All Are Stateless. Some Are Hopeless.

Hindus left stateless in Assam think Modi will save them. Muslims fear the worst.

People stand in line to check their names on the final list of India's National Register of Citizens in a village some 40 miles from Guwahati, the largest city of the northeastern state of Assam, on Aug. 31.
People stand in line to check their names on the final list of India's National Register of Citizens in a village some 40 miles from Guwahati, the largest city of the northeastern state of Assam, on Aug. 31. Biju Boro/AFP/Getty Images

GUWAHATI, India—Zikir Ali says he hasn’t slept in a year. Last August, he got a notice stating he had to present himself in court to prove his citizenship. Seven months later, he was declared a “foreigner.”

Ali and his wife, Hajra Begum, are among the 1.9 million people excluded from the final National Register of Citizens (NRC), a list published last month that seeks to sift Indian citizens from migrants living illegally in the northeastern border state of Assam. Thirty-three million people made it onto the list in the state, after a monthslong process of determination that cost India $182 million.

“I have this constant fear that someone will come and arrest me. I leave my house and go into hiding every night. I don’t know when this will end,” Ali, a 44-year-old farm laborer, said, sitting outside his house in Dumuria village, two days before the NRC was published. He is now fighting his case in a higher court.

Not too far from his house, Chandan and Rinku Dey are also facing a similar problem: They didn’t make it to the list, an outcome they’ve feared ever since being officially notified that they were “doubtful voters” due to their lack of sufficient proof that they were Indian citizens. They, too, face an uncertain future of multiple court visits, expenses that might drain their limited resources, and even possible statelessness.

The Deys, Ali and Begum are all Bengali-speaking—making them a minority in Assam, the kind that the NRC was devised to identify and eventually remove. But there is one key difference: The Deys are Hindus, while Ali and Begum are Muslims.

“Despite being Hindus, we’ll have to leave Hindustan. We’re being made into Muslims. Are we outsiders now? Where will we go, Bangladesh? Pakistan?” Chandan Dey asked.

The process of building the NRC has been criticized as arbitrary and unfair—and technically, both Hindus and Muslims are similarly affected. But Hindus like the Deys are much more hopeful about getting back on the list. The same party that pushed the NRC through, India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is also seen as Hindus’ best hope for asserting their citizenship.

Those labeled as Bengali outsiders—both Hindu and Muslim— have been entering Assam even before India’s independence in 1947. The British colonizers first brought Bengalis into Assam for administrative jobs. The state is part of the northeast region, geographically isolated from the rest of India, connected only by a narrow strip of land referred to as the Chicken’s Neck. The first attempt to create a registry of legal citizens in Assam dates back to 1951, but the flow of incomers increased dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly fleeing violence in what was then East Pakistan—today’s Bangladesh.

With that came resentment from the local Assamese, who see the incomers as diluting their culture and taking their jobs. The Bengali-speaking newcomers were easily singled out from the Assamese-speaking locals.

That produced clashes between immigrants and locals, culminating in violent protests led by Assamese student groups in the 1980s, and eventually the Assam Accord of 1985, which led the state government to set a cutoff date at March 24, 1971. If you lacked evidence that you’d arrived in India before that day, you were out of luck. The date was deliberate—it was two days later, on March 26, 1971, that Bangladesh declared independence, generating the biggest wave of refugees.

But the Assam Accord didn’t solve the issue. One of the ways the discord played out was over the right to vote. In 1997, the Election Commission conducted an exercise to revise electoral rolls to remove illegal voters, marking them “doubtful” or “D” voters. Then, in 2011, a state court directed that all “D” voters’ cases be referred to Foreigners Tribunals—quasi-judicial courts set up for this specific purpose. It also ordered that all “D” voters should be sent to detention centers until their cases were dealt with—1,136 people are currently in such centers as a result.

Ever since then, state leaders have used the issue as a political carrot, dangling it to get more votes from the Assamese-speaking population. Being born in Indian territory gives no innate right to citizenship if your parents aren’t Indian, leaving new generations in equal uncertainty about their nationality and future. But the citizenship issue was revived by the Hindu nationalist BJP, which has taken up the issue in consecutive state and national elections since 2014.

Last year, a draft list was published that left 4 million people off. These 4 million could file an appeal with the right documents to prove their citizenship. The last few months saw feverish activity in the state, with people rushing to file appeals. Over 50 people committed suicide while waiting to hear. For others, it was an exercise in dealing with frustration—some people’s appeal hearings were more than 300 miles away, sometimes costing more than a day’s wage to reach.

The number was halved—the 1.9 million people excluded from the final citizens’ list included those whose documents had failed them yet again, or those who simply did not have the resources to appeal. Among them there are many like the Deys and Ali and Begum, who will now have to challenge their exclusion in Foreigners Tribunals within the next four months.

But in spite of having demanded this for years, local leaders in Assam—and the BJP chiefs at the center—were unhappy with the final list, as they were expecting even higher numbers of people to be excluded, especially Muslims.

The BJP explicitly targeted Muslim migrants last election, calling them “infiltrators” and “termites,” and promising to remove them from the country. Indian officials have insisted that the NRC is not discriminatory, and there is no official data that provides a breakdown of the inclusion rates of Hindus and Muslims. However, while Muslims continue to feel targeted and ostracized, those like Dey are bolstered by the belief that the BJP has Hindu interests at heart.

“Our biggest hope is that the BJP will come to our rescue. We voted for them,” Chandan Dey said. He believes the BJP will save Hindus from meeting the same fate as the Muslims on the NRC.

The BJP already has a plan to keep Hindus from expulsion. The Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016, which was introduced in India’s Parliament but failed to pass in the upper house, intends to grant citizenship to what it terms “religious minorities,” which includes Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis, Jains, and Christians from the neighboring countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, because they have been persecuted in their home countries. That neatly leaves out Muslims. In the last week, BJP leaders have hinted at a reintroduction of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which has been part of their election platform at both the national and local level since 2014.

Until then, though, both Hindus and Muslims will be put through the same process.

It is unclear what the government intends to do with those who fail to prove their citizenship—which could be hundreds of thousands of people. Over the next four months, 300 Foreigners Tribunals will seek to give a judgement one way or the other. Currently, there are 100 Foreigners Tribunals in the state, and 200 more will be added this month to deliberate on the 1.9 million cases. While the tribunals are quasi-judicial courts, the officers who preside over them are not qualified judges. So far, results from the tribunals have varied vastly from district to district, and questions have been raised—alleging them to be arbitrary and inconsistent. Ex parte orders are a common occurrence, where people get declared as “foreigners” without even being present in court. This year, a minister told the Parliament that 63,959 people have been declared foreigners through ex parte proceedings in the state since 1985.

Civil society experts have said that the state’s legal system is not equipped to handle the volume of cases, and the lack of access to legal services will leave hundreds of people without the resources to fight their cases on merit.

The government is also building additional detention centers that are meant to house those who are eventually declared foreigners—with no clear plan of what happens to them in the long run. Human rights advocates have described the centers as places of “extensive human distress and suffering” in which people are likely to be incarcerated indefinitely.

In Goreswar village, Amrit Das says his parents, Narayan and Amari Das, were on their way to the Guwahati High Court to challenge the Foreigners Tribunal’s decision when they were detained. They’ve been held at the detention center for a year now.

“The Foreigners Tribunal is a machine that produces ‘declared foreigners,’” his sister Zhuma said. “Last time I [saw my mother], she said, don’t spend any more money on us. We will die here.”

The Das couple claims to have all the documents that prove their linkage to legal migrants, but they encountered a common loophole that caused them to slip off the official requirements—Das’s grandfather used the surname Biswas, but his father changed it to Das in the late 1980s. Even though Das is also a Bengali name, it was seen as safer than Biswas, and his grandfather could probably get away with being seen as an Indian, Amrit Das said. Under the Citizenship Act, the burden of proof is on the citizens who have to show that their predecessors were either born in India or legally immigrated there, entering India before March 24, 1971, making it almost impossible for those like Das to have documents that can prove citizenship beyond doubt.

Even in the face of such discrepancies, the fact that they’re Hindu is reassuring. “We are living in the hope that [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi and [BJP President Amit] Shah have promised that Hindus will be okay in India. The talk of the Citizenship Amendment Bill is what is keeping us going,” Amrit Das said.

Some would rather deny any reference to their parents’ and grandparents’ entrance at all. Frustrated by the failure to find the right “legacy documents,” Zikir Ali finally wrote in a letter to the Foreigners Tribunal, “I don’t know whether my forefathers came from Bangladesh.”

Some, like Das, carry only a piece of paper that says his family entered India without valid travel papers.

In 1964, a Relief and Rehabilitation Certificate issued to his grandfather stated, “He has reported that he had to leave his home in Pakistan due to insecurity of life and oppression by the majority community and Government of [East] Pakistan.”

Today, that insecurity and oppression is alive in Assam.

Amruta Byatnal is an Associate Editor at Devex.

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