new Delhi: India has published the final version of a list which effectively strips about 1.9 million people in the north-eastern state of Assam of their citizenship.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a list of people who can prove they came to the state by 24 March 1971, the day before neighbouring Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan
People left off the list will have 120 days to appeal against their exclusion.
It is unclear what happens next.
India says the process is needed to identify illegal Bangladeshi migrants.
It has already detained thousands of people suspected of being foreigners in temporary camps which are housed in the state’s prisons, but deportation is currently not an option for the country.
The process has also sparked criticism of “witch hunts” against Assam’s ethnic minorities.
A draft version of the list published last year had four million people excluded.
The NRC was created in 1951 to determine who was born in Assam and is therefore Indian, and who might be a migrant from neighbouring Bangladesh.
The register has been updated for the first time.
Families in the state have been required to provide documentation to show their lineage, with those who cannot prove their citizenship deemed illegal foreigners.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has long railed against illegal immigration in India but has made the NRC a priority in recent years.
Assam is one India’s most multi-ethnic states. Questions of identity and citizenship have long vexed a vast number of people living there.
Among its residents are Bengali and Assamese-speaking Hindus, as well as a medley of tribespeople.
A third of the state’s 32 million residents are Muslims, the second-highest number after Indian-administered Kashmir. Many of them are descendants of immigrants who settled there under British rule.
But illegal migration from neighbouring Bangladesh, which shares a 4,000-km long border with India, has been a concern there for decades now. The government said in 2016 that an estimated 20 million illegal immigrants were living in India.
Not quite. Residents excluded from the list can appeal to the specially formed courts called Foreigners Tribunals, as well as the high court and Supreme Court.
However, a potentially long and exhaustive appeals process will mean that India’s already overburdened courts will be further clogged, and poor people left off the list will struggle to raise money to fight their cases.
If people lose their appeals in higher courts, they could be detained indefinitely.
Some 1,000 people declared as foreigners earlier are already lodged in six detention centres located in prisons. Mr Modi’s government is also building an exclusive detention centre, which can hold 3,000 detainees.
“People whose names are not on the final list are really anxious about what lies ahead. One of the reasons is that the Foreigners Tribunal does not have a good reputation, and many people are worried that they will have to go through this process,” Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, author of Assam: The Accord, The Discord, told
The special courts were first set up in 1964, and since then they have declared more than 100,000 people foreigners. They regularly identify “doubtful voters” or “illegal infiltrators” as foreigners to be deported.
But the workings of the specially formed Foreigners Tribunals, which have been hearing the contested cases, have been mired in controversy.
There are more than 200 such courts in Assam today, and their numbers are expected to go up to 1,000 by October. The majority of these tribunals were set up after the BJP came to power in 2014.
The courts have been accused of bias and their workings have often been opaque and riddled with inconsistencies.
For one thing, the burden of proof is on the accused or the alleged foreigner.
For another, many families are unable to produce documents due to poor record-keeping, illiteracy or because they lack the money to file a legal claim.
People have been declared foreigners by the courts because of differences in spellings of names or ages in voter rolls, and problems in getting identity documents certified by authorities. Amnesty International has described the work by the special courts as “shoddy and lackadaisical”.
Journalist Rohini Mohan analysed more than 500 judgements by these courts in one district and found 82% of the people on trial had been declared foreigners. She also found more Muslims had been declared foreigners, and 78% of the orders were delivered without the accused being ever heard – the police said they were “absconding”, but Mohan found many of them living in their villages and unaware they had been declared foreigners.
“The Foreigners Tribunal,” she says, “must be made more transparent and accountable.”
A decorated Indian army veteran, Mohammed Sanaullah spent 11 days in a detention camp in June after being declared a “foreigner”, prompting national outrage.
Both the citizen’s register and the tribunals have also sparked fears of a witch hunt against Assam’s ethnic minorities.
Many say the list has nothing to do with religion, but activists see it as targeting the state’s Bengali community, a large portion of whom are Muslims.
They also point to the plight of Rohingya Muslims in neighbouring Bangladesh.
Fearing possible loss of citizenship and detention after exclusion from the list, scores of Bengali Hindus and Muslims have killed themselves since the process to update the citizen register started in 2015, activists say.
And in an echo of US President Donald Trump’s policy to separate undocumented parents and children, families have been similarly broken up in Assam.
Detainees have complained of poor living conditions and overcrowding in the detention centres.