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Millions Living in India Risk Becoming Stateless From August 31

As authorities in the volatile northeastern state of Assam prepare to publish the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) tomorrow, millions fear they could be excluded and torn apart from their families.

by Dhvani Solani
30 August 2019, 10:31am

Indian security personnel patrol on a road ahead of the publication of the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) at Kachari Para village, in Hojai district, northeastern state of Assam, India August 30, 2019. Photo: REUTERS/Anuwar Hazarika

Authorities in the northeastern Indian state of Assam are preparing to publish the final citizenship list—known as the National Register of Citizens—on Saturday, August 31. This so-called register aims to identify “genuine” citizens and strip others of their citizenship via what critics see as a messy, bureaucratic process. This is possibly the largest such citizenship screening drive in the world. With millions of people in the crosshairs, it achieves a similar end to Myanmar’s attacks on the Rohingyas, but with four times as many people. On Thursday, August 29, security measures were tightened across the state, including in the capital city of Guwahati, with Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code imposed. This prohibits the gathering of five or more people at one place. The centre has also sent 20,000 additional paramilitary forces to Assam. Here’s everything you need to know about what’s going on.

What is NRC?

The list, known as the National Register of Citizens (NRC), is unique to Assam—a state with a population of 32 million people—and was first prepared in 1951. It is being updated as per directions of the Supreme Court to segregate Indian citizens living in Assam from those who have illegally entered the state from Bangladesh.

Over the years, there has been a demand from indigenous Assamese groups to update the NRC to assess the number of illegal immigrants or those who came illegally to Assam after March 25, 1971—the day the Bangladesh Liberation War started. On August 31, 2019, Assam’s government shall release an updated NRC—the culmination of a years-long exercise meant to separate Assam residents from so-called “outsiders”. A preliminary list, released in August 2018, excluded over 4 million residents.

Where will the list go up?

“The list would be available online by 10 am and those who do not have internet connections can go to Seva Kendras set up by the state government to check their status," a senior officer in the Home Ministry told NDTV.

What can people who don’t find their name on the NRC do?

They will be first given the opportunity to prove their citizenship in quasi-judicial courts, known as Foreigners Tribunals (FT). The FT in their own time will take decision on that appeal and then it can be appealed again in the high court, after which it can be appealed in the Supreme Court. People will get 120 days to appeal at more than 200 FTs planned to be set up in addition to the existing 100. But rights activists say that since the appeal period is short, courts will be overwhelmed. "Imagine FTs adjudicating 2-3 million cases and they have been given just 120 days," Suhas Chakma, director of New Delhi-based Rights and Risks Analysis Group, told Al Jazeera.

The state government said it will provide legal aid for filing appeals. Even so, about 89 percent of the more than 41 lakh people excluded from the NRC so far have been suffering from extreme mental torture because of the fear of being marked as a foreigner and its consequences, a survey by the National Campaign Against Torture (NCAT) has revealed. The country’s rampant lack of documentation and the fact that many affected are poor, illiterate and unprepared to deal with the tribunals’ opaque legal process, worsen the situation.

assam nrc
People wait in queue to check their names on the draft list at the National Register of Citizens centre at a village in Nagaon district, Assam, July 30, 2018. Photo: Reuters

Who are the people largely impacted by this?

Bengali speakers, who make up about a third of the state’s population, have been most affected by this exercise. While Hindu Bengalis do find themselves on the list, it’s the Muslims who have been disproportionately impacted, which begs the question whether the NRC actually has anti-Muslim agenda. In Assam, speaking Bengali and practicing Islam—the predominant language and religion of neighbouring Bangladesh—have long been linked with being foreign. But those leading the fight for NRC say this is an attempt to protect Assam’s indigenous people, regardless of their religion.

What is the fate of the NRC rejects?

No one really knows. Those declared foreigners by the tribunals risk being detained in detention centres which function out of six jails in the state. Stories that have come out of those who risked or had been detained are heartbreaking—from a newborn who died in a detention centre whose mother was later found out to not be a foreigner to those committing suicide on finding out that their or their family member’s name was not on the list.

While the first exclusive detention centre is under construction, an additional 10 are proposed to come up. As of July, there were 1,17,164 persons who have been declared foreigners by tribunals after they were marked as suspected illegal immigrants through a parallel process of detection done by the Election Commission of India and the Border Organisation of the Assam Police. Out of these 1,145 were in detention. No one knows what will happen to them ultimately because people can’t be deported unless the country they are being deported to accepts them, and Bangladesh has no such treaty with India. But they do risk being deprived of their basic rights and services including access to property, education, healthcare and employment.

Can NRC be applied to the rest of the country?

When the draft of NRC was published last year, ripple effects were felt across the states of the North East, which share the same anxiety: fragile, indigenous populations and cultures will be wiped out by outsiders, including illegal migrants. The neighbouring state of Nagaland has already started an exercise to create a similar database of citizens. The government has decided to prepare a National Population Register (NPR) by September 2020 to lay the foundation for rolling out a citizens' register across the country—a pan-India version of the NRC.

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