Posted on September 24, 2021

India’s Anti-Immigrant Crackdown Has Torn Apart Families and Locked Up Hundreds

Neha Thirani Bagri, Time, September 6, 2021


The divisive debate over who belongs in Assam, a hilly, ethnically diverse state in India’s northeast that shares a 163-mile border with Bangladesh, stretches back more than a century, to when the first waves of migrants arrived to work on the sprawling British tea plantations. The state’s population grew throughout the century, inspiring a vocal movement of Assamese citizens against Bengali-speaking migrants.

This culminated in 1985 with the signing of the Assam Accord, which said anyone who entered the state after March 24, 1971, the day before neighboring Bangladesh gained independence, is considered to be in India illegally and must be deported. Since then, the state of Assam and the national government have introduced a complex, overlapping web of measures to determine who is a legal citizen and who is not.

{snip} When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in the state in 2016, it intensified efforts to weed out so-called illegal immigrants in Assam. As part of an exacting citizenship test, all 33 million residents of Assam had to provide documents proving they or their ancestors were Indian citizens before March 1971. When the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) was finally published in August 2019, it excluded nearly 1.9 million people. They now live under the threat of being ruled noncitizens by opaque foreigners tribunals and detained indefinitely.

While the citizenship registry purports to target all undocumented immigrants regardless of religion, the crackdown under way in Assam has disproportionately affected Muslims, who make up 34% of the population. The tribunals tasked with identifying legal citizens of India have tried significantly more Muslims and declared a much greater proportion of Muslims to be foreigners, according to a 2020 report by Human Rights Watch.

Human-rights observers and families of the detained now fear that Modi’s BJP has turned an anti-immigrant movement to identify and deport mostly Bengali-speaking migrants into a project to disenfranchise and create a climate of fear among Assam’s 10 million Muslims.

The government has moved to protect some 500,000 Bengali Hindus and people of other religions left off the citizenship registry. Months after it was published, the Indian government enacted the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which gave fast-track citizenship to many immigrants in the country illegally who are Hindus or members of five religious minorities—though not Muslims.


The experience of Mahuruddin—in perpetual limbo, with little opportunity to fight his case—could be a preview of what lies ahead for at least some of the 1.9 million people who were left off the National Registry of Citizens in Assam and are now waiting to hear what will happen to them.


Some observers are drawing parallels between the situation for Muslims in Assam and those of the predominantly Muslim Rohingyas who lost their citizenship rights in Myanmar as a result of a 1982 citizenship law—despite decades living in Myanmar. “There’s been no such process of this scale of creation of statelessness by states in modern times,” human-rights activist Harsh Mandar told TIME. “This would be creating a Rohingya-like situation where millions of people will be rendered stateless and will have to live as second-class citizens.”

What is happening in Assam could also offer the government a blueprint for similar moves across the country. India’s powerful Home Minister Amit Shah, who has previously referred to illegal migrants as “termites,” said in 2019 that the Citizenship Amendment Act would be put in place before the National Registry of Citizens was implemented nationwide.

Although experts say it would be practically impossible for the government to incarcerate or deport all of the country’s 200 million Muslims, these laws could be used to create a Jim Crow–like system of mass disenfranchisement for Indians of Muslim faith.

“Industrial-style incarceration detention for millions of citizens rendered noncitizens is a virtual impossibility in India because we are not dealing with 2 million Muslims, we’re dealing with about 200 million Muslims,” said Ashutosh Varshney, the director of the Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown University.

He argues the BJP’s immigration enforcement will lead to mass disenfranchisement akin to the Jim Crow laws of the American South, under which Black Americans were deprived of their voting rights through the use of literacy tests, poll taxes and other measures.


Assam residents who are declared illegal immigrants technically face deportation, but officials from Bangladesh have repeatedly said they will not accept those left off Assam’s citizenship registry, and have accepted only a small percentage of people declared foreigners by the tribunals. In total, only 227 people have been deported to their country of origin—most of them to Bangladesh—between March 13, 2013, and July 31, 2020.

With little opportunity to appeal in a complex legal system and Bangladesh refusing entry, some have spent years behind bars. Momiran Nessa, whose case gained national attention, was held in jail for nearly a decade after she was declared a foreigner. She was finally released in 2019 after a Supreme Court order that allowed bail for those who had been detained for three years. That has since been reduced to two years in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.

“Without the right of citizenship, countless will be dispossessed. They will become the ‘nowhere people,’ refugees in their own land, without rights, entitlements or legal protections,” says Angana Chatterji, the author of a book on Hindu nationalism and a human-rights expert at the University of California, Berkeley.


At the center of the citizenship tangle are the foreigners tribunals. First set up in 1964 to appease growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the state, the tribunals—which number more than 100—have been repeatedly found to be riddled with flaws. According to government data, nearly 87,000 people were declared foreigners in Assam from 2015 to June 2020—though most were tried in absentia and only a small fraction have been detained.

A 2019 investigation by Vice, based on judgments from five courts and interviews with nearly 100 people, found that the percentage of people found to be illegal immigrants varied greatly from tribunal to tribunal. About 75% of the decisions were issued in the absence of the accused. In some cases, individuals who were declared Indian citizens were summoned again by the same tribunal. Nearly 9 of 10 cases that were brought in front of the courts were against Muslims, who were also disproportionately declared illegal immigrants.

Aman Wadud, a human-rights lawyer in Assam who has argued many cases in front of foreigners tribunals, tells TIME that since the BJP took control of the state in 2016, rulings have “become much more arbitrary.”

Wadud says courts have routinely declared people to be foreigners even when applicants provided more than a dozen documents, where previously four or five would suffice. A report by Amnesty International found that many were found to be noncitizens because of inconsistencies in documents, which was common because of a general lack of good record-keeping in the state. Spelling mistakes have also led to some being ruled foreigners, according to a report by Reuters. Assam’s Home & Political Department, which oversees foreigners tribunals, did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2020, the New York Times interviewed one current and five former members of the foreigners tribunals, who act as judges in the courts. Tribunal members told the Times they felt pressure to “find” more foreigners and declare more Muslims to be noncitizens. In three cases, members said that their jobs were contingent on this and that they were fired because they did not declare enough people as foreigners. In 2017, some former tribunal members sued the state government for wrongful dismissal, but lost the case.


For all its flaws, the system of rooting out foreigners is not uniformly unfair. After Bengali-speaking Hindus were caught up in the citizenship dragnet in Assam, the BJP-led government has worked to ensure that they have a way out through the Citizenship Amendment Act, which gave non-Muslim immigrants a path to becoming citizens.

The consequence, says Sanjib Baruah, the professor of political studies at Bard College, has been to effectively redraw the definition of who belongs in India along religious lines: “Since Hindus by definition cannot be illegal immigrants in India, illegal immigrants [in Assam] can only mean Bangladeshi Muslims.”

Through the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, the Indian government would in effect be using the rule of law to discriminate against Muslims, a move that many legal experts have argued is unconstitutional. The bill sparked massive protests across India, which finally came to an end because of the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. India’s constitution, which was read aloud at protests against the law across the country, guarantees equality and explicitly enshrines secularism. While India has long been touted as the world’s largest democracy, Sweden-based V-Dem Institute said in its latest report that India has turned into an “electoral autocracy.”

While protests against the announcement of the citizenship law raged on the streets of Assam, inside Goalpara district jail, Hindu detainees celebrated. Arun Shutradhar, who was among them, chuckles as he remembers the hopeful mood—people prayed, sang and beat drums. Shutradhar was sure that the new law would solve his problems.

Shutradhar discovered in June 2017 that he had been marked as a doubtful voter. He submitted his papers, unaware that he had already been declared a foreigner by a tribunal in his absence. In March 2019, he was arrested and taken to an immigrant detention center.

“I felt like suddenly I did not exist in the country,” says Shutradhar. “I have never committed any crimes, but now I find myself in jail.”

During the two years he spent behind bars, nine detainees who were being held as foreigners died “out of tension,” he says. As COVID-19 spread across India, many in his detention center got sick with the disease.

As a Bengali Hindu, Shutradhar says he was a minority in the detention center. For every 10 Muslims, he estimates there were four Hindus like him. When his wife Shivani visited and asked him whether he lived with Muslim people, he fibbed to calm her nerves, telling her Hindus and Muslims in jail lived separately. Decades of xenophobic fearmongering has created a deep mistrust between members of different communities in Assam.

Shutradhar was finally released on $68 bail in April after a judge ordered all detainees who had been in jail for two years released to reduce overcrowding amid the pandemic. For now, Shivani is happy to have her husband back home on bail. “On television, Modi-ji was giving speeches in support of Hindus, announcing a new bill to protect us,” says Shivani, using a common honorific to refer to India’s leader. She believes her husband will soon be free for good. “Being a Hindu, at least I can believe that we will not face trouble under this government,” she says. “What he says on television, we are dependent on that.”