Nearly 2 million people in the northeast state of Assam are at risk of being rendered stateless in India after the government published its National Register of Citizens list Saturday. The highly contested register was first created in 1951 and lists people who are able to prove they came to the state by March 24, 1971 — the day before neighboring Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, declared independence from Pakistan. The Indian government says the list helps identify Bangladeshi migrants who are not legal residents. Critics have denounced the register as an attempt to deport millions of Muslims. Residents suspected of being foreigners can be rounded up and sent to prison camps. Assam residents were in shock after the NRC was published. Assam residents who do not appear on the list have 120 days to appeal their exclusion before so-called foreigner tribunals. We speak with award-winning Indian author and journalist Siddhartha Deb, who was born in northeast India. “It’s become this incredible exercise in disenfranchisement,” he says. “The process has been riven with confusion, with arbitrariness for the past few years.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We end today’s show in India, where nearly 2 million people in the northeast state of Assam are at risk of being rendered stateless after the government published its National Register of Citizens list Saturday. The highly contested register was first created in 1951 and lists people who are able to prove they came to the state by March 24th, 1971 — a day before neighboring Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, declared independence from Pakistan, then West Pakistan. The Indian government says the list helps identify Bangladeshi migrants who are not legal residents. Critics say it’s an attempt to deport millions of Muslims. Residents suspected of being foreigners can be rounded up and sent to prison camps. Assam residents were in shock after the NRC was published. Assam residents who do not appear on the list have 120 days to appeal their exclusion before so-called foreigner tribunals.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the situation in Assam, we’re joined now by the award-winning Indian author and journalist Siddhartha Deb, who was born in northeast India. Recent piece for The New Republic is headlined “India’s Looming Ethno-Nationalist Catastrophe.” Both his novels, The Point of Return and An Outline of the Republic, are set partly in Assam. His nonfiction book, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, was a finalist for the Orwell Prize and the winner of the PEN Open award.
Thanks so much for joining us again, Siddhartha. Can you explain what the National Register of Citizens is, why millions of people in Assam are being excluded from that list?
SIDDHARTHA DEB: Well, it’s an attempt on the part of the Modi government to identify those they call foreigners. And the process has been sort of riven with confusion, with arbitrariness over the past few years. And, you know, it has involved people being called to police stations to provide documents of their citizenship. The majority of the people who are suffering, almost everybody, is Bengali-speaking. The majority of them are Muslim. They are almost always from very, very poor, impoverished, often rural, provincial backgrounds. And they don’t have the kind of documentation, because, you know, in India, many of us don’t have that kind of documentation. And it’s become this sort of incredible sort of exercise in disenfranchisement. And yes, it follows up on the promise that Modi made, not even during these elections, but the first elections, that, you know, when the BJP comes to power, they will send, quote-unquote, those they see as foreigners “packing.” And, you know, it’s clearly targeted at Muslims. It’s clearly targeted at ratcheting up ethnic tension. It’s a clear attempt to deflect from the disasters of the economy or the environment or education, all these questions.
And I think the biggest thing to remember is that, you know, there’s a tendency to treat Assam as something separate. But it’s not. Assam, the 30 days more of lockdown in Kashmir, the demonetization that happened during Modi’s previous government, just the canceling of banknotes — he has kind of instituted a kind of permanent state of emergency, where, depending on who you are, and especially if you’re a Muslim, you know, everything that you take for granted can be taken away from you, including where you live and where you’ve lived all your life.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I’d like to turn to some of the villagers in Assam expressing their concerns about this register. They were speaking to India Today.
MAMATA KAR: [translated] Our entire village is upset with what has happened. We have been producing documents whenever asked for. But we haven’t gotten any answer.
SHEELA: [translated] My name and my daughter-in-law’s name has come in the NRC. But the names of my sons and husband have not come. How is that possible?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Siddhartha, can you comment on that, I mean, the fact that the register includes some people from the same family and doesn’t include others — husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, parents, children?
SIDDHARTHA DEB: Yes. I mean, it again shows you how incredibly Kafkaesque and, you know, how terrifying it is in its arbitrariness. Yes, there are members of the same family, some of whom are considered citizens, some of whom are not. And you can see from the video just the kind of people this is targeting: people who actually struggle to make a livelihood. And actually, some of them are Hindus, as well. But, you know, people who are struggling to kind of provide documentation, they are called into police stations to provide pieces of paper, people who often are not traditionally literate. And, of course, you know, there’s a whole intermediary category of lawyers, who have actually been exploiting many of these people, promising them that they will actually get them a kind of a positive result from the tribunals. It’s this sort of mass-scale sort of exercise in exploitation and disenfranchisement.
And it does go back quite a long way. I mean, the BJP has been planning for it for a long time, I will say this. I mean, in the early ’90s, when the BJP was not in power in the state and I was reporting in Assam, I remember actually being in a provincial town on the border of Bangladesh and Assam and speaking to a BJP legislator and a Congress legislator. And they both talked about — and the BJP politician was very clear that Hindus who come across the border should be given citizenship. And I have to say, all credit to the congresswoman who was the politician who was arguing with him, and she said it didn’t matter what religion, because India was a secular republic. And she said, actually, anybody who comes across the border should be given citizenship, which I thought was really, really wonderful. But the BJP has been planning for this kind of — you know, for a long time.
AMY GOODMAN: We only have one minute, but is there any form of appeal, of changing this largest disenfranchisement in human history?
SIDDHARTHA DEB: I feel extremely worried, because, you know, you can see how arbitrary it has been for all these years. It’s been an ongoing process. People have appealed against it. And obviously, if you are fairly wealthy, educated, connected, there’s a way out. But, you know, we’ve seen the kind of villagers that are — I mean, one just sees endless suffering. Unless there’s a kind of — again, a kind of — the opposition parties in India come together and decide that this is actually — it strikes at the very heart of any notion of, you know, democracy or any kind of idea of a nation-state.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Siddhartha, very quickly, just last night there was a town hall held on climate change and the climate crisis.
SIDDHARTHA DEB: Yes, yes.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: You say that what’s happening in Assam is directly linked to the climate crisis.
SIDDHARTHA DEB: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, one understands the anxiety of people who are, you know, indigenous to Assam that there are actually migrants crossing the border. And they are. But this is, again, a result of large-scale climate change, and India and Bangladesh, South Asia, is at the forefront. And this cannot be tackled in this kind of authoritarian manner with detention camps. It’s a colonial — it’s a completely colonial response to a problem that is actually planetary. And that has to be worked on across borders.
AMY GOODMAN: Siddhartha Deb, we want to thank you so much for being with us, award-winning Indian author, journalist, born in northeast India. His recent piece, we’ll link to, in The New Republic, “India’s Looming Ethno-Nationalist Catastrophe.”