Assam, India—On the morning of August 31, Abhishek nervously logged onto a portal hosted by the government of Assam, a state in northeastern India. Millions of others, keen for the same information, flooded the site, crashing it. When the site came back online, Abhishek got an answer to a question that had worried him for weeks: Was his name on the updated version of the National Register of Citizens (NRC)?
Abhishek, whose name The Nation has changed to protect his safety, was shocked to find that neither his nor his father’s names were on the list. As of that moment, the Assam government considered them illegal migrants, and if they didn’t prove otherwise on appeal, it could detain and deport them.
Abhishek is one of 1.9 million residents of Assam who were left off the updated NRC and effectively stripped of their citizenship. Early analysis of those excluded shows that the vast majority, like Abhishek and his father, are part of the Bengali community. The specific religious breakdown remains unknown, but it includes both Muslims and Hindus.
Those left off the list now have 120 days to appeal the decision and demonstrate their roots before Foreigners Tribunals run by the Ministry of Home Affairs. These people will need new documents to make their case, but this will be impossible for many. There is a high rate of illiteracy, and papers confirming decades-long ties to Assam don’t always exist.
As for what the people excluded from the list will do, especially if they lose their appeal, Acharya of the University of Delhi is not encouraged. “I think they’ll all be moved to detention centers, because India is not serious about deporting all these people to Bangladesh and Bangladesh won’t take them anyway. These people could be in detention for years.” It has been widely reported that authorities in Assam are planning to build new detention facilities.
International watchdogs, including the UN, Amnesty International, and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, among others, have condemned the NRC update, which began in 2013. In the six years of the update process, roughly 33 million people in Assam were required to prove they have valid roots in the state prior to March of 1971, the date of the start of the Bangladesh War of Independence when a large influx of migrants came to India, especially through Assam.
The government of Assam did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but it has said that those left off the list did not make a strong enough case for their Indian roots or tried to use fake documents. In a recent statement, Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah said that the state would “provide legal aid to the needy people amongst those excluded from NRC.” That language is a step back from last February, when he said at a public event that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party “will not allow Assam to become second Kashmir. We will deport each and every infiltrator with the help of NRC.”
“It’s very demeaning,” Abhishek said. “This country doesn’t deserve me. My family has done everything for this country, and if [the government] feels that I’m undeserving, well, I say, it doesn’t deserve us.”
Like many others whose names were absent from the updated NRC, Abhishek, who works for the federal government, has deep roots in India. His mother, whose name was included on the NRC, was born in Assam. His father and paternal grandfather came from Manipur, a nearby state. But for many like Abhishek, a history in Assam as well as educational and birth certificates were simply not enough. Abhishek has no clue why he and his father were left off the list.
Assam is extremely diverse, and the identities of those living in the region were not always clearly demarcated. Under British rule, Assam was a frontier area for agriculture and tea plantations. This drew people into the valley, among them many Bengali-speakers.
But as Assam became home to different groups, concerns in the Assamese community about access to land, jobs, and political and cultural autonomy grew. Starting in the 1910s, immigration became increasingly politicized, and by the ’20s, attempts were made to segregate Bengali Muslims to specific areas of Assam. As of the partition of India in 1947, the Bengali-speaking region of Sylhet was transferred to what is now Bangladesh.
By the 1980s, many in the Assamese community felt marginalized and neglected within an increasingly centralized India. In that climate—along with the ongoing concerns about cultural and political autonomy—immigrants became an easy scapegoat, and movements against them grew. Anti-Bengali Muslim attacks took place, the most horrific of which saw nearly 2,000 slaughtered on one day in 1983 in what is now called the Nellie Massacre. To bring the unrest to an end, the government of India agreed to register every resident of Assam and expel those found to have arrived after 1971. The NRC is the direct legacy of this.
“This is only the latest attempt to shape what is framed as an immigration problem but is, in fact, about much more, including the unfinished legacy of India’s 1947 partition and the complexities of identity in such a diverse region,” said Bérénice Guyot-Réchard, a historian of South Asia at King’s College London.
Today, the strain between the Assamese and other groups persists. Some members of the Assamese community, bolstered by the local BJP government, have been eagerly pushing for the NRC update. But because of the history of the region, it is extremely difficult to distinguish between those who have been in Assam for generations and those who came more recently. Rahul, also a pseudonym, is a Hindu Bengali-speaker from Guwahati, Assam’s largest city. Although he’s lived his whole life in Assam, Rahul has always believed that some in the state don’t think he belongs.
“When I go to areas that are strange, that I don’t know, people look at me differently because I speak Bengali. It’s not harassment, but they whisper about me,” he said.
Like Abhishek, Rahul found out that he and several members of his family were excluded from the NRC update, including his mother, brother, wife, and daughter. Having to prove his citizenship and then being denied it was humiliating, and it reinforced his feeling of being foreign in Assam.
“People came over to my house and made fun of the fact that my name is not on the final list,” he said. What was particularly sad for Rahul is that the people teasing him and his family were also Bengali speakers who were simply lucky enough to find their names on the list.
The update to the NRC began in 2013, a massive bureaucratic process set in motion by India’s Supreme Court. Last year, a preliminary NRC update was released declaring around 4 million people noncitizens. After pressure from the central government to double-check the documents of those excluded from the preliminary list—especially Hindus—the list final list was much shorter. Scholars studying the NRC update said that the majority of people excluded from the preliminary list were Muslims, although there were also Bengali-speaking Hindus left out.
While scholars haven’t yet had the opportunity to study the demographics of the final NRC list from Saturday, it seems the breakdown is different from the preliminary one from last year. According to Acharya, of the University of Delhi, several scholars have indicated that large numbers of Bengali Hindus were also excluded this time around.
Several prominent people were excluded from the list, including some relatives of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, the fifth president of India, and Mohammed Sanaullah, a retired captain who served in the Indian Army for 30 years.
Sanaullah’s case came to prominence after he was excluded from the preliminary list last year, and then when he was detained for 11 days on suspicion that he was not an Indian citizen. An arrest that set off a wave of anger online, many called for the Army or Prime Minister Narendra Modi to intervene to help the decorated veteran. After the public outcry, he was granted bail, but Sanaullah’s case is far from decided.
“I risked my life for India. I will remain Indian. This process is totally flawed,” Sanaullah told the BBC, following his release from a detention camp.
When the final list came out on Saturday, Sanaullah found his name was again left off.
Because of his background, Sanaullah benefited from media attention. But many others did not have this luck and endured long stays in detention centers, where as many as 45 people share a cell with a single toilet. In the year after the preliminary list was published, 25 people died of illness in detention, according to the Assam government.
For many not on the list, the threat of internment was extremely stressful, and several cases of suicide were reported. While it is impossible to know the number of these cases, the NRC update has clearly taken a major toll. In one survey, the organization the National Campaign Against Torture found that 89 percent of the 4 million excluded from the preliminary update suffered psychological trauma because of fear of being declared a foreigner.
Some in Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP want to see the NRC update reach beyond Assam. Shah, the minister of Home Affairs, has said he wants to spread the update to every state in India, and deport illegal immigrants from “every inch of the country’s soil.” Shah has also called Bangladeshi migrants “termites.”
For Anupama Rao, a historian of South Asia at Barnard College and Columbia University, sub-nationalist movements in Assam have long been a source of conflict with the government in New Delhi. Assam and the broader region are also multireligious and multiethnic, so a message of Hindu majoritarianism does not make easy sense. “We now see the BJP piggybacking on sons-of-the-soil type claims in the region as a way of enlarging their constituency, which is paradoxical because they are aligning exclusivist, regional claims with their effort to create [a] Hindu rashtra [nation],” Rao said.
For Abhishek, the future is grim. He and his father will appeal the exclusion of their names. But the documents that already failed to convince the government of their links to India are all they have.
“If I’m a noncitizen, you have to deport me to the place where you think I came from,” Abhishek said. “But where did I come from? I was born in India, I studied here. I’ve been working for almost 20 years. My father was born here, he studied here, he worked here, he retired here.”
Abhishek even considered seeking asylum in the West. But his parents are elderly, and they need his support. For now, he is staying in Assam and anxiously waiting to see what the government does next.