What would you do if you suddenly discovered you were not considered a citizen of the country where your family had lived for generations?
Nearly 2 million people in India’s northeast Assam have been left off a massive list of Indian citizens in the state this weekend. Published Saturday, the controversial new National Register of Citizens (NRC) excludes 1.9 million of the state’s population of 33 million.
The register’s supporters say it will help root out undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants, but critics fear it will lead to the deportation of Assam’s hundreds of thousands of Bengali-speaking Muslims, with claims to legal residency.
There are also concerns that the register will be used to justify religious discrimination against Muslims in the state.
Since 2015, all residents of Assam have had to prove with documentary evidence that they or their relatives were living in the state before March 24, 1971 – the day preceding the Bangladesh Liberation War – to be considered eligible for Indian citizenship.
Assam is the only state in India to have a citizenship register. It was created in 1951 to distinguish Indian citizens from undocumented migrants from what used to be East Pakistan, a territory that became Bangladesh in 1971. An updated NRC was ordered by the Supreme Court in 2013 and the process began in 2015.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in January: “I am here to assure everyone that no Indian citizen will be left out of the NRC. This is my assurance.”
A state of uncertainty
It is unclear what will happen to those who are left off the citizenship list, which was compiled by approving residents’ ancestry documents.
But officials’ comments have done little to allay residents’ fears.
“We are in a state of uncertainty. The country that we love so much, when we hear that those whose names aren’t there will be sent to detention camps, how is this our fault? We were born here,” said 30-year-old Gobinda Nandi, a primary school teacher from Tamulpur in western Assam.
Ashutosh Agnihotri, a senior official in Assam’s Home and Political Department, told CNN that no one would be sent to a detention center during the legal process.
A draft list released last year left the names of an estimated 4 million people off the register.