A wave of anti-immigrant hysteria is sweeping across the world: it has empowered Trump, enabled Brexit and is polarising the politics of Europe. In the Indian north-eastern state of Assam millions are about to be declared stateless in the country on the grounds that either they or their ancestors came over as undocumented migrants from India’s eastern neighbour, Bangladesh. Assam is updating its National Register of Citizens: a supposed listing of genuine Indian nationals. Anyone who does not find their name on this NRC will be branded an illegal migrant. The situation has drawn comparisons to the Rohingya crisis – both being stark examples of states stripping a minority of their citizenship. In fact, like Assam, Myanmar also accuses the Rohingya of being migrants from Bangladesh and refers to the persecuted group as “Bengalis” in order to reinforce that narrative. However, where the two differ is in magnitude. The Rohingya refugees who fled number about three-quarters of a million. The draft NRC published in 2018 excludes more than five times that number.
The NRC's 2018 draft list declared more then 4 million people to be foreigners. While an exercise that aims to vet each one of Assam’s 30 million citizens is draconian enough, the real devil lies in the detail. The burden of proof under the NRC is so stringent, partisan and arbitrary that the entire exercise seems geared to exclude people rather than any genuine effort to create a roster of Indian citizens. To qualify for the NRC, applicants have to prove that either they or their ancestors lived in Assam before the start of the 1971 Bangladesh war. The cut-off date is in itself a tool of exclusion since atrocities by the Pakistan army had forced millions of refugees to flee to India even as Bangladesh fought to secede. India’s courts have taken an exceedingly illiberal turn. Rather than act as a check on executive excess, the judiciary has itself pushed the NRC hard, leading a commentator to declare: “The supreme court has transformed itself from the protector of the rule of law into an enthusiastic abettor of its daily violation.”
People frantically seek out family land title deeds, the name of a grandparent in historical electoral rolls or even family entries in the original NRC records, created in 1951 to locate family documents from seven decades back to prove that they are a citizen of the country where they were born in. There is also the stumbling block of Assam’s illiteracy rate. More than one in four people in the state are completely illiterate and cannot either read documents nor submit them if they want to avoid being stripped of their citizenship.
The entire process is underpinned by ethnic bigotry. In fact, the NRC has an explicitly racist classification of “original inhabitants” – which means that the Assamese ethnic majority will be put through a" less strict and vigourous process" of citizenship vetting. The NRC process has resulted in some surreal outcomes. In one case, a father was declared a foreigner in the draft NRC but his son was declared Indian. A six-year-old girl passed the citizenship test but her twin brother was found to be a foreigner. Spelling errors and inconsistencies in documents – common enough given high illiteracy levels – have acted as a significant obstacle. A typo in your grandfather’s documents could mean you lose your citizenship.
As in other parts of the world, Assam is using supposed illegal migration as a cover and an excuse to target minorities and to harass Assam’s Bengali speakers, who share their ethnic identity with Bangladeshis. This in spite of the fact that there are more than 83 million Bengalis who are Indian citizens and Bengali speakers have lived in Assam as long as any other ethnic group. This ethnic targeting in Assam replicates the Hindu nationalism of Prime Minister Modi and the BJP, who portray Muslims swamping India. After Assam, the BJP has promised a citizenship test for all of India’s 1.3 billion residents – part of a plan to make India a Hindu nation. The number of Indian Muslims is almost equal the population of Brazil which is the sixth most populous country in the world.