In a bid to identify illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, the Indian government released a draft list on Monday which has rendered about 4 million people without citizenship in the north-eastern state of Assam.
Hundreds of thousands of people fled to India from Muslim-majority Bangladesh during its 1971 war of independence, settling down mostly in Assam and West Bengal.
According to the Assam Accord of 1985 between the Indian an agreement and the All Assam Student’s Union, all those who cannot prove they came to Assam on or before 24 March 1971, the eve of Bangladesh’s declaration of independence from Pakistan, will be expelled as illegal immigrants.
Citizenship and illegal immigration are volatile issues in tea-growing and oil-rich Assam, where about 34 percent of the its 32 million people are Muslims, making it the state with the second highest percentage of Muslims in India.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC), published on July 30, is a list of Indian citizens of Assam, who can prove they arrived in the state before the cut-off date.
More than 32 million people submitted documents to the NRC to prove their citizenship, of whom a little over 4 million have been excluded from the published list.
Fear among Muslims, Bengalis
The NCR list has created panic among many Muslims in Assam because the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra, which came to power in the state for the first time in 2016, vowed during the election campaign to act against illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh.
The government is trying to calm fears assuring that those excluded from the list will not face immediate deportation but can avail of an appeal process.
"We will ensure that every individual gets justice and is treated in a humane manner,” Rajnath Singh, India's interior minister, said in a statement.
Activists say the NRC is now being used as a pretext for a two-pronged attack by Hindu nationalists and Assamese hardliners on the state's Bengali community, many of them Muslims.
The list has also triggered a war of words between West Bengal state chief minister, Mamata Banerjee and her All India Trinamool Congress party and the BJP-led union government.