Islamophobia, Assam, India, and the National Citizen Registry

South and Central Asia Desk

Written by: Vishwa Padigepati, Grace Hopper College ’22

Millions of people in Assam, India have been stripped off the state’s list of citizens in August 2019. The National Register of Citizens, a project which promulgated to weed out undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh, has left out nearly two million people from the register. This act will, in effect, strip them of the right to vote, access benefits, and properly access judicial systems. In one act, the state of Assam has contrived a ghostly state for the millions of families stripped of their status as Indians in their homeland. 

The political subterfuge by the state of Assam was meant to draw a definite distinction between Bengali-speaking Muslims and refugee migrants who have fled neighboring Bangladesh during the Liberation War of 1971. It was further prompted by Indian Supreme Court, which, in 2013, ordered an updated iteration for the citizenship register. The act was further green-signaled by India’s ruling BJP party, a historically right-winged, nationalist sect of parliament and Indian polity.

To those who are not among the privileged bureaucrats for whom the decision is simply another gain in political purchasing power, being left out of the NRC has dire consequences. Under the Act, even those born in India will not have legal citizenship unless they can prove ties to relatives pre-1971. Those who have never seen or lived in any country but India, grew up singing India’s national anthem, and worked on Indian land, are now mired in a state of uncertainty.

Whether being left out of the NRC will lead to deportation, incarceration, or detention camps, whatever may happen is a gruesome probability of idiosyncrasies and nationalistic bigotry. Individuals who are not on the NRC will be forced to appeal to the Foreigner Tribunals, which is proclaimed to fairly adjudicate their citizenship status. This especially disadvantages those in the poorest communities without legal awareness or resources to properly file and fight through the convoluted and often nebulous judicial proceedings. The trials place a financial burden on the families of those affected as well, as many have to travel hundreds of kilometers for their trials and cannot afford transportation. 

It is important to view the NRC in the context of the larger sentiments of Islamophobia that have permeated throughout Indian polity and politics. The country’s ruling party has repeatedly invoked anti-Muslim sentiments to justify the policy, assuring that Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs are not infiltrators and will not be treated as such. The party further proposed, through the Indian Citizenship Amendment Bill, to offer Indian citizenships to non-Muslims from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and other neighboring countries. 

The NRC, then, is a gross symbol of the Islamophobic sentiments and a contemptible act of legal discrimination and disenfranchisement. The changing legal and political landscape are symptomatic of the much deeper roots of anti-Muslim beliefs. Assam’s NRC is antithetical to the values of the pluralistic democracy that India has held and heralded since its post-colonial birth in 1947. A religious nation-state is not the India the founding mothers and fathers sought to establish.