LESS than two weeks ago, the Indian government came up with a list that stripped over four million people of their citizenship in the northeastern state of Assam.
Of the 32.9 million population in the state, which borders Bangladesh, 28.9 million were recognised as citizens in the National Register of Citizens (NRC), leaving the unregistered in limbo.
This week, those affected by the move will be given the reasons behind their exclusion from the list and be shown how they may appeal the decision.
If they fail their appeal, they would automatically be rendered stateless and lose all Indian citizenship rights.
In recent months, the state government held the NRC drive, where surveyors went door-to-door to identify those believed to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and Burma. However, rights groups suggest this was simply a purge against Muslims.
In rallying behind the first NRC exercise to be held since 1951, Amit Shah, president of the ruling nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), called the affected 4.07 million people “infiltrators”.
Amit, who leads the party alongside Prime Minister Narendra Modi, also insisted the rights of the people of Assam be placed above those of the alleged foreigners.
Among other reasons, the government said those excluded from the list could not prove whether they or their parents “migrated” to India before 1971, when Bangladesh claimed independence from Pakistan.
The large presence of Muslim communities in the state has also been attributed as a source of friction that has led to violent clashes with the majority Hindu population.
Modi insists the registration drive was part of the government’s commitment to the Indira-Mujib Accord of 1972, also known as the India-Bangladesh Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Peace.
However, none of the 12 provisions in the treaty addressed deportation or repatriation of Bangladeshis, even though an estimated eight to 10 million refugees poured into India during the Bangladesh Liberation War.
Another treaty Modi cited was the Rajiv Gandhi-AASU Accord of 1985, in which it was agreed that foreigners were to be identified and deported if they were found to have migrated to Assam during and after the Bangladesh war.
“I want to assure the people that no citizen of India will have to leave the country (because of the NRC). As per the due process, all possible opportunities will be given to get their concerns addressed,” he told The Daily Star on Sunday.
Amid the controversy, the government is looking to amend citizenship laws to allow certain “persecuted minorities” such as Hindus and Christians from neighbouring countries to obtain legal status after six years of residency in India, according to the AFP.
While there has been no latest deportation arrangement with Bangladesh, the Indian government has said it would decide on the fate of those eventually deemed foreigners in consultation with the Supreme Court. It has yet to set any timeline on the matter.
Shashi Tharoor, Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs and an MP for the Indian National Congress, warned that tensions on the issue could escalate to violence.
“So far, the crisis created by the NRC has been nonviolent. But as tensions mount, the risk of an eruption is growing.”
Shashi said it was possible that those excluded from the list would be driven from their homes, despite having lived in the state for more than four decades.
“Some have suggested that India establish camps to house these people until they can return to Bangladesh—a prospect that horrifies human-rights groups, not least because there is no guarantee that that day will ever come,” Shashi asked in an op-ed piece published by the Daily Star.
“More fundamentally, is it really justifiable to strip people of the rights they have exercised in democratic India for most of their lives?”