Fear and panic have gripped those in Assam whose names have been excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC). DW's Murali Krishnan traveled to the state to speak to them.
Villagers of Maloibari, around 45 kilometers (30 miles) from Assam's capital, Dispur, are worried about what lies in store for them, after many from the area's Hindu dominated rural community were omitted from the NRC.
Several of the village's residents had come to India as refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) after fleeing the country in the early 1960s to escape religious persecution. At the time, the Assam government provided them with legal papers and land, granting them the status of legal residents of the state. But for many families, things have changed since the National Register of Citizens was recently updated and the final list published in August this year.
"What is the point? Now we are told that we are not on the list. We have no other evidence to prove our documentation. It was on the basis of this that we got other welfare benefits. How can they say we do not belong here?" Pramod Kar, a government official told DW.
His neighbor, 30-year-old Diganath Nandi, a shopkeeper, said that two generations of his family had made Assam their home and they all possessed papers proving their lineage and legacy, which should have been enough to establish his family as legal residents.
"This is unacceptable. How can we be knocked off from the NRC when we have all the paperwork?" Nandy asked, adding, "There are illegal people from Bangladesh who have been included and not us."
Looming ethnic tensions?
Questions of identity and citizenship have vexed the people living in this village. They are angry with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which made illegal immigration in India a rallying slogan and consequently, the NRC a priority in recent years.
Similar stories play out across various parts of Assam, including in Nellie, a village in Assam's Nagaon district. The predominantly Muslim community witnessed an influx of thousands of immigrants from Bangladesh in early 1983, triggering a brutal massacre that killed over 2,000 people. A majority of the households in the area today have been excluded from the NRC.
"My documentation has been meticulous and I hired a lawyer for Rs 20,000 (€257) to make sure everything was OK, yet my family's name has been left out. I even voted in the general election. I have not been able to sleep for all these days," Lalbor Ali, a contractor told DW.
Many of the villagers in three district blocks that comprise Nagaon fear another spate of ethnic violence with many of them complaining of racial profiling when they step out for work and errands.
"Villagers have been labeled foreigners, having a bad character and even doubtful voters. A lot has been done to discredit people, but many have fought for their case and established that they are Indian. Despite all this, their names have been excluded from the NRC," Suleiman Qasimi, one of the headmen in Nellie village told DW.
Indigenous communities left out
In order to be included in the NRC, an applicant needs to prove with documentary evidence that he or she or his ancestors had entered the country before March 24, 1971, a date set by the Assam Accord, which was signed by the All Assam Students Union, Assam government and the central government in New Delhi in 1985.
Many of the residents left out from the NRC that was published on August 31 are Bengali and Assamese-speaking Hindus. Several belong to indigenous communities that make up the state's 32 million residents.
Officials told DW that many people in the Upper Assam districts of Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Sibsagar were excluded from the NRC. These three districts are known for their high concentration of tribal and indigenous people.
NRC data shows that the highest rate of exclusion was recorded in the Hindu-majority Hojai district (32.99%), whereas Muslim-majority districts like Karimganj, Dhubri and South Salmara, which share their borders with Bangladesh, recorded much lower rates of exclusion.
Proving their ‘Indian-ness'
Over 1.9 million have people have been left out in the NRC. Over the next few months, those left out will try to prove their citizenship in front of 300 Foreigners Tribunals (FTs) that have been set up across the state.
"The first step for the people excluded from the list is to obtain an exclusion or rejection order and appeal before the FT's. Extensive documentation is required and the poor and the illiterate will need to navigate a complex bureaucracy," lawyer Bipul Saran told DW.
The discrepancies in the NRC have forced an NGO, Assam Public Works (APW) to file a petition in the Supreme Court. APW was also responsible for submitting the original petition to the Supreme Court of India, demanding that the National Register of Citizens, first published in 1951, be updated to mirror the current situation and weed out migrants who were illegally living in Assam. Responding to the petition, the court's judges ordered authorities to refurbish the list, which began in 2015.
"I have given a detailed list of the declared foreigners' names included in the final NRC, lists of fake certificates and fake legacy data showing fake kinship, and a list of 'D' voters along with the writ petition," APW's President Abhijit Sarma told DW, referring to "D" or "Doubtful" voters whose citizenship had not been proven conclusively. "There has to be another verification process and the formation of a judicial commission to inquire into the circumstances," he added.
The process to prove one's credentials before courts is time-consuming and cumbersome. Many of the tribunals have been accused of bias and their operations have often been mired in controversy and inconsistencies, locals say. Above all, those who have been left out of the list are worried about what their future holds for them.