A little over 1.9 million people didn’t have the right documents.
By any measure, 1.9 million is a large number, but it wasn’t enough for those who had demanded the identification of undocumented people.
For years, Hindu nationalists have alleged that millions of Bangladeshi economic migrants are living and working illegally in India. The issue has been a constant source of political tension in the Indian states bordering Bangladesh — including Assam. Updating the 1951 National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam was considered a means of identifying these illegal immigrants.
Throughout the identification process, critics contended that the registry would lead to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Bengali-speaking Muslims living in Assam, who’d been there for generations but just couldn’t prove it.
The NRC, however, showed that it wasn’t only Bengali-speaking Muslims who were living in Assam without the required documents — many Hindus of different ethnicities were also left off the list.
The BJP, which also rules India’s federal government and is headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has now solved this apparent problem.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which was passed by the country’s Parliament, allows any legal or illegal immigrant of Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Christian or Parsi faith, who came into India from Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan before 31 December 2014, to become Indian citizens.
The only major religion this amendment leaves out is Islam. The government’s justification is that Muslims are in a majority in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and it is the non-Muslims who face religious persecution in those countries.
With dog-whistle politics, Muslims are being branded “infiltrators” and non-Muslim immigrants are being labeled refugees fleeing religious persecution, even if they weren’t. This division has been formalized through the new citizenship law.
Of the 1.9 million people in Assam whose citizenship is in doubt, everyone except Muslims can now be treated as Indian citizens.
Shah has promised to replicate the Assam registry exercise across India, starting as early as next year. If implemented, the National Register for Citizens will ask 1.3 billion people to prove their citizenship.
Through religious institutions and WhatsApp groups, they’ve been figuring out which documents might save them from being classified as illegal immigrants: inheritance records, birth certificates, refugee registration documents, and so on.
According to Aman Wadud, a lawyer who has been working with Muslims who have been declared illegal immigrants in Assam, the NRC process is punishment in itself.
“It has taken a huge toll on people’s financial condition to run around arranging documents, getting them verified, traveling hundreds of kilometers for hearings before NRC authorities,” says Wadud. “Anyone could file an objection against another individual, resulting in more documents, verification, and hearings.”
Of particular focus for the BJP is the state of West Bengal which borders Bangladesh. More than a quarter of the state’s population of 90 million people are Muslim. The BJP has never won the state election, but hopes to do so in 2021. The NRC will likely hang over that election — and polarize voters along religious lines.
“Indian Muslims are extremely apprehensive about the intentions of the Modi government with regard to CAB and NRC,” says Shahid Siddiqui, a Muslim community leader and editor of an Urdu-language newspaper. “Muslims can see that ultimately it is they who are the target of this meaningless exercise. We should all adopt the Gandhian way of non-cooperation against the NRC.”