The World

India’s Great Disenfranchisement

Narendra Modi’s government may be about to strip citizenship from millions of people. No one knows where they will go.

People stand in line to check their names on the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) at Gumi village of Kamrup district in the Indian state of Assam on Jan. 1, 2018.
People stand in line to check their names on the first draft of the National Register of Citizens in the Indian state of Assam on Jan. 1, 2018.
Kulendu Kalita/AFP/Getty Images

In May, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party won a landslide reelection victory after a campaign rife with anti-Muslim rhetoric, echoing the nativist appeals of other right-wing populist leaders from Donald Trump in the U.S. to Viktor Orban in Hungary. And just as those leaders have turned their rhetoric into policy, exacerbating the migrant crises in Europe and along the U.S.-Mexico border, India has its own crisis playing out in the northeastern state of Assam.

But the scale of the consequences in India may be far greater: By Aug. 31, Assam could strip citizenship from as many as 4 million people in what one human rights group calls the biggest disenfranchisement effort in history. Adding to the controversy, India still has not determined where these newly stateless people—many of whom have considered themselves Indian for decades—will go.

Ever since the 19th century, when India was under British rule, Assam has been at a crossroads of diverse cultures, as Muslims and Hindu Bengali-speakers entered the state from what is now Bangladesh. After independence, the demographics of the state continued to shift largely because of the porous border with Bangladesh, and anti-outsider sentiment rose among native Hindu Assamese speakers and longtime residents.

In response to anti-migrant violence in the 1980s that led to the death of more than 2,000 Muslims, Assam agreed to count its citizens and expel its foreigners. Assam failed to do so, but by 2005, the Congress Party—the BJP’s main rivals—spoke of using a type of census known as the National Register of Citizens (NRC) to better understand who was Indian and who was not. During the 2014 election cycle, the BJP seized on the idea of the National Register of Citizens and, unlike the Congress Party, prioritized it.

Everyone in Assam was compelled to prove that they or their ancestors lived in India prior to March 24, 1971—just days before Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan—to appear on the final list of citizens. When the government put together its draft NRC, 4 million people in Assam were excluded, and now these 4 million people have three weeks left to convince the authorities that they are Indian, or risk being detained or deported from India.

The BJP made the NRC a campaign issue both in 2014 and in 2019, shifting the focus from anti-outsider rhetoric to specifically anti-Muslim rhetoric. They have also indicated that once the process is complete in Assam, they will extend the NRC to the rest of India. In April, the BJP’s official Twitter account quoted party president Amit Shah as saying, “We will ensure implementation of NRC in the entire country. We will remove every single infiltrator from the country, except [Buddhists], Hindus and Sikhs.” Muslims were conspicuously absent from the list. In language reminiscent of U.S. President Donald Trump’s, who has referred to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “animals,” Shah referred to migrants by saying, “infiltrators are termites and we will weed them out when we come back to power.”

Tariq Adeeb, a lawyer arguing before the Indian Supreme Court on behalf of individuals deemed “foreigners,” called the register “anti-minority and anti-Muslim” and against the principles of a diverse and culturally rich democracy. Adeeb went on to say that the enforcement of an Aug. 31 NRC deadline is especially troubling given that large sections of Assam are still reeling from catastrophic summer floods: Many homes washed away, carrying critical citizenship documents with them. In recent weeks, Indian media covered stories of families refusing to leave flood-ravaged homes out of fear that they would lose their citizenship and become refugees.

As in the U.S., where the Trump administration’s immigration crackdowns have led to the detention of U.S. citizens, even those who meet the terms of the NRC may have difficulty proving it. Many poor residents of Assam face an uphill battle to demonstrate Indian nationality, since they lack the documentation commonly held by the middle and upper class, such as birth certificates. Oftentimes, they don’t even know how their name is spelled on official documents, Adeeb said. “For example, the name Zafar may mistakenly have been spelled Jafar on some documents, but because they cannot read, they never knew this was a problem. These minor discrepancies are labeled as major ones, and then they are labeled foreigners.”

The draft NRC, which will be updated and finalized by Aug. 31, excluded such notable Indians as a 30-year army veteran and Assam’s only female chief minister. The BJP admits that it is concerned with such exclusions, especially since many Hindu Bengalis may have been deemed foreigners. However, they are also hinting strongly that non-Muslims need not worry about being left off the NRC.

This is because the BJP is also working to swiftly pass the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016, which would make it easier for immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh to obtain Indian citizenship—as long as they are not Muslim. If the bill becomes law, the National Register of Citizens could very well strip citizenship from lifelong Indian Muslims and Hindus alike in Assam, but then offer only Hindus and other non-Muslims a path back to citizenship. As a secular democracy, India has never made religion a factor in determining citizenship before, but that could all change in a matter of months.

As Aug. 31 draws closer, the biggest unanswered question looming over the NRC is what will happen to the potentially millions of people excluded from the final list of citizens. Unsurprisingly, Bangladesh has not agreed to take these newly stateless people, with its foreign minister saying: “The people that have been there for 75 years, they are [India’s] citizens, not ours.” Ominously, Assam is currently working to arrange detention camps.

Amal de Chickera, co-director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, said his organization is “very concerned” about what is taking place in Assam, and drew parallels between the impact of Modi’s leadership in India and other right-wing strongmen worldwide: “You see the consequences [of their leadership], not only in how their language shapes social discourse, but also in the real-life experiences of people. Look at the detention camps at U.S.-Mexico border, the potential detention camps in Assam, the way Turkey is treating Syrian refugees.”

De Chickera said, “There are also question marks about why the NRC process is being implemented to begin with.” And for many Assamese, that question hasn’t adequately been answered.

Just like Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, the NRC was largely used by the BJP as a political dog whistle for certain voters. Only now, millions may become stateless because of it.