• Assam is updating the National Register of Citizens, meant to be a list of genuine Indian citizens in the state
  • In parellel, the Centre drafted the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill which aims to ease citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan
  • The bill gave rise to widespread protests in the North East, where local communities fear being swamped by so-called illegal migrants from Bangladesh

The tenure of the Narendra Modi government was marked by tussles over who is fit to be counted as an Indian citizen. A contentious bill and a bureaucratic exercise lay at the centre of this debate.

In 2016, the government drafted the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill which proposes to grant citizenship to Hindus, Buddhists, Parsis, Jains, Sikhs and Christians from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan after six years of residence in India, even if they cannot produce the required documents. The bill sought to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955, which offered naturalisation to only foreigners with documents who have lived in India for 12 years.

The amendment bill was passed by the Lok Sabha in January 2018 but could not be introduced in the Rajya Sabha, which means it is now set to lapse.

Meanwhile, Assam’s National Register of Citizens, defined as a list of genuine Indian citizens living in the state, is being updated for the first time since 1951. One of the stated intentions of the exercise is to detect undocumented migrants in Assam. According to the terms of the exercise, those who cannot prove that they or their ancestors entered the country before midnight on March 24, 1971 – the eve of the Bangladesh War – would be declared foreigners.

The terms of the bill and the register offer clashing, contentious definitions of citizenship. Both have given rise to upheavals in the states of the North East, where the spectre of “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants” has haunted politics for decades and where millions suddenly find themselves in danger of losing the basic rights of citizenship.

Why did the government introduce the Citizenship Bill?

Campaigning in Assam for the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, Modi had said India should accommodate Hindus harassed in other countries, drawing a distinction between Muslim “infiltrators” and Hindu “refugees”. The BJP’s election manifesto that year also pitched the idea of India as the “natural home” for Hindus.

In 2015, the Centre introduced the Passport (Entry into India) Amendment Rules, which allowed people who belonged to minority communities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, and who had entered the country before 2014, to stay on even without valid documents. The next year, it introduced the amendments to the citizenship bill.

Addressing a public meeting in Silchar in Assam’s Barak Valley on January 4, Modi said the bill was to atone for the “injustice of Partition”. “If the children of Ma Bharati are persecuted, should we not give shelter?” he demanded.

What are the problems with the government’s logic?

The BJP’s claim that the bill aims to give shelter to persecuted minorities has been challenged. Recently, three members of the joint parliamentary committee tasked to look into the bill submitted their notes of dissent. If it was prompted by humanitarian impulses, why did it discriminate between migrants on the basis of religion and country, they asked. And if it was meant for neighbouring countries in the subcontinent, why were Burma and Sri Lanka left out?

Even as it tried to accommodate the communities named in the bill, the government started deporting Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled ethnic cleansing in Burma.

Why has the Bill sparked protests in Assam?

The Hindu nationalist rhetoric of the BJP has come into conflict with Assamese sub-nationalism, which spurred a six-year-long anti-foreigner movement starting in 1979. The border state has seen waves of migration, first from the colonial province of Bengal, then the state of East Pakistan and finally Bangladesh. While the agitators wanted an ethnic homeland for those defined as indigenous Assamese, they also demanded the expulsion of “bahiragat” or outsiders.

The agitation ended with the Assam Accord in 1985, which contained provisions for the identification and deportation of all “foreigners”, irrespective of religion, who entered the country post-1971. The new National Register of Citizens is governed by the rules of the accord.

But if the citizenship bill were to come into force, it would make citizens out of Bengali Hindus who arrived in the country up to 2014.

The bill drove a new a wedge between Assamese dominated Brahmaputra Valley, which vehemently opposed it, and the Barak Valley, home to a large number of Bengali Hindus who supported it.

What is the National Register of Citizens?

The updating of the register, a Supreme Court monitored process, has been attended by its own set of controversies. To be included in the list, applicants had to provide documentary proof of an ancestor who lived in Assam before 1971 as well as their relationship to the said ancestor. While even urban middle classes struggled to find the papers, for thousands of the rural poor, it proved to be a mammoth task.

The terms of the bureaucratic exercise also seemed to keep changing. There were contentions over what documents could be used and reports of an internal bureaucratic category of “original inhabitants” who would be subjected to less rigorous scrutiny than others. Though it was apparently introduced for clerical purposes, rumours circulated that no Muslims were in the category. Politicians and bureaucrats speculated that lakhs of foreigners would be detected through the process.

In November, five Bengalis were shot in Upper Assam, allegedly by militants of the United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent). In December 2018, three United Nations rapporteurs wrote to the Indian government expressing concerns that the exercise had heightened ethnic tensions and anxieties among Muslims and the Bengali-speaking population in Assam. A few months before that, the final draft of the updated register was published. It left out more than 40 lakh applicants, who must now make fresh claims to citizenship.

What happens to those left out of the final NRC?

Those who do not make it to the final updated register will have to prove their citizenship in Assam’s Foreigners’ Tribunals. These were quasi-judicial bodies set up to determine citizenship. The tribunals have been accused of procedural lapses and of being bad in law. Hundreds have been declared foreigners without proper trial and sent to detention centres across Assam.

While hundreds are thrown into indefinite detention, and many more face the prospect of losing citizenship, India has no repatriation treaty with Bangladesh, presumed to be their country of origin.

Why did protests spread across the North East?

After the Lok Sabha passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in January, protests broke out across the North East. As civil society organisations claiming to represent the interests of tribal groups marched against the bill, the Asom Gana Parishad, an Assamese nationalist party, walked out of the BJP-led coalition government in Assam.

BJP allies in the region threatened to follow suit and chief ministers in states across the North East voiced their dissent to the bill. While the BJP tried to form a committee to implement Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, to protect indigenous interests, it was met with scepticism in the state. In Upper Assam, the party’s own functionaries worried the tide of popular support had turned against it.

With the bill soon to lapse, the Bengali Hindu constituencies who form a major part of the BJP’s vote base in the North East are left disappointed, blaming the controversy for polarising communities in the region. But North Eastern parties and organisations agitating against the bill claim a political victory. In the run up to the elections, the BJP will have to strike a fine balance between the two constituencies.

Also read:

In Assam’s Barak Valley, Muslims fear the new citizenship bill will disempower them politically
The dark side of humanity and legality: A glimpse inside Assam’s detention centres for ‘foreigners’
Assam’s search for its ‘original inhabitants’ returns a key question: Who is Assamese, anyway?

This article is part of The Modi Years series which recaps the major milestones, controversies and policies of the BJP government.