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India citizenship law fuels fear and anti-immigrant fervor in Assam

Muslims feel targeted while nationalists decry leniency for other groups

Student activists burn effigies of Indian Home Minister Amit Shah, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister of Assam Sarbananda Sonowal over a legal provision that grants citizenship to minorities persecuted in neighboring countries.   © Reuters

GUWAHATI, India -- The new Indian citizenship law that has sparked violent protests over its apparent anti-Muslim bias has also thrown an additional shroud of uncertainty over the country's tense northeastern state of Assam -- where residents have already felt the strain of a different heritage test.

Bakkar Ali, 35, has sold all of his land and feels worn down by what is known as Assam's National Register of Citizenship, or NRC, which was introduced to flush non-Indian residents out of the state. The 32 million people who call Assam home have been required to provide documents proving their citizenship over the past four years; 1.9 million, including Ali, failed to make the cut when the NRC list was finalized in August.

The NRC was a product of nationalistic pressure to create an "Assam for Assamese" by pushing out migrants who had moved to the area illegally. After Bangladesh became independent in 1971, many Bangladeshis crossed into Assam and settled.

Now, separately from Assam's NRC, the national Citizenship Amendment Act has added another layer of complexity that seems to make few happy.

The state NRC sought to exclude everyone who had arrived without permission, irrespective of their religion. The new national-level law, on the other hand, grants citizenship to six religious minorities, including Hindus and Christians, who fled persecution in neighboring Muslim-majority Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and arrived in India before 2015. It excludes Muslims.

This has angered the Muslim community, while the provisions for minorities have also inflamed anti-immigrant sentiment.

The citizenship law passed both the upper and lower houses of parliament in December. Clashes between demonstrators and police in cities and towns across India have since left more than 25 dead. Assam has felt the diplomatic consequences, too: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe canceled plans to visit the region for a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

For many average state residents -- Muslim and Hindu alike -- the future is anything but clear.

While the nationalists claim that millions of Muslim Bangladeshis have streamed into the state, the NRC found over 1 million Hindus who could not prove they were Assamese. A frustrated 27-year-old government employee from the Bonaigaon area is one of them.

Speaking anonymously, he said his mother and father made it into the NRC, but other family members did not. "My brother and his wife aren't [on the list]," he told the Nikkei Asian Review. "It is so bad because we have stayed here since 1958. For three generations we have been in Assam. ... How they've judged us, I don't know."

For local nativists, however, the problem is that the NRC process did not ensnare enough "foreigners."

"We did not get the expected results," said Somujal Bhattacharya, the head of the All Assam Students' Union, an influential driver of anti-immigrant attitudes. Citing anecdotal evidence, Bhattacharya said that there are 5 million Bangladeshis in Assam, and that the "implementing part" of the NRC had failed.

Some believe this pressure to find more people who are residing in Assam illegally has influenced the authorities.

"The government is trying to increase the number, so that's why we were left out," said another young government employee, a Muslim, who was excluded from the NRC list.

For the excluded, new detention centers are being built, the first of which rises near the town of Goalpara. It is being built to hold around 3,000 people behind vast red walls. "This place used to be known for music," said a local social worker. "Now we are famous for detention."

Some of the stateless have already experienced the harsh reality of incarceration. Sabya Khatun, 50, recounted how when she went to appeal her absence from the NRC, she was jailed. She said she was locked in a "stinking" tin-roof building every night with 30 others, for three years.

"It was so depressing, people were just crying," recalled the woman, a farmer who cannot read, in the courtyard of her family's modest home in rural lower Assam. She said the poor sanitation and food left her with a disfiguring skin condition.

Assam's citizenship checks may be merely a preview of what is to come on a national scale -- something Home Minister Amit Shah himself has alluded to.

In recent years, Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party derived strength by co-opting nativist movements and politicians. They include the current chief minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, who joined the Hindu nationalist BJP from the local, ethno-nationalist Assom Gana Parishad party. This coalition in Assam revived the state's citizenship verification drive.

Shah vowed in December that, following the citizenship legislation, the government would take the NRC process nationwide to rid the entire country of "termites," as he has called illegal immigrants. He wants to do this before the next national elections, scheduled for 2024.

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