NEW DELHI — Nearly 2 million people from the east Indian state of Assam were excluded Saturday from a final citizenship list that is intended to identify legal residents and immigrants living in the country without legal permission, amid fears they could be rendered stateless.
A total of 31.1 million people were included on the list, leaving out 1.9 million, according to a statement from the Assam government. Critics have viewed the exercise as an attempt to deport millions of minority Muslims, many of whom have entered India from neighboring Bangladesh.
After hearing rumors that her name was not on the list, Sayera Begum, a 60-year-old woman from the district of Sonitpur in northern Assam, jumped into a well Saturday morning and later died, highlighting the list’s impact.
“She was dragged out of the well and taken to the hospital, but she died,” said Mukesh Agarwal, a senior Assam police official.
An hour later, when the final list was released, it was found that Begum, along with her husband and son, were not excluded.
Assam police had earlier appealed to people not to spread rumors for fear of panic after many were accused of being “Bangladeshi infiltrators” by the Hindu nationalist-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
— NRC Updation Assam (@NRCupdateAssam) August 31, 2019
The citizens’ list was updated after 68 years, ending four years of work and a 4-decade-old demand seeking detection of immigrants in the country unlawfully.
The list — known as the National Register of Citizens, or NRC — is unique to Assam and was first prepared in 1951. It includes those whose names appeared in the 1951 document and their descendants. The list also includes those who had been on India’s electoral rolls up to March 24, 1971, or in any other document approved by the central government.
“The entire process of NRC update has been meticulously carried out in an objective and transparent manner,” the registry authorities said in a statement.
Earlier Saturday, a steady trickle of people lined up to see if their names were on the list in Buraburi village outside one of the many offices that had been set up across Assam for residents to verify the status of their citizenship applications.
Mijanur Rahman, a 47-year-old farmer, found himself, his 21-year-old son, and two of his daughters, aged 16 and 14, included on the list. However, his wife and his three other children — all under the age of 10 — were excluded.
“I am really worried,” said a teary-eyed Rahman. “We will see what the government does now. Maybe they will offer some help.”
Dipali Das, 42, clad in a saree, found herself, her husband and her four married daughters on the list. But Das was unhappy because her 23-year-old son, Rahul, was excluded. She said she will put in an application for his inclusion.
We are committed to ensuring peace & tranquility and minimising any inconvenience to the public.
Awareness campaigns & adequate security measures are being undertaken across the state in view of NRC Publication.
— Assam Police (@assampolice) August 30, 2019
Binoy Bhushan Sarkar, a frail man in his late 70s, said he has been voting since the age of 21, including in recent national elections. He was confused after finding his name on the online list but not on the hard copies available for public viewing. “I don’t know what to do,” he said.
Retired army officer Mohammad Sanaullah, who grabbed the spotlight after being declared an “illegal foreigner” and was sent to a detention center last month, was also excluded from the list. Sanaullah, who had won a president’s medal, was declared a foreigner by the Foreigners Tribunal in 2018. He was sent to a detention camp in May before he was granted bail by a High Court.
The government said it carried out the mammoth exercise to detect and deport undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh. But the final publication of the citizenship list has stoked fear of loss of citizenship and long periods of detention.
It is unclear what happens next.
The central and state governments, however, have clarified that those left off the final citizenship list won’t be declared foreigners.
The options for those left off the list include appealing to the Foreigner Tribunals within 120 days of Saturday’s announcement. The tribunals must decide on the cases within six months. If an appeal fails, the consequences include punishment in detention centers that are currently being set up by the government.
Amnesty International expressed concerns about the functioning of the Foreigners Tribunals. The rights group also urged the Assam government to ensure that “the Foreigners Tribunals function with utmost transparency and are in line with the fair trial standards guaranteed under national and international law.”
Meanwhile, Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, a senior leader with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, said the final version of the citizenship list did not contain the names of many people who came to India from Bangladesh before 1971.
The Indian Express newspaper quoted Sarma as saying that the list is “erroneous” as “more illegal migrants should have been excluded,” and that the party’s fight to “exclude every single foreigner” from the state will continue.
A draft citizenship list that was published last year excluded more than 4 million people, after which many either fled the state or even took their lives in exasperation.
India’s powerful home minister, Amit Shah, earlier called Bangladeshi migrants “infiltrators” and “termites.”
The Modi-led government, which fully backs the citizenship project in Assam, has often vowed to roll out a similar plan nationwide.
Earlier this summer, India’s Supreme Court criticized the central government and Assam’s government, saying thousands of people who had been declared foreigners over the years had disappeared.
Assam, with a population of 33 million, was in a state of high alert and additional security forces were deployed in anticipation of possible violence following the publication of the list. There were no reports of unrest immediately after the list was made public.
Associated Press videojournalist Rishi Lekhi in Assam contributed to this report.