MAYONG, India – The rice farmer doesn’t know how it happened. Abdul Mannan just knows a mistake was made somewhere. But what can you say when the authorities suddenly insists one of your five children isn’t an Indian? What do you do when your wife and daughter-in-law are suddenly viewed as illegal immigrants?
“We are genuine Indians. We are not foreigners,” said Mannan, 50, adding his family has lived in India’s northeastern Assam state since the 1930s. “I can’t understand where the mistake is.”
Neither can nearly 4 million other people who insist they are Indian but who now must prove their nationality as the politics of citizenship — overlaid with questions of religion, ethnicity and illegal immigration — swirls in a state where such questions have a long and bloody past.
Today, nativist anger churns through the hills and plains of Assam state, just across the border from Bangladesh, with many here believing the state is overrun with illegal migrants.
“India is for Indians. Assam is for Indians,” said Sammujjal Bhattachariya, a top official with the All Assam Students Union, which has been in the forefront of pushing for the citizenship survey. “Assam is not for illegal Bangladeshis.”
“We need a permanent solution,” he added.
On Friday, some of the 3.9 million residents left off Assam’s draft list of citizens began picking up forms to file their appeals, wading into a byzantine legal and bureaucratic process that many fear could lead to detention, expulsion or years in limbo.
Mannan, his two daughters and two of his sons were all listed on the citizenship list released in July. But his wife, a 17-year-old son and his daughter-in-law were nowhere to be seen. No explanation was given.
“We are worried that the names are not there,” said Mannan, who lives with his family in a bamboo-walled hut, supporting them on about $150 a month in farming income. “How will we live? What will we do? How will we stay in Assam?”
For decades, fears of widespread movement across the porous border with Bangladesh have triggered tensions between the state’s majority ethnic group, Assamese-speaking Hindus, and its Bengali-speaking Muslims.
In the 1980s that erupted into violence, with hundreds of people killed in Assam amid waves of anti-migrant attacks. New Delhi eventually ruled that anyone who could prove their family had lived in India before Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence, which drove millions of Bangladeshis to flee across the border, would be considered an Indian citizen.