Two million risk becoming stateless after Indian state releases final list of citizens

NEW DELHI – Nearly two million people risk statelessness and detention after they were left off the final version of a registry of Indian citizens, part of a controversial exercise to identify suspected illegal migrants in the northeastern state of Assam.
The National Register of Citizens released Saturday morning included the names of 31 million people and excluded 1.9 million. The state had required citizens to provide original documents proving their residency and parentage going back decades.
The citizenship registry exercise has gained fresh impetus since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. Many of the migrants in Assam are Bengali-speaking and hail from neighboring Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim country. Such migrants have proven a potent political issue for Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
In the recent election campaign, Modi’s powerful right-hand man Amit Shah referred to such migrants as “termites” and vowed to expel them from India as a matter of national security. Shah recently became the country’s Home Affairs Minister and has pledged to take the citizenship registry exercise nationwide.
While the exercise was meant to identify migrants who had entered the country illegally, activists say the opaque and complex process made it difficult even for genuine citizens to prove their nationality. The poor and uneducated have had particular difficulty navigating the exercise and providing the required documents.
Those excluded from the final registry will have four months to appeal their status before quasi-legal tribunals and higher courts. If their bids fail, they face potential detention. The state of Assam is creating hundreds of such tribunals and building new detention centers to handle the aftermath of the citizenship list.
For those whose names were not on the list, the future is an anxious question mark. Many of them have already tried to prove their citizenship repeatedly and doubt they will receive a reprieve from the quasi-judicial bodies known as “foreigner’s tribunals.”
They fear they may be separated from their families, detained, or even deported to Bangladesh, with which Assam shares a border. Those left off the list could also become a disenfranchised population within India, unable to vote or access crucial government services.
“Assam is on the brink of a crisis which would not only lead to a loss of nationality and liberty of a large group of people but also erosion of their basic rights – severely affecting the lives of generations to come,” said Aakar Patel, executive director of Amnesty International India, in a statement.
A provisional list of citizens published last year left out 4.1 million people. Media reports said spelling errors and mistaken identities led to erroneous conclusions about people’s citizenship. Among those excluded were military veterans and relatives of a former Indian president. Several families reported their members had committed suicide after being left off earlier versions of the list.
Unchecked migration from neighboring Bangladesh into Assam has been a hot-button issue for decades – and the release of the final list may not end the battle.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, a leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Assam said Saturday that the final citizenship registry did not go far enough. The party will devise a fresh strategy “on how we can drive out illegal migrants,” he said. Local BJP leaders have expressed dissatisfaction at the way the list has excluded Bengali-speaking Hindus as well as Muslims.
On Saturday morning, families gathered at local government centers and huddled around computers to check their final status – with relief for some and anguish for others. Ahead of the release of the list, thousands of additional law enforcement officers and paramilitary troops were sent to Assam to prevent potential unrest. The state police put out messages urging people not to panic if they were left out of the registry, emphasizing that they would be able to appeal their exclusions.

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