Guwahati, India – When a draft citizen’s list was published in India’s Assam last year, Shakila Khatun’s name was not on it.
Anticipating costly legal fees to challenge her exclusion, the 37-year-old woman sent both of her teenage sons to Guwahati, the state capital, to find work.
But despite bearing heavy costs, including bribes for government officials, Khatun’s name was left off the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) published in the northeastern state on Saturday.
“I was praying for the inclusion, but it didn’t happen. Now, I don’t know what to do,” she said, from her modest tin and thatch home in Goroimari village, 70 kilometres from the state capital.
Khatun is just one of 1.9 million people excluded from the final citizens list.
The register was compiled after a years-long exercise overseen by the Supreme Court amid simmering anger over immigration in to the impoverished state, which borders Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
Officials said only those who could prove that they or their ancestors were in India before 1971, when Bangladesh’s war of independence forced millions of refugees into Assam, were counted as citizens.
Some 31.1 million were listed as citizens.
Khatun said she was yet to be informed of the reasons for her exclusion.
“I had submitted all the documents,” she said. Both her sons were left off the list, but her husband was not.
“I’m worried for my future and that of my sons. We are poor people,” she said.
Authorities in Assam said those excluded from the NRC had 120 days to prove their citizenship at courts set up for that purpose, called the Foreigners’ Tribunals.
They plan to set up an additional 200 courts on top of the existing 100 to hear the challenges.
Amid uncertainty over the fate of those who lose their citizenship appeals, fear is growing that they may get deported or detained at the 10 additional centres being planned to house illegal immigrants.
In a statement on Monday the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expressed concern, saying the NRC may put large numbers of people at risk of becoming stateless.
“I appeal to India to ensure that no one is rendered stateless by this action, including by ensuring adequate access to information, legal aid and legal recourse in accordance with the highest standards of due process,” said Filippo Grandi.
India has a sovereign right and authority to establish who is an Indian national, the UN refugee agency said. However, it must take steps that mitigate the risk of any individual being left stateless as a result of the NRC update, the agency said.
It also called on the authorities to refrain from detaining or deporting anyone whose nationality has not been verified in the NRC process.
Raveesh Kumar, spokesman for India’s foreign ministry, sought to placate the growing concern, saying exclusion from the NRC did not make one “stateless” or a “foreigner” in the country.
“Those who are not in the final list will not be detained and will continue to enjoy all the rights as before till they have exhausted all the remedies available under the law,” he said in a statement, adding that the tribunal’s decisions could be appealed at the High Court of Assam and then at the Supreme Court.
“It does not make the excluded person ‘stateless’. It also does not make him or her ‘a foreigner’, within the legal meaning of the term. They will not be deprived of any rights or entitlements which they have enjoyed before,” he added, promising to provide directions and legal aid to those who needed it.
Sarbananda Sonowal, Assam’s Chief Minister, has also pledged to provide legal help to “genuine Indians” and appealed for peace and harmony.
But the assurance is not enough for Assam’s poor, many of whom are illiterate.
Rekha Begum, who works as a domestic helper in Guwahati, said she was “scared”.
All of her family members, including her parents, siblings and children were included, but she was excluded.
“How many times I need to go to the courts and offices to prove that I’m an Indian? I had submitted my father Nur Mohammad Ali’s mother’s legacy data [collection of documents] of 1951 NRC. It’s tiresome.”
“It’s terrible not to see my name. My name was on the first list. My kids were crying. They were worried if I would be sent to the detention centre,” said the 35-year-old mother.
Even some whose family members participated in India’s freedom movement from British rule have failed to find their names in the list.
Chabilal Upadhayay was one of those people who took part in the movement. His granddaughter Manju Devi was helpless.
“What do I do now? See, I have my grandfather who participated in the freedom movement to raise the issue. But what will happen to those poor voiceless people. I’m worried for my son and daughter who have also been out of the list,” Devi, a resident of Assam’s Tezpur, said.