Women take part in a rally in Guwahati in Assam in 2008 against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which would give citizenship or stay rights to minorities in India from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Photo: AFP/Biju Boro

More than four million people have been excluded from a list of Indian citizens in the northeast state of Assam, according to reports by Benar News, an online news service affiliated with the US-based Radio Free Asia, as well as various Indian newspapers and websites.

The list, known as the National Register of Citizens (NRC), is being updated for the first time since 1951 to include people who have legal identity documents issued before March 24, 1971 and their descendants.

The names of about 29 million of the nearly 33 million applicants in Assam were included in the list. Those excluded consist mainly of people who have migrated to India since the outbreak of the Bangladesh war of independence from Pakistan.

Benar quoted Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of the neighboring state of West Bengal, as saying: “We are worried because people are being made refugees in their own country, it’s a plan to throw out Bengali-speaking people and Biharis from Assam.

“As many as 4 million Bengalis have been declared non-Indians. What will happen if they [Assam authorities] push them back and if Bangladesh does not want to take them back?”

Banerjee’s concern was that all those people may end up in her state. But Rahul Sinha, from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, was quoted as saying that Banerjee was overreacting and that the Assam government is only “trying to identify illegal immigrants.”

Potentially volatile issue

Migration from Bangladesh to Assam is a potentially volatile issue. In the early 1980s it led to violent attacks by locals on people who were believed to be Bangladeshis.

Those events led to the signing of an accord between the Indian government and leaders of the student-led anti-immigrant movement in Assam – and the formation of the United Liberation Front of Assam by militants who opposed the settlement.

The accord listed a number of measures to be taken to deal with the issue of immigration, but critics argue that migration from Bangladesh has continued unabated.

Critics of the NRC process, on the other hand, argue that it is unfairly targeted at Muslims and other minorities. Arshad Madani, president of Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, an Islamic organization, warned in 2016 that “Assam would burn” if the NRC was implemented. But he did not say whether the “fire” would be lit by Muslims excluded from citizenship, or local anti-immigrant activists.

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