslims have risen over recent years.
Social and communal tensions between locals and Muslim migrants have become exacerbated by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government who are keen to restrict the rights of minority Muslims in India.
Critics of the policy by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claim that the move to strip four million migrants, most of whom are Muslims, closely resembles Myanmar’s removal of protections and rights of the Rohingya Muslims. The BJP’s actions are being seen as a pretext to an attack on Muslims, especially as the recent rhetoric from the Indian government explicitly threatens to remove Muslims from India. In fact, Prime Minister Modi has never been shy of voicing his preference of Hindu migrants and states that they should be embraced by India. Such moves by the BJP threatens to create a new cohort of stateless migrants in the region.
The troubles in Assam spring from a debate over ‘infiltration’ by outsiders such as migrants and poor workers who are seen to be exploiting the porous border between India and Bangladesh. Conflict between indigenous populations and Bengali migrants have led to ethnic tensions that often become violent. In 1983, nearly 3,000 people had been killed during a controversial election in one month alone. Since then, the conflict has continued as the indigenous Assamese have claimed that electoral rolls are full of ‘infiltrators’ - a word used to describe migrants from Bangladesh. During a conflict in 2012, security forces in Assam were given a ‘shoot on sight’ order which killed 21 people in order to stop the violence.
Although the government in Assam claims that all removals will be peaceful and dignified, and that the four million people will have the right to appeal against the decision, many critics argue that the underlying conflict between indigenous populations and Bengali-Muslim migrants will create a new group of stateless people. The completed list, drafted by the NRC, will be released in December 2018.