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In a corner of India, 2 million risk becoming stateless after release of final citizenship list  

A family checks their documents outside a National Register of Citizens center on the eve of the release of the final NRC draft in Gauhati, India, on Friday. (Anupam Nath/AP)

NEW DELHI — Nearly 2 million people risk statelessness and detention after they were left off the final version of a registry of Indian citizens, part of a controversial exercise to identify suspected undocumented migrants in the northeastern state of Assam.

The National Register of Citizens released Saturday morning included the names of 31 million people and excluded 1.9 million. The state had required citizens to provide original documents proving their residency and parentage going back decades. 

The massive citizenship registry exercise has gained fresh impetus since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. Many of the migrants in Assam are Bengali-speaking and hail from neighboring Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim country. Such migrants have proved a potent political issue for Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

In the recent election campaign, Modi’s powerful right-hand man, Amit Shah, referred to such migrants as “termites” and vowed to expel them from India as a matter of national security. Shah recently became the country’s Home Affairs minister and has pledged to take the citizenship registry exercise nationwide.

Although the exercise was meant to identify migrants who have entered the country illegally, activists say the opaque and complex process made it difficult even for genuine citizens to prove their nationality. The poor and uneducated have had particular difficulty navigating the exercise and providing the required documents. 

Those excluded from the final registry will have four months to lodge an appeal before quasi-legal tribunals. If their bids fail, they face potential detention. The state of Assam is creating hundreds of such tribunals and building detention centers to handle the aftermath of the citizenship list. 

For those whose names were not on the list, the future is an anxious question mark. Many of them have tried to prove their citizenship repeatedly and doubt they will receive a reprieve from the quasi-judicial bodies known as “foreigner’s tribunals.”

They fear they may be separated from their families, detained, or deported to Bangladesh, with which Assam shares a border. Those left off the list could also become a disenfranchised population within India, unable to vote or access crucial government services. 

“Assam is on the brink of a crisis which would not only lead to a loss of nationality and liberty of a large group of people but also erosion of their basic rights — severely affecting the lives of generations to come,” Aakar Patel, executive director of Amnesty International India, said in a statement. 

Across the state, people gathered in front of computers, around mobile phones and at government centers to discover whether their names were on the final list.

For some, like Moinul Hoque, 37, a farmer in a village in Baksa district, the list brought relief. His 9-year-old son was declared a citizen after being left off a draft version of the registry last year. “All our worries are over,” Hoque said. “We can sleep peacefully now.”

For many others, there was disappointment, worry and confusion.

In the nearby village of Baje Gaon, a family of seven found that while the names of the parents and one child were on the list, the other four siblings were left off. “All the papers we have submitted so far are genuine and yet rejected,” said Indrajit Ghosh, 18, the eldest of the siblings excluded from the list. 

Rima Roy Saha, 25, in the town of Barpeta Road, learned that she was left off the final list, even though her two sisters — who had provided the same documents — were included. “I’m really worried now,” she said. If her appeal fails, “I will be declared a foreigner.”

A provisional list of citizens published last year left out 4.1 million people. Media reports said spelling errors and mistaken identities led to erroneous conclusions about people’s citizenship. Among those excluded were military veterans and relatives of a former Indian president. Several families reported their members had committed suicide after being left off earlier versions of the list. 

Unchecked migration from neighboring Bangladesh into Assam has been a hot-button issue for decades — and the release of the final list may not end the battle. 

Himanta Biswa Sarma, a leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Assam, said Saturday that the final citizenship registry did not go far enough. The party will devise a fresh strategy “on how we can drive out illegal migrants,” he said. Local BJP leaders have expressed dissatisfaction at the way the list has excluded Bengali-speaking Hindus as well as Muslims. 

Ahead of the release of the list, thousands of additional law enforcement officers and paramilitary troops were sent to Assam to prevent potential unrest. The state police put out messages urging people not to panic if they were left out of the registry, emphasizing that they would be able to appeal their exclusions.

Ayan Sharma in Barpeta, India, contributed to this report.

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