India took immigration enforcement measures to a new height this past week when the country’s government posted a National Registry of Citizens (NRC) which excluded nearly 2 million residents of Assam, India’s northeastern state, declaring them no longer “Indian.” Officials claim that this registry will help combat illegal immigration from neighboring Bangladesh, but many fear that this will lead to religious discrimination against the Muslim population and unrighteous deportations.
The NRC considered citizens wrongfully residing in the country if they could not prove that they or their families had been resident before March 24, 1971, when many in Bangladesh fled the country’s bloody Liberation War. As shocking as this news sounds, anti-immigrant sentiments are nothing new to the area.
Assam is an area whose recent history in regards to immigration has been incredibly rocky. A nationalist anti-immigrant protest led by students known as the Assam Movement protested the over 20-year influx of Bangladeshi immigrants in the late 1970s calling for deportations.
The movement turned violent in 1983 when a mob killed over 2000 suspected immigrants in 14 villages, which was later called the Nellie Massacre. The movement was not successful, for that same year Parliament passed the Illegal Immigrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act which made it more difficult to deport undocumented immigrants and placed the burden of proof on the accuser or the police, a greatly divergent decision from previous policy.
For over 20 years the law had been in effect, but in 2006 it was challenged by then consultative committeeman of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Sarbananda Sonowal. The Act was declared unconstitutional with part of the reasoning being that less than a half percent of cases under the IDTA were prosecuted and that the documents that were given to them essentially made them not illegal immigrants.
Anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric has only ramped up since then with the recently reelected Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, himself running on a platform of empowering India’s majority Hindu population and anti-Muslim sentiment. At the time of his election, it was believed that Modi would push for deportation of recent Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants who he claimed came to India illegally. It is because of this that critics have claimed that the NRC is a purposeful attempt to target Muslim populations.
The NRC had struck fear into many even before its release. One 60-year-old woman from Northern Assam jumped into a well fearing that she would be excluded from the list. An hour after her death, it turned out she had been included.
Those not listed on the NRC have 120 days to appeal to the Foreigner Tribunals, who then have six months to make a decision. Citizens would need to locate and provide birth or land ownership certificates from many decades in the past or the consequences could be dire.
Should the appeal fail, those people could be placed in detention centers which are currently being built by many who did not make the registry. Because the list consists of many impoverished and ill-educated citizens, they are basically building what could be their own prisons just to keep themselves fed for now.
The Assam chapter of Rashtriya Bajrang Dal, a militant Hindu organization, called for a 12-hour shutdown this past weekend to protest the NRC and demanded that the registry be updated to have 1951 be the cut-off date of citizenship and to include the names of indigenous people who were left off.
India’s latest foray into anti-illegal immigration policy demonstrates how arbitrary citizenship can be in any country and how it is easily weaponized against a group of people considered undesirable. Many who found their names missing from the registry did not know why they hadn’t been included, and surely, they are panicking in fear of being placed in a detention center.
The NRC seems to have its own inconsistencies which seem to refute the claims from registry authorities that, “The entire process of NRC update has been meticulously carried out in an objective and transparent manner.” One 47-year-old farmer named Mijanur Rahman was shocked to find that he, his son and two of his daughters had been placed on the NRC, but not his wife and three other children.
According to Slate, Rahman was in tears because of the uncertainty of what his government would do to his family. Why would the NRC only claim part of this man’s children as citizens, but not the others? Stories like these certainly feel like the smoke to a nearby fire.
Illegal immigration has again and again shown to be mainly a tool of rhetoric against a certain group of people regardless of the repercussions. That there is a debate whether some arbitrary year decided by governing officials can suddenly make likely law-abiding citizens into criminals is simply ridiculous.
Any person who has been a contributing member of a society should be able to enjoy the benefits of it without what seems to be intentional persecution based on fleeing a country in a bad situation. I hope to see more people from Assam taking to the streets to demand the revision of the NRC and to let their government know they won’t put up with a prejudiced policy.