Volunteers in India’s Assam state are gearing up to help nearly 2 million people who have been stripped of their nationality in a recent update of citizenship rolls. A detention center built especially for this purpose is expected to open in December, raising fears that the newly stateless people - many of whom are Muslim - could be imprisoned as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even if they have been in India for generations. India's home minister announced on November 20 plans to expand the controversial program to the entire country.

The National Register of Citizens (NRC) was created in 1951 to determine which residents of the newly created Indian state of Assam had been born in the state, and were therefore Indian citizens, and which were migrants from neighbouring East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

India’s current ruling party, the Hindu nationalist BJP, announced plans in 2015 to update the NRC, excluding anyone who could not prove that their family had been in Assam before the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. When the final list was announced August 31, over 1.9 million Assam residents had been stripped of their Indian citizenship. Appeals are expected to start in December.

Since its creation, the NRC has applied only to the state of Assam. But Home Minister Amit Shah announced on November 20 that the NRC would be implemented nationwide, after having vowed that all illegal immigrants in India would be deported.

Critics say Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP party is updating the NRC as a means to target the country's Muslim minority and to further stoke anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. The government has denied allegations that the NRC is biased against a particular religion, arguing that in Assam, both Hindus and Muslims have been left off the list.

The government is currently building the first of at least 10 more detention centres to hold “illegal foreigners” in Assam. The centre under construction in the video below is located in the Goalpara district of Assam and will be India's first and largest detention center for illegal immigrants.

This video, tweeted on September 2 by Abdul Kalam Azad and filmed by a fellow activist, shows the construction of India’s first and largest detention centre for illegal immigrants, located in the Goalpara district of Assam.

This is not the first time Bengali-speaking residents in Assam have been targeted. In 1997, India’s Election Commission identified around 230,000 Assam residents as “doubtful voters”, taking away their voting rights and citizenship. Some of those people were sent to detention centres until they could prove their citizenship in quasi-judicial courts called Foreigners’ Tribunals.

“People excluded from the NRC are from the most vulnerable social groups”

Abdul Kalam Azad is an independent researcher and activist from Barpeta, a city in western Assam. He describes himself as a Bengal-origin Assamese Muslim (more than 8 million Bengali-speaking Muslims live in Assam, or around one-third of the population). He works with other activists around the state to help poor and marginalized residents prove their citizenship.
 
The people who are excluded from the NRC are those who are the most vulnerable, including women, children, and people from poor areas. People originally were asked to fill out a form to get onto the NRC, but in many areas of Assam, there is no electricity, and some communities are completely disconnected from the mainland. We went to those villages to help them file their applications, because most of these people are illiterate.

Women and children wait at 10 pm on Aug. 4, 2019 in the village of Sontoli, Assam for a vehicle to take them to a citizenship hearing in Jorhat, almost 400 kilometres away. (Photo: Rehna Sultana)
 
In the beginning, there was some government help with filling out forms. Now, it’s just activists like myself helping 2 million people.

Today, fear of the situation is spreading like wildfire in the communities affected by the NRC. People know a detention camp is being constructed, and the number of suicides related to the NRC has increased. One family of a suicide victim told me how he would repeatedly open a box holding his citizenship documents and stare at them twice a day and again in the middle of the night, before eventually taking his own life. Another woman told me that after her husband learned he was left off the NRC, he started behaving abnormally until the night he committed suicide.

“Muslims left off the NRC are more vulnerable”

There were both Bengali Muslims and Bengali Hindus who were left off the NRC, but the Muslims are more vulnerable because Bengali Hindus are still getting state protection for being Hindu. The ruling political party believes that Hindus cannot be foreigners in India -- India is their home. For the BJP party, even if you’re a Hindu from Bangladesh and you immigrated to India within the past few years, you’re not a foreigner.

“Less than 24 hours’ notice to attend a hearing 400km away”

Before the final NRC was published on August 31, Azad coordinated with other volunteer activists throughout Assam to organise travel, accommodation and food for poorer Assam residents so they could attend their citizenship hearings. The residents were often given “11th-hour” notices to prove their citizenship in a Foreigners’ Tribunal located in a distant city. Many of these people had never traveled far from their villages.

Volunteers Rehna Sultana and Salma Hussain write down details of people in Sontoli, Assam, who need vehicles to attend their NRC hearings. (Photo: Mushirul Islam)
 
People in rural areas often get less than 24 hours’ notice to attend a hearing at a tribunal that could be 400, 500 kilometres away. One of them was Rejjak Ali’s family from the Pathelipara village. Rejjak is a poor and marginalised farmer who works on other people’s land. Rejjak and a few of his family members were given notice one afternoon to attend an NRC hearing 400 kilometres away - the next morning.

Farmers like Rejjak earn 300 to 400 rupees a day (€4 to €5). The cost of transportation has risen significantly because of sudden high demand. Even using public transportation during normal traffic would cost Rejjak and his family 4,000 to 5,000 rupees (€50 to €60), which is not affordable for a man like Rejjak.
 
Azad and other volunteers raised money door-to-door to cover the costs. They are planning to resume the trips in December when the appeals process begins.

Volunteer Ashraful Hussain (right) raised money from local doctors and professors to organize transportation for marginalised families to NRC hearings. Amuruddin (left) lives in the Khongra village and lost his land multiple times to erosion. Now a day labourer, Amuruddin was given less than 24 hours’ notice to appear at an NRC hearing in Sivasagar, around 430 kilometres away. (Photo: Abdul Kalam Azad)
 
The Indian Express journalist Abhishek Saha covered the villagers's panic in August 2019.

As of August 2019, over 60,000 Assam residents were declared foreigners ex parte because they didn’t show up to court, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

“There are concerns about the tribunal members’ qualifications”

Assam currently has 100 Foreigners’ Tribunals and the state government is planning to open 200 more by December. Mohsin Bhat, an assistant professor at Delhi’s Jindal Global Law School who launched a countrywide legal aid initiative to represent people left off the citizenship list, underlined the need for fair and impartial trials.
 
The Foreigners’ Tribunals have members, not judges, which in itself is a lively debate in law at the moment. These members have to decide on document-based evidence whether the person is a citizen or not. These members were originally retired judges, but now with more Foreigners’ Tribunals opening, they can range from lawyers to retired bureaucrats. There are concerns about the tribunal members’ qualifications. Not all of them have judicial training. Moreover, some people are concerned about the independence of the tribunals. But that remains to be seen, because people left off the NRC will begin their appeals later this year.

In a study of five Foreigners' Tribunals in 2018, journalist Rohini Mohan found that nearly nine in 10 of the cases heard involved Muslims. The tribunals declared 90 percent of the Muslim applicants illegal immigrants, compared with 40 percent of the Hindu applicants.

After visiting these tribunals in 2018, India’s Human Rights Commission’s Special Monitor to Assam called the Foreigner’s Tribunals a “hoax” and warned the government of the prospect of a Rohingya-type crisis.

Contacted by the France 24 Observers, a spokesman from India’s Ministry of Home Affairs said the office is currently unable able to comment on the situation as policies on the NRC are still changing.

Article written by Ariana Mozafari (@arianamozafari).