India’s National Register of Citizens, updated in August 2019 for the northeastern state of Assam, has left 1.9 million people in limbo as they have been excluded from the citizen list and as appeals to determine their status have long been delayed. In the meantime, some of them are being denied government services.
An update to the registry, meant to identify illegal immigrants, was started in 2015 when residents of Assam submitted detailed applications for inclusion in the citizen’s list. The original citizen’s list was created after the census of 1951.
Assam, which shares a border with Bangladesh, has seen several waves of migration. The state has a history of ethnic strife which came to the fore when locals started an anti-foreigners movement in 1979 led by student groups. There were episodes of violence, including the Nellie massacre in 1983, when around 2,000 people were killed. Then-prime minister Rajiv Gandhi signed a pact with student leaders in 1985 ending the agitation.
Now, more than a year since 1.9 million people in Assam have been left in limbo, many are raising their voices in protest as they are denied government services available to Indian citizens. They risk statelessness if their appeals are not successful.
The delays in appeals against exclusion are blamed on discrepancies and the coronavirus pandemic. Even the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has made it clear that it is not happy with the outcome of the process.
India’s Supreme Court had ordered that the whole process of updating the registry be completed in a time-bound manner in Assam, where local groups had demanded the implementation of the 1985 accord, which pledged that illegal immigrants would be identified and deported to Bangladesh.
To get their names included in the registry, applicants had to submit various documents to establish that they or their ancestors have been in Assam before March 25, 1971, the cut-off date for citizenship under the 1985 pact.
The Supreme Court, with then-chief justice Ranjan Gogoi, monitored the exercise closely until his term ended in November 2019, a few months after the citizenship registry was published. The Supreme Court heard the NRC case in January 2020, but no hearings have taken place since.
Mayarun Nessa, 59, a housewife in Hojai in central Assam said her parents were on the 1951 list. Six decades later, Nessa was surprised to find that she had been excluded from the updated final list published on Aug. 31, 2019.
Hojai, a predominantly Bengali-speaking district in Assam, has the highest number of people who have been excluded from the registry.
But in her family, Mayarun Nessa is the only one whose application was rejected. Her six sons and two daughters’ names are on the list, as well as the name of her 65-year-old husband, Khaliluddin.
The couple had planned a visit to Mecca for the Umrah pilgrimage in 2019. They filled out their applications in September of that year. While Khaliluddin received his passport, Nessa’s police verification is still pending.
“They told me I cannot get the passport till my name is included in the NRC,” said Nessa.
The Indian government said in September 2019 that those who are excluded from the registry will continue to enjoy all rights. But in some pockets of Assam, many who were excluded from the registry, like Nessa, are facing problems.
“Many passport verifications are pending because of the pandemic,” said Ankur Jain, the superintendent of police in Hojai. “In case someone’s application is pending because of exclusion from the NRC, it could be because we need to do proper, detailed scrutiny of these applications.”
In another district in lower Assam’s Brahmaputra valley, police are blunt about the process: “If a name is not in the NRC, then they will not get the passport,” said Amrit Bhuyan, district superintendent of police in Darrang.
Amrit Lal, a 47-year-old activist in Bongaigaon, another lower Assam district, said those excluded from the citizens’ registry are living in fear.
“We are scared,” said Lal, whose name was not on the Aug. 31 list.
Lal has a valid electoral identity card and has been voting in elections, most recently in 2019. But authorities told him that he was a “doubtful voter” since his name is not in the registry. Therefore, he is basically a suspected illegal immigrant in the eyes of the law.
Lal’s mother’s citizenship had been under a cloud as well, but she was declared an Indian citizen by the High Court in Assam in 2018.
Before the National Register of Citizens process took off, the specialized border section of Assam’s police and local election commission officials were already carrying out investigations and marking people as doubtful voters or suspected illegal immigrants, as they did in the case of Lal’s mother before she was exonerated by the high court.
The cases of those marked as suspects are referred to as the foreigner tribunals. Assam has 100 foreigner tribunals — quasi-judicial bodies that give an opinion on citizenship status. By July 31 this year, these tribunals had declared 136,149 as illegal foreigners.
Those who have been declared foreigners do not enjoy any of the rights of citizens in India, and as many as 425 foreigners, including those who have been declared illegal by the tribunals, were in detention camps as of July 31, according to data submitted to Assam’s legislative assembly on Aug. 31.
To deal with the rush of appeals by those excluded from the citizens’ registry, the Indian government approved another 200 new tribunals. Those who are not on the citizen registry have the option to file an appeal with these tribunals, showing a rejection slip issued by registry authorities that details the reason for their exclusion from the list. One year on, however, these rejection slips have yet to be issued, thus leaving the fate of some 1.9 million people in limbo.
“We have to attach the speaking order with the slip. Some speaking orders were found to be not OK. We have to scrutinize them so that the right speaking order goes to the public. For scrutiny of speaking orders, the services of circle officers (local officers) will be required. Everybody is busy with Covid-19 duty,” said Hitesh Dev Sarma, the state coordinator at the National Register of Citizens secretariat in Assam.
The chief secretary of the state, Assam’s highest bureaucrat, Kumar Sanjay Krishna, said he has directed the register’s secretariat to start work on issuing these orders.
“Because of Covid-19 and the flood, and the local registrars not functioning, the follow-up action could not be completed,” said Krishna. “My office has directed the SCNR (the state coordinator of the national register) to initiate this work now.”
Even the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government who boosted this project as a decisive win over illegal Muslim immigrants was not happy with the Assam citizenship list and has petitioned the Supreme Court against the registry. And activists claim that given the mess the registry is in, the BJP itself wants to scrap the entire exercise after spending over $218 million on it.
“Exclusion of 1.9 million people doesn’t suit the BJP politically,” said Aman Wadud, an activist-lawyer who has been voicing concerns over the registry exercise since its inception.
The rumors about the scrapping of the registry may have a kernel of truth.
Assam government spokesperson and Cabinet Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary told the Assam Assembly early this month that the government stands by its demand for re-verification of the citizenship list.
“We filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying that there should be re-verification of 20 percent of the names included in the list in the districts bordering Bangladesh and 10 percent in the rest of the districts,” Patowary said. “We need a re-verification because people of Assam want to correct the registry.”
Rupam Goswami, the chief spokesperson of the BJP in Assam said: “The people of Assam are saying illegal immigrants have got their names included in the NRC, while legal citizens have been left out,” he said.
Three of the four Bangladesh-border districts in Assam have a Muslim majority population. India is a Hindu-majority country.
Leaders of the ruling BJP, including India’s Home Minister Amit Shah, have made it clear in the past that they will throw out all infiltrators, a reference to Muslim migrants while granting citizenship to migrants from other communities.
Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Judith Isacoff