MURKATA, India — Krishna Biswas is scared. Unable to prove his Indian citizenship, he is at risk of being sent to a detention center, far away from his modest hut built of bamboo wood that looks down on fields lush with corn.
Biswas says he was born in India’s northeastern Assam state. So was his father, almost 65 years ago. But the government says that to prove he is an Indian, he should furnish documents that date back to 1971.
For the 37-year-old vegetable seller, that means searching for a decades-old property deed or a birth certificate with an ancestor’s name on it.
Biswas has none, and he is not alone. There are nearly 2 million people like him — over 5% of Assam’s population — staring at a future where they could be stripped of their citizenship if they are unable to prove they are Indian.
Questions over who is an Indian have long lingered over Assam, which many believe is overrun with immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
At a time when India is about to overtake China as the most populous country, these concerns are expected to heighten as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government seeks to use illegal immigration and fears of demographic shift for electoral gains in a nation where nationalist sentiments run deep.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has promised to roll out a similar citizenship verification program nationwide even though the process in Assam has been put on hold after a federal audit found it flawed and full of errors.
Nonetheless, hundreds of suspected immigrants with voting rights in Assam have been arrested and sent to detention centers the government calls “transit camps.” Fearing arrest, thousands have fled to other Indian states. Some have died of suicide.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of an ongoing series exploring what it means for the 1.4 billion inhabitants of India to live in what will be the world’s most populated country.
Millions of people like Biswas, whose citizenship status is unclear, were born in India to parents who immigrated many decades ago. Many of them have voting cards and other identification, but the state’s citizenship registry counts only those who can prove, with documentary evidence, that they or their ancestors were Indian citizens before 1971, the year Bangladesh was born.
Modi’s party, which also rules Assam, argues the registry is essential to identify people who entered the country illegally in a state where ethnic passions run deep and anti-immigrant protests in the 1980s culminated in the massacre of more than 2,000 immigrant Muslims.
“My father and his brother were born here. We were born here. Our kids were also born here. We will die here but not leave this place,” Biswas, said on a recent afternoon at his home in Assam’s Murkata village, near the banks of the Brahmaputra River.
The Biswas family has 11 members, of whom the citizenship of nine is in dispute. His wife and mother have been declared Indian by a foreigners’ tribunal that decides on citizenship claims. Others, including his three children, his father and his brother’s family, have been declared “foreigners.”
It makes no sense to Biswas, who wonders why would some be considered to have settled in the country illegally and others not, even though they all were born in the same place.
The family, like many others, has not pleaded their case before the tribunal or higher courts due to a lack of money and the arduous paperwork required in the process.
“If we cannot be Indian then just kill us. Let them (the government) kill my whole family,” he said.
The registry was last updated in 2019 and excluded both Hindus and Muslims, but most critics view it as an attempt to deport millions of minority Muslims.
They say the process would become even more exclusionary if Modi’s party resurrects a controversial citizenship bill that grants citizenship to persecuted believers who entered India illegally from neighboring countries, including Hindus, Sikhs and Christians, but not Muslims. The nationwide citizenship bill was introduced in 2019, but led to widespread protests across India for singling out Muslims, forcing the government to put it on the backburner.
Supporters of the registry say it is essential to protect the cultural identity of Assam’s indigenous people, arguing that those who entered illegally are taking away their jobs and their land.
“The influx of illegal foreigners from Bangladesh is a threat to the identity of the indigenous people of Assam. We cannot stay like a second class citizen under illegal Bangladeshis. It is a question of our own existence,” said Samujjal Bhattacharya, who has been part of a movement in Assam against illegal immigration.
Fearing a possible loss of citizenship, scores of people in Assam have killed themselves, leaving a trail of devastation among families.
When Faizul Ali was sent to a detention center after being declared a “foreigner” in late 2015, his family members feared they would be next. The prospect of being thrown in jail drove his son to take his own life. His brother tried to save him but drowned in the process. A year later, Ali’s other son hanged himself.
Ali was released on bail from the detention center in 2019. He died in March, leaving behind his wife, a mentally ill son, two daughter-in-laws and their children. They all live in a single room house made of corrugated tin in Muslim majority Bahari village. All have been declared “foreigners.”
Unable to make ends meet, Ali’s wife, Sabur Bano, has taken to begging. She can’t afford firewood for cooking and uses discarded clothes she collects from streets as burning material.
“I am a citizen of this country. I am 60 years old. I was born here, my children were brought up here, all my belongings are here. But they made me a foreigner in my own land,” she said, wiping tears from the hem of her white sari.
Others are still waiting for their loved ones after they were arrested.
On a recent morning, Asiya Khatoon boarded a rickshaw and traveled nearly 31 kilometers (19 miles) from her home to a detention center in Assam’s town where her husband has been held since January.
“They (police) just came and picked up my husband saying he is a Bangladeshi,” the 45-year-old said, before hurriedly walking toward the detention center circled by a vast perimeter of walls and watchtowers with security cameras and armed guards.
In her hands was a crinkled plastic bag. It carried a green T-shirt, trousers and a cap she wanted to give her husband.