India’s federal government has published a bill which effectively strips some four million people in the north-eastern state of Assam of their citizenship. The entire process had sparked fears of a witch hunt against the state’s ethnic minorities.
In an attempt to lower the risk of violence, organisers have been quick to point out that no-one omitted from the final draft will face immediate deportation.
A lengthy appeal process will be available to all – even if it means millions of families will live in limbo until they get a final decision on their legal status.
But this did not reassure Hasitun Nissa, who I had met days before the bill was published. She has never known a home outside the floodplains of Assam.
It’s where the 47-year-old schoolteacher spent her childhood, where she studied, where she got married and where she had her four children.
But she said she expected to be stripped of her Indian citizenship, and feared her land rights, voting rights and freedom would be in peril.
She’s not alone. Around four million Bengalis – a linguistic minority in Assam – have now fallen foul of a long, bureaucratic process known as the National Register of Citizens, or NRC.
The government in Delhi says the register, which has not been updated since 1951, had to be revised, in order to root out hordes of illegal migrants from nearby Bangladesh.
As per the Assam Accord, an agreement signed by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985, all those who cannot prove that they came to the north-eastern state before 24 March 1971, will be deleted from electoral rolls, and expelled.
But activists say the NRC is being used as a pretext for a two-pronged attack – by Hindu nationalists and Assamese hardliners – on the state’s legitimate Bengali community, a large portion of whom are Muslims.
Like Hasitun, many Bengalis live in the verdant wetlands dotted along the Bramaputra river, moving around when water levels rise.
Their paperwork, if it exists, is often inaccurate.
Officials claim illegal Bangladeshis are enmeshed in the Bengali population, often hiding in plain sight, with forged papers – and a thorough examination of all documents is the only way to flush them out.
But Bengali campaigner Nazrul Ali Ahmed is adamant that the NRC is serving another agenda entirely.
“It is nothing but a conspiracy to commit atrocities,” he told the BBC.
“They are openly threatening to get rid of Muslims, and what happened to the Rohingya in Myanmar, could happen to us here”.
Such alarming comparisons are readily dismissed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which emphasises that the NRC is an apolitical task, overseen by the country’s secular Supreme Court.
And after human rights organisations began to express concern, the civil servant in charge of the NRC, Prateek Hajela, felt compelled to release a statement – stressing that the law requires him to make “no differentiation on the basis of religion or language” in determining citizenship.
Yet the prime minister has never been shy of expressing his preference for Hindu Bangladeshi migrants, whom he says should be embraced by India.
Other “infiltrators”, Mr Modi told a crowd in 2014, would be deported.
His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is even considering a bill which would enshrine the rights of Hindu migrants in law.
Indeed, a promotional song posted on Facebook by the NRC itself does little to calm the nerves of those worried about a Hindu-nationalist witch hunt.
“A new revolution, to defeat the alien enemy, is beckoning,” a young woman sings, “bravely let us shield our motherland.”
Hardly the stuff you’d expect to hear about a democratic administrative procedure.
Siddhartha Bhattacharya, Assam’s law minister, and a member of the BJP, is in no doubt about the fate of those who have been rejected.
“Everyone will be given a right to prove their citizenship,” he told the BBC. “But if they fail to do so, well the legal system will take its own course.”
That, Mr Bhattacharya clarified, would mean expulsion from India.
At present, that seems little more than a threat aimed at whipping up Hindu support for the BJP ahead of elections.
No deportation procedures have been put in place, and Bangladesh, already burdened by the Rohingya crisis, has shown no sign of being open to accepting a raft of new refugees.
Nonetheless, campaigners like Samujjal Bhattacharyya are clear that something must be done.
His organisation, the All Assam Students Union, has been agitating for the explosion of illegal Bangladeshis – regardless of their religion – for decades.
If deportations don’t happen, he says, “the illegal foreigner will intrude upon the corridor of power”.
“We are not prepared to be second-class citizens”.
Hasitun Nissa takes such rhetoric seriously.
She has firsthand experience of how authorities deal with suspected migrants.
For two years, her husband has been behind bars, leaving her the family’s sole breadwinner.
“We have never harmed Hindus, we can live peacefully side-by-side,” she says.
“But I fear bad news will come. -BBC