In 1951, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was instituted in Assam. The NRC was a way to keep track of all registered Indian citizens, as Assam is a border state with significant security concerns and an ever-changing migrant population.
In 2015, a process began to update the NRC, for the first time since 1951. Anyone born after March 24, 1971, had to provide documentation of Indian citizenship.
In July 2018, the Indian government released a draft update to the NRC, which excluded approximately four million people from the register due to their alleged inability to provide such documentation. Investigations and prosecutions of those involved in large-scale communal violence have too often been ineffective or absent.
Since that time, individuals excluded from the draft list have lodged hundreds of thousands of objections. The final NRC list is expected to be released in July 2019; the fear and/or expectation is that anyone not on that list will be rendered stateless and considered a foreigner. Widespread concerns have been raised that the NRC update is an intentional effort to discriminate and/ or has the effect of discriminating against Muslims, and that the discretion given to local authorities in the verification process and in identifying perceived foreigners to be excluded from the draft list will be abused. For some, the exclusion of the four million people from the draft NRC affirmed those concerns.
A June 2018 joint letter by four United Nations (UN) special rapporteurs— including the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief—explained that the citizenship registry “has generated increased anxiety and concerns among the Bengali Muslim minority in Assam, who have long been discriminated against due to their perceived status as foreigners, despite possessing the necessary documents to prove their citizenship.”
The UN experts reiterated their concerns in a December 2018 statement, which noted that while the exact exclusions were unknown at the time, they appeared to target “ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities.”
The State Department highlighted the fraught nature of the National Register of Citizens in Assam in its 2018 Human Rights Report for India, released after the reporting period. Concerns about the targeting of Muslims through the citizenship process were separately exacerbated by the introduction and passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the Lok Sabha (“lower house”) of Parliament, which would provide citizenship to migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan as long as they were not Muslim. In February 2019, after the reporting period, the bill was dropped in the Raj Sabha (“upper house”) of Parliament amid protests.
Based on these concerns, in 2019 USCIRF again places India on its Tier 2 for engaging in or tolerating religious freedom violations that meet at least one of the elements of the “systematic, ongoing, egregious” standard for designation as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). While the Indian government repeatedly has denied USCIRF access to India, the Commission welcomes the opportunity to openly and candidly engage with the government—including the chance for a USCIRF delegation to visit India—to discuss shared values and interests, including international standards of freedom of religion or belief and related human rights.