Closely related to these developments (as mentioned in Part I) was the 1951 National Register of Citizen (NRC) list which was an effort to have a permanent record of the residents in Assam based on the data of the 1951 Census (the first census conducted in Independent India). Hence, when the Assam agitation started the initial demand of the movement was to expel foreigner as per the 1951 NRC. However, as cited above, after years of deliberation between the protestors and the government 25 March 1971 was decided to be the cut-off date. Over the years there were many demands for expelling the ‘illegal migrants’ from Assam. This led to a tripartite agreement between AASU (The Assam student union which was most active in the movement), the state government and the central to update the 1951 NRC as per the 1985 Assam Accord’s cut-off date in 2005. In December 2015 the NRC updating process received affirmation from the Apex Court of the country in response to a petition.

While the NRC process has specifically affected the Bengali Muslims in Assam in general, people belonging to other marginalised classes have also been affected. Among other things, the acute illiteracy and deprived conditions make it extremely challenging for the marginalised to produce any of the specified documents that would facilitate proving their ‘authentic’ Assamese identity. It was equally difficult for many to appear for the NRC-related hearings as summons were issued for far-off places in quite short notices.

Furthermore, the NRC process has been gender insensitive. The final list revealed that around 2,000 transgenders were excluded from the NRC list. Having been abandoned by their families, many were unable to provide proof that they belong to families which have been living in Assam before 25 March 1971, or because the requisite application for the NRC process contained only ‘male’ and ‘female’ gender categories forcing them to choose either of the two. Many married women have also been excluded from the list because of the failure to establish blood links with their paternal families through relevant documents.

As of 31 August 2019 with the publication of the final NRC in Assam, the future of more than 1.9 million people in Assam have become uncertain. This lack of clarity on their nationality raises concerns of possible statelessness. While the excluded people wait anxiously for a chance to appeal against the decision and find their name in the NRC list, there is no clarity on the appeal process either.

The ruling right-wing BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) government at the Centre has also introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019. As per this amendment, migrants who entered India ‘illegally’ on/before 31 December 2014 from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are eligible for citizenship. However, only ‘illegal’ migrants belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, or Christian community are eligible under this amendment, which has been principally introduced with an intention to exclude people of the Islamic faith.

Further, with the proposal to introduce the NRC process nationwide it can be argued that it has the proclivity to create one of the world’s largest displacement and statelessness in the modern times.  Probable consequences of exclusion from the NRC could be, inter alia, indefinite detention, deportation, denial of legal status, or even political, social and economic rights.

Internationally, the failure of the refugee regime to widen the definition of ‘refugee’ makes the picture even bleaker; it has become increasingly difficult for refugees to prove persecution within the existing definition, adding more challenges to their already daunting lives. Thus, while a distinction between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ is essential to avoid any blurring of legal categories which might have detrimental effect to their specific rights, it is also important to counter the definitional constraint which states use to justify the discriminatory practices of denying refugee status or rendering individuals/groups stateless. Relying solely on political motives to assert that some refugees deserve asylum more than others is parochial. It is essential, therefore, to challenge the existing norms and practices and to advocate for increased state responsibility and a strengthened rights framework.


*The views and opinions expressed in this article are personal and have no institutional affiliation. 


In the present climate of xenophobic impulses and right-wing nationalism, coupled with escalating allegations of terrorism and state security, establishing host state’s obligations to protect refugees is a painstaking challenge. It is generally claimed that non-refoulement (ban on forcing refugees to return to countries where they are likely to face persecution) has achieved the status of customary international law. Nevertheless, states often find justifications to defy its implementation. Refugees are commonly portrayed as a threat to the security of the host country, and this justification is suitably invoked to close their borders or deporting refugees to their country of origin. Further, there is a growing tendency to label them as ‘economic migrants’/‘illegal immigrants’. These restrictive policies have facilitated the erosion of non-refoulement in a functional sense.

There have been consistent efforts by states at implementing non-entrée policies to stop refugees (particularly those who do not possess political and ideological value) from reaching their international border. There are differential policies for different sects of people, which conveniently facilitate states in choosing the kind of others they prefer to welcome. These policies have taken the shape of a civilizing mission where the central idea is to ‘exclude’ the ‘un-civilized’ on the grounds of the state’s interest. It is pursued with the goal of securing electoral gains, demonstrating cultural superiority or establishing brute majoritarianism.

The rampant oppressive practice of the Indian government towards refugees is a textbook instance. India not being a signatory to the Refugee Convention and, in the absence of any defined statutory framework on refugees, has only ad-hoc mechanisms in place for refugees. As per the Foreigners Act, 1946, every foreigner, unless exempted, should be in possession of a valid passport or visa to enter India. Hence, if a refugee contravenes these provisions, she is likely to be indicted just like any other foreigner. Inconsistencies and arbitrariness rule in the absence of any clearly defined statutory standards. Thus, while we witness a generous behaviour being meted out to some categories of refugees, others are alleged to be ‘economic migrants’/‘illegal migrants’ and consequently detained, penalized and deported.

The recently-conducted process in Assam (a state in northeastern India) to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a manifestation of India’s intensifying tyrannical inclinations. Historically, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, due to the development of railways, tea, and coal and oil industries, colonial Assam witnessed heavy migration from other provinces of British India. The colonial authorities also encouraged educated Bengalis to take up jobs as teachers and other such professions in Assam. These movements resulted in a change in the demographic profile of Assam.

Further, the Partition of India in 1947 and ensuing communal riots on the subcontinent gave rise to the influx of refugees from East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) in Assam chiefly due to its geographical proximity. Similarly, in 1971, during the Bangladesh Liberation War, Assam witnessed heavy migration from Bangladesh. Ever since, Assam has been experiencing a continuous migration flow from Bangladesh for various reasons, including climate change. Serious objections against this migration trend have been mounting in the ‘indigenous’ Assamese community. Allegations of depleting natural resources, increasing violence, marginalization and threat to their ‘Assamese identity’ began to amplify in the late ’70s, which gradually led to the Assam Agitation (1979-1985). The Movement, many claims, was triggered after the death of Hiralal Patwari, sitting Member of Parliament from Lok Sabha (House of the People) representing the Mangaldai (Assam) Constituency, which necessitated holding of by-elections. During the process of the election an abrupt and dramatic increase was witnessed in the number of registered voters and it was alleged that a large number of these voters were illegal settlers from Bangladesh.

To many Assamese it appeared as if the Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims together were now in a position to undermine Assamese rule. It was feared that the census would show a sharp decline in the number of Assamese speakers as Bengalis who had previously declared their language Assamese would now officially revert to Bengali. (Weiner 1983)

On the other hand, it was claimed that the movement involved careful planning by a few in order to retain the Assamese Hindu majority in the state assembly election, so that other communities, specially Muslims, could not reduce the Assamese Hindus to minority in the elections.

The movement further witnessed the horrific Nelli Massacre of 1983 which allegedly claimed the lives of almost 3000 Muslims in Assam. Two years after the massacre in 1985, the Assam Accord was signed which fixed 24 March 1971 as the cut-off date (as the Bangladesh Liberation War began on 25 March 1971). The Accord envisaged that all foreign nationals who entered Assam ‘illegally’ on or after 25th March 1971 were to be detected, their names deleted from the electoral rolls and subsequently deported under the Foreigners Act, 1946. Section 2(1)(b) of the Citizenship Act of 1955 defines an “illegal migrant” as a foreigner who entered India, (a) without a valid passport or prescribed travel documents or, (b) with a valid passport or other prescribed travel documents but remained in India beyond the permitted period of time.