by Serene Kasim and Saurav Sarkar, crossposted from Jacobin
On August 31, the right-wing Hindu Indian government labeled 1.9 million of its residents as stateless.
The official purpose given by the government was to root out undocumented people. But it is widely known that the true motivation was to displace Bengali Muslims from the northeastern Indian state of Assam. This was made obvious in speeches and promises made in the run-up to the recently held national elections that brought the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government back to power for a second consecutive term.
A noxious act in and of itself, the implications of the roundup are likely to be even more consequential for the future of the Indian polity, furthering a project of isolating and punishing Muslims while expanding detentions of undocumented people, Muslims, and others.
The instrument stripping 1.9 million people of rights is the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a now-arcane institution that was created in 1951 to identify who belonged to India at the time. It was reincarnated in 2014 and completed its work in Assam this year.
1.9 million people amounts to 6 percent of the total population of Assam and is two times the number of Rohingya refugees in neighboring Bangladesh.
The current incarnation of the NRC’s purpose was to identify undocumented immigrants from neighboring, Muslim-majority Bangladesh. But its reach goes far beyond.
The new NRC forced all of Assam’s residents to submit documentation like passports, land records, or birth certificates to show they had been in the country or were descended from people who were in the country on or before midnight of March 24, 1971, the day when Bangladesh went to war for independence from Pakistan, with India’s eventual armed support.
Given the paucity of paper documentation in India and the cumbersome nature of its bureaucratic machinery, an unsurprisingly large number of people have been adversely affected. 1.9 million people, including those as old as sixty-five, are now legally forced to go to tribunals and the courts to prove that the only country they have ever lived in should not detain them.
In the absence of a repatriation treaty with Bangladesh, it is unclear what will eventually happen to those who are held in detention for ostensibly being undocumented migrants from Bangladesh; there is currently no legal avenue for deportation.
Concurrently, the government has ordered states to build detention centers across the country in places as far flung as Assam in the northeast, Karnataka in the south, and Maharashtra in the west (all states that have BJP majority governments, incidentally). It has indicated that its inclination is to round up Bangladeshi undocumented migrants across the country.