India is set to publish the first draft of a list of citizens of the northeastern state of Assam after decades of debate, sometimes violent, over immigration from neighbouring Bangladesh.
The draft list, to be published at midnight on Sunday, will ultimately be incorporated into the National Register of Citizens (NRC) after a census carried out for the first time since 1951.
The government claims this register will be used to identify and deport illegal immigrants, but activists warn that hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Assam could be rendered stateless in the process.
“The officials [associated with the NRC project] visited many homes in our village but skipped ours. I am scared about my family being kept off the list. I am an Indian citizen. My father teaches in a school here; my grandfather has a national voter identity card too, [but I] am still petrified,” 25-year-old Hussein Ahmed Madani, who lives in the remote Baladmari Char village in lower Assam, told Al Jazeera.
“I have seen many people in my village returning after long fights in the High Court and Supreme Court, vindicated after long battles to prove their citizenship. But there is an atmosphere of fear in the village, in our community here. Who knows who will be thrown out as Bangladeshi.”
Since the country’s partition in 1947, Assam has been rocked by protests over “illegal immigration” from across the porous riverine border with Bangladesh, increasing sectarian tensions and riots between the state’s indigenous population and Bengali-speaking Muslim migrants.
In February 1983, more than 2,000 Bengali-speaking Muslims, allegedly illegal immigrants, were killed in Nellie in central Assam. In recent years, thousands of Bengali-speaking Muslims have been thrown in detention camps in Assam as “doubtful voters” and “immigrants”.
Comprising an estimated 40 percent of the state’s population, Muslims have continued to battle the tag of “infiltrator” – and amid such strident rhetoric, many are anxious about the citizen list.
“If it’s a free and fair list, no genuine citizen’s name will be dropped. But the ones executing the list work directly or indirectly under the right-wing BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] government, which is hostile towards Muslims,” Aman Wadud, a rights lawyer in the state capital of Guwahati, told Al Jazeera.
“This is the same government which rode to power spewing venom against Muslims, alleging that 35 electoral constituencies are dominated by Bangladeshi Muslims. People are apprehensive that this government might try to manipulate the list and drop legal citizens from the updated list.”
To make the list, citizens in Assam must provide documents proving that they or their family lived in the country before March 24, 1971 – a date that accounts for the migration of people from across Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) who were fleeing persecution during the 1965 India-Pakistan conflict, but excludes those who arrived during and after the 1971 war leading to Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan.
Upamanyu Hazarika, who founded the Prabajan Virodhi Manch anti-immigration group, said that “outsiders” were threatening the state’s culture and cornering resources, such as land and jobs.
“By virtue of being Muslims, they become part of the larger Muslim population and their interests are legitimised, overlooking the fact that they are foreigners,” Hazarika told Al Jazeera. “Twenty to 25 percent of the state’s population are illegal immigrants; they take away our jobs, the jobs of indigenous people. They swarm to the lower Assam region in huge numbers and drive away our indigenous tribes. We are becoming refugees in our own homelands.”
India says it has implemented a border management plan in conjunction with Bangladesh, but the Bangladeshi government has denied discussing the deportation of migrants with Indian officials. The two countries share a border of more than 4,000 kilometres.
The BJP government says there are about 20 million Bangladeshi immigrants in India, although this figure is disputed.
The release of the NRC comes after the first census in more than half a century. The BJP says it is a “nationalist project” to identify immigrants and thwart “designs of demographic change in the state”.
“Demographic changes in Assam owing to illegal immigration of Bangladeshis is alarming to the extent that many districts have become Muslim-majority areas,” BJP spokesperson Sudhanshu Mittal told Al Jazeera. “This NRC register is a step towards identification and isolation of such elements.”
Wadud, however, said the state was making it very difficult for Muslims to prove their Indian citizenship.
“Indian citizens are being branded as foreigners, harassed and targeted,” Wadud said. “But this is not new. Massacres against Muslims branded as Bangladeshis in Assam are cyclic. There is a new form of segregation growing.”