Could a repeat of the Rohingya crisis be about to happen in India?

Assam, a state in north-east India, recently excluded four million people from the citizenship list.

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“How would you feel, if one fine morning you become a refugee in your own country?” This rather innocuous question from a businessman, hailing from the Indian state of Assam, put me in a fix. As I struggled to find appropriate words for consoling him, the gentleman continued: “We have added to the state’s exchequer, strengthened the democratic process over the years and yet our contribution has been ignored while labelling us non-citizens and illegal migrants overnight.”

Assam, a state in north-east India, and a key pillar in India’s outreach to Southeast Asia, recently excluded four million people from the citizenship list, an official document that seeks to identify all residents who can trace their roots back to 1971, and distinguish them from illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. The government decided to update the list after a spate of violent protests against an alleged influx of foreigners. Many Assamese, however, fear this may eventually lead to a situation on Indian soil comparable to that of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, with suspected migrants subjected to indefinite detention under terrible conditions.

These fears have been echoed by four special rapporteurs from the United Nations Human Rights Council, who expressed serious concern about the possibility of Assam’s national register of citizens discriminating against Muslims and people of Bengali descent, and warned of a possible manipulation in the verification system to exclude ethnic minorities, even if they are genuine Indian citizens.

Assam, world famous for its tea plantations, was built upon waves of migration after the British annexed it in 1826. The 1891 census showed that nearly a quarter of the population of the Brahmaputra valley was of migrant origin. The British brought unskilled migrant workers from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and India’s Hindi heartland of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to work in the tea plantations, while more still were attracted by India’s economic opportunities, including traders from western India and Sylhet in East Bengal – then part of Assam – as well as clerical workers were some of the earliest migrants of Assam. Most importantly, the lush grasslands of the Brahmaputra valley attracted Nepali grazers during the early 20th century, while the colonial government embarked on a policy of encouraging migration of Muslim peasants from East Bengal’s Mymensingh district for settling them on wastelands, by the river, to grow jute.

Only those who can prove to be on the electoral rolls of Assam prior to 24 March 1971, or who have ancestors that were, are eligible to be enlisted as bonafide citizens. The problem is, India is not historically a highly documented society. Even the concept of a birth certificate is a relatively recent phenomenon, because traditionally babies were delivered at home. As a result, genuine citizens are often unable to prove their ancestry, with women and the poor being particularly badly affected. This has led to the bizarre situation where some members of a family have been recognised as bonafide citizens while others in the same family were not.

Moreover, the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent also has a role to play in the current confusion. In the subsequent turbulent period, many citizens of the Subcontinent migrated to and from the newly formed nations of India and Pakistan (then including the country now known as Bangladesh). Notable examples of Indians born in Bangladesh or Pakistan include the former prime ministers Manmohan Singh and LK Advani, both of whom were born in Pakistan.

Of course, India has a right to control unauthorised migration. Yet leaving out millions from a citizen register is different. The authorities risk creating a ticking time bomb in India’s north-eastern fringes, which is home to more than 220 ethnic groups and already suffers from decades-old ethnic militancy. Among the worst episodes of recent history was the slaughter of thousands of Muslims in 1983, and more recently the mass murders and displacement of hundreds and thousands in 2012 and 2014. 

Communal violence has long been one of India’s shameful secrets, but a state-sponsored campaign that forced millions into detention centres would send a signal that it was condoned at the top. “The very idea of India is at stake” says former vice chancellor of Assam University and renowned South Asian literary theorist Tapodhir Bhattacharjee, whose family is also a victim of this arbitrary illegal immigrant detection drive. The son of a former Assam legislator, his entire family was initially excluded from the citizenship roster, because his father was born in Sylhet, now a city in Bangladesh. After the story was picked up by the media, Bhattacharjee’s name was restored, but his sister-in-law’s name remains missing from the list.

Given his experience, the academic wonders how semi-literate people, without influence and status, are coping with the rigorous documentation process. “I have been hounded for decrying the attempt to paint all Bengali speaking people as Bangladeshi immigrants,” he says.

More worryingly, the chief minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, declared earlier this year that people whose names don’t figure in the citizenship list and are eventually declared foreigners after exhausting the legal process will be barred from all constitutional rights, including voting rights. This assertion, combined with the construction of additional detention camps, has sounded alarm bells. Human rights activists point to the decades of discrimination leading up to the horrific slaughter of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, starting with them being stripped of their citizenship in the early 1980s. 

Bhattacharjee believes the fate of minorities in Assam could be even worse than that of the Rohingyas. “Already the movement of people whose names does not figure in the citizenship roster has been severely restricted, with neighbouring states refusing to allow free passage through their territories, even if it is for business or medical purposes,” he says. Indeed, a trader I spoke to corroborated this, telling me he could not transport his goods because his name did not appear on the citizenship list.  

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have appealed to the Indian authorities to ensure transparency and non-discrimination in documentation and updating of names in the citizen register, so widespread is concern over arbitrary detention and possible statelessness. However, despite the government’s promise of compassion, not everyone is convinced. The situation has taken a complex turn, since India has no formal repatriation agreement with Bangladesh and the Bangladeshi leadership refuses to acknowledge the presence of an illegal migrant population of Bangladeshi origin on Indian soil.

Many also question the real intent of India’s ruling right wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which is also in power in Assam. “What does the Indian government want to do with us? Play nasty politics for electoral gain while forcing us to live a life of a stateless person for eternity?” asks another Bengali trader, requesting anonymity for fear of retribution. The ethnic minorities in Assam, who are at the receiving end, justifiably feel that citizenship issue is being subtly exploited to extract political dividend at their cost.

The United Nations has launched a campaign to end statelessness by 2024. But a country like India, having given shelter to 5.2 million migrants and refugees, according to UN figures, is moving in the opposite direction. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres favours a more compassionate approach to migration, arguing that the best way to end the stigma of illegality and abuse is to put in place more legal pathways. Taking cue from him, India can certainly introduce a humane naturalisation process that offers citizenship without discriminating on religious grounds, a fair trial and counselling for detainees and the equivalent of the US green card for blue-collar migrant workers seeking greener pastures in India.

India also needs a humane approach now because the problem is only likely to get bigger in future. Half of South Asia’s population lives in areas that are projected to become moderate to severe climate hotspots by 2050. If a large chunk of people in vulnerable areas are displaced, this will lead to further waves of emigration. In Bangladesh alone, 15 million people alone are expected to displaced to environmental degradation. 

Some see the arrival of more people as an opportunity for the economy: a National Security Advisory Board policy document had deliberated on the idea of allowing formal temporary entry for economic migrants, with access to education, healthcare and legal mechanism for grievance redressal, but no permanent settlement rights. However, Bhattacharjee argues that the focus should be on human relations. Assam, says the writer, used to be a beautiful bouquet of eight ethnicities, namely Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Koch-Rajbonshi, Dimasa, Mishing, Manipuri and Rabha. This vibrancy has already unfortunately been partly destroyed by vested interests exploiting the politics of migration for their own ends. But the point is, can a state, which has disenfranched 0.37 million people since 1997 on charges of being non-citizens, take a high moral ground to accommodate those who are not supposed to have the right to have rights?