India’s first major attempt to identify “illegal immigrants” has finally come a cropper and exposed the perils of using it as a political narrative for decades. Known as the National Register for Citizens (NRC) and carried out in the northeastern border state of Assam at a cost of 11 billion rupees (US$1.5 billion), it has finally identified 1.9 million people as “illegal immigrants.”

Around 33 million people applied to be included the NRC. But 1.9 million people were excluded, and that number included people who did not submit claims.

The exercise to hunt for “illegal immigrants” in Assam was a test case of sorts for years. A petition filed by the Assam Public Works in the Supreme Court in 2013 led to directions to the federal and state governments to update the 1951 national register.

On December 31, 2017, a draft NRC was published with the names of 19 million out of a total of 32 million applicants. On July 30 last year, another draft NRC was published, with around 4 million names excluded. After a series of verifications and re-applications, the figure came down to 1.9 million people deemed to be “illegals.”

The case also raised questions among legal experts about the Supreme Court’s intervention. The NRC exercise was overseen on a regular basis by the chief justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, who hails from the state.

A political setback

This has created major problems for a variety of stakeholders, who were keen to see a much larger number. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which runs the federal and the state government, had been pushing the NRC as a panacea to the problem of “illegal migration.”

Federal Home Minister Amit Shah has repeatedly expressed his determination to implement the register across the entire country. He said that at a rally in West Bengal, adding: “We will remove every single infiltrator from the country. And all the Hindu and Buddhist refugees … we will find each of them, give them Indian citizenship and make them residents here.”

For the BJP, this campaign has yielded a rich electoral dividend for decades. Analysts say it has used the “illegal immigrants” narrative as a way to target Muslims, much like US President Donald Trump used the immigration debate to polarize his voters. Assam, which has seen waves of immigrants post-independence was supposed to be the ideal ground to carry out such an exercise. However, this has fallen short of what was envisaged, to the point where even the BJP is vehemently protesting against the final result.

Speculation that a large number of Bengali Hindus were excluded from the register has allegedly worried BJP leaders. Assam’s Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, a major champion of the NRC, told The Hindu that many cases had questionable documents. He said that in districts close to the Bangladesh border, where migrant populations were supposedly higher than other places, deletions were low. So the party would lodge appeals to the Supreme Court for re-verification.

The Supreme Court had directed that district figures of people excluded from the final register be submitted discreetly, yet the Assam government revealed the data last month, according to reports. It said that districts close to the Bangladesh border had high Muslim populations, such as Dhubri (79.7%) and Karimganj (56%), but the percentage of people excluded was much lower – 8.3% and 7.7% respectively. Meanwhile, the BJP claimed that districts with a higher Hindu population had seen higher exclusions.

BJP leaders have repeatedly cited large numbers of Muslims living in the country as “illegal” without citing a proper source. In 2016, Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju informed Parliament that “there are around 20 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants staying in India.” The majority were supposed to be in Assam.

Historic divisions

Nearly all of Assam was considered a single state at the time of independence. But after 1947, as the country was divided, the dominant tribes such as Nagas, Meteis, Khasis and others were split into separate states based largely on linguistic and tribal affiliations. However, one part of Assam was hived off to then East Pakistan – present-day Bangladesh – after a plebiscite.

Only two regions in undivided India underwent a plebiscite. The North-West Frontier Province, a Pashtun-dominated part of modern-day Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, was one such region. The other was Syhlet, a hilly area that had been added to Assam by British colonial rulers in the 19th century. Syhlet was dominated by Bengali speakers, who threatened the majority that the Assamese-speaking citizens enjoyed for centuries. The partition of Syhlet was seen as a major victory for Assamese speaking citizens, who saw the partition as an opportunity to hive off the Bengalis.

However, the Hindu Bengalis left Syhlet and a large number settled in the Barak Valley, a region south of the Brahmaputra River, also known as “Lower Assam.” The area to the north of the river came to be known as “Upper Assam” and remained dominated by the Assamese-speakers. However, this led to decades of turmoil and in 1980 there were major attacks against Bengali speakers, both were Hindu and Muslim.

The demand for a National Register of Citizens was central to sustained agitation by Assamese-speaking students from 1979 to 1985. Politically organized as the All Assam Students Union (AASU), they led rallies that culminated in the Assam Accord signed between the AASU and the federal government. It set March 25, 1971 as the cut-off date to determine Indian citizenship for all illegal immigrants.

That date preceded the outbreak of the 1971 war between India and Pakistan on December 3 that led to the birth of Bangladesh. The war also caused an influx of refugees, many of them Hindus who fled a genocidal pogrom started by the Pakistani Army.

The presence of Bengalis has been a big issue in Assam for decades. The BJP used it finally to gain power in the state for the first time, riding on a narrative of ejecting “illegal immigrants.” However, the party was not prepared to target Hindu Bengalis, as that would erode their support base elsewhere in the country. Now, the “low” tally of illegals and the presence of a large number of Hindu “illegals” has undermined the party’s credibility.

A flawed process

Census reports are often cited to indicate the rise in illegal Muslim immigration to Assam. A white paper published by the Assam government in 2012 cites a report on the 1961 Census, which said 220,691 people were “infiltrants” who had entered Assam. Then Census 2011 said the proportion of Muslims in the state rose by 3.3% to 34.2% – the most rapid rise of Muslims in the country. This was seen by many as proof of migration from across the border.

But many cases of strange exclusions have come to haunt the NRC exercise.

Mohammed Sanaullah, who served the Indian Army for 30 years, was excluded. Asia Times reported that Sanaullah was detained after a Foreigner’s Tribunal declared him a “non-citizen” – at a time when he was the assistant sub-inspector with the Assam Border Police.

“His name was left out of the NRC since his case is pending before the Guwahati High Court. The names of his son and two daughters have also not appeared in the final NRC,” Mohammed Ajmal Hoque, Sanaullah’s cousin and a retired junior commissioned officer in the army, told Asia Times.

Similarly, the family of the fifth president of India after independence, Fakhruddin Ali, was excluded from the register.

Given this outcome, The Daily Star, the leading English-language paper in Bangladesh, urged the Indian government in an editorial to “forcefully articulate that [Bangladesh] is not a dumping ground for NRC left-outs.”

The issue has foreign-policy implications, as Bangladesh under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been one of India’s closest allies. Upsetting Dhaka would have major implications for regional cooperation and New Delhi’s “Look East” policy.