Priya Pillai is an international lawyer based in Manila.
In the northeastern Indian state of Assam, as many as 4 million people may soon be excluded from Indian citizenship. Take a moment to think about that: A population similar in size to that of Kuwait or New Zealand may be relegated to non-citizen status on Aug. 31, thanks to an inhumane, cruel and Kafkaesque legal process. Even more worryingly, this process may eventually be enforced across the country.
This all stems from the “National Register of Citizens" (NRC), a log that is supposed to contain the names of all Indian citizens in Assam. The list, based on the 1951 census, was created to determine who were Indian citizens and who were migrants from neighboring East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The government is now seeking to update it, deciding that all those who can prove they were Indian residents before midnight on March 24, 1971 — just before Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan — will be considered citizens, as will their descendants. Those who cannot are to be excluded from the register, detained and, if unable to prove citizenship before a “foreigners tribunal,” subject to deportation.
The NRC process has been long in the making. The ethnic sub-nationalism and prejudice against those not considered Assamese, including Bengalis — both Hindus and Muslims, with special animus reserved for the latter — have historical roots in the colonial era. These prejudices came to a head amid mass political violence in the 1980s, resulting in the Assam Accord of 1985, which amended the parameters for being considered a citizen.
After languishing for years, the push to enforce the NRC has been revived in the past decade. It comes hard on the heels of a surge of virulent nationalism, including the use of the term “termites” in reference to immigrants from Bangladesh, leading to concerns that it will be used as a tool for persecution.
The procedure to be included in the register is daunting, opaque and riddled with flaws. From problems with the type of documentation required to prove citizenship to clerical errors in transcribing names, the hurdles are myriad. Many applicants are illiterate, lack the adequate documents and do not have the means to travel far to specified locations to file claims. For those who are included in the list, third-party objections are permitted. Those excluded from the draft list were given a mere 60 days to appeal, and upon the publication of the final list, will purportedly be given a month to petition.
The “foreigners tribunals,” which make the final determination on citizenship, are also plagued with problems, such as the lack of trained adjudicators and low standards of recruitment. Even worse are reports that a key performance indicator among adjudicators are the number of people they find to be “foreigners.”
In this entire process, the burden of proof is on the individual, not the state. It is thus cruelly, almost violently exclusionary.
Devastating stories are already emerging of those entangled in the process, including reports of suicides due to exclusion from the list. Men, women and children are already in detention centers, with little hope of emerging unscathed from this legal maze. They face the prospect of indefinite detention and could even end up stateless, with no place to be deported to, given Bangladesh’s position that this is an internal Indian matter.
In all of this, the government has been supported by the body that is meant to provide a check against its overreach: the Supreme Court of India. The court has approved suspect methods to verify citizenship in proceedings that are not open to scrutiny. In recent hearings on the terrible detention conditions, the court took the government to task for not deporting individuals sooner. The court has also set the deadline for the final list, revising it to Aug 31. This court’s complicity leaves people with no recourse as they face expulsion from their home of decades.
The bogeyman of the “illegal migrant,” and the ensuing paranoia and hate, has been weaponized worldwide. Nationality and deportation laws are being strengthened, including in the United States. States are entering into agreements to stem the flow of migrants, with deals between the European Union and Libya, and the United States, Mexico and Guatemala. In Myanmar, a citizenship law to “verify” nationality is a thinly veiled exercise to disenfranchise and persecute the Rohingya, a vulnerable minority. All of these acts violate basic human rights standards codified in international law.
As the rallying cry of hostility and hatred toward “the other” has gained steam, so, too, has the use of legal processes, in all their detail and bureaucracy, to enforce inhumanity. In India, the way communalism and sub-nationalism have combined to create an exclusionary exercise on such a scale is truly astounding — as is the fact, thus far, that it has seemed to bypass the world’s attention. With less than a month before this process reaches its brutal conclusion, it is time for that to change.