New Delhi: India will publish on Saturday (tomorrow) a controversial citizens list that advocates say will help rectify decades of unchecked illegal immigration into the northeastern state of Assam. Critics fear it will leave millions of people stateless.
The BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi backs the project, and has vowed to roll it out nationwide.
Some view the National Register of Citizens as an attempt to deport millions of India's minority Muslim population. But activists who have been fighting for such a list for decades say that it's simply to protect Assam's indigenous people, whether Hindu, Muslim or tribal.
The draft version of the register released in June left off about 4.1 million of the state's 32 million residents.
Assam security tight
Security was tightened in the Indian state of Assam on Friday before the release of a "citizens register".
Authorities in Assam in north-eastern India, for decades a hotbed of inter-religious and ethnic tensions, have brought in 17,000 additional security personnel for the release.
Gatherings of groups of people have been banned in certain areas and Assam police tweeted images of officers on patrol. A cyber cell was on the lookout for "rumour" and "hate speech" on social media, authorities said.
Assam, an isolated state of 33 million, has long seen large influxes from elsewhere including during British colonial rule and around the 1971 war of independence in neighbouring Bangladesh.
Pressure for a lasting solution has been growing for decades from those who see themselves as genuine Assamese. Sporadic violence has included the massacre of around 2,000 people in a single day in 1983.
Only those who can demonstrate that they or their forebears were in India before 1971 can be included in the NRC, a draft of which in July 2018 excluded around four million people.
But this is a huge challenge in a poor region where illiteracy is rife and where many lack documentation.
120 days to appeal
The roughly two million people who are expected to be left off the final NRC register being published on Saturday will have 120 days to appeal.
Those rejected can then be declared foreigners and face being stripped of their Indian citizenship and rights, put in a detention camp and even deported, although it is unclear where.
Critics of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government, which also runs Assam, say the process reflects its aim to serve only its co-religionists.
In January the lower house passed legislation that stands to grant citizenship to people who moved to India from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan as recently as six years ago - but not if they are Muslim.
For those left off the NRC, the final decision on their fate lies with around 100 quasi-judicial Foreigners' Tribunals, another 200 of which are being set up.
But critics say that those staffing them are often unqualified, and that the entire process has been riddled with inconsistencies and errors, prompting complaints from all sides.
"We are genuine Indian people. My forefathers were born here in this land," Saheb Ali, 55, whose name was left off the draft NRC, told AFP in the village of Khutamari.
"My mother's name was included in the voter list of 1966. We have submitted the documents while filing the forms. However, her name is not there in the draft NRC," said Ali.