People check their names on the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in an office in Pavakati village of Morigoan district, some 70 kms from Guwahati, the capital city of India's northeastern state of Assam on August 31, 2019. - Almost two million people in northeast India were left facing statelessness on August 31 after the state of Assam published a citizenship list aimed at weeding out "foreign infiltrators", in a process the central government wants to replicate nationwide. (Photo by Biju BORO / AFP)BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images
People in Assam check their names on the National Register of Citizens. An estimated 1.9m residents have been excluded from the list © AFP

A few days after my daughter’s birth in New Delhi in 2011, her father, an Indian citizen, went to the municipal government with our hospital records and other documents to obtain her official birth certificate. When he brought it home, I was appalled.

Of the three names on the certificate — hers, his and mine — only one, mine, was spelt correctly. His and hers were both wrong. He hadn’t noticed. I, surfing on a wave of hormones, went bonkers.

“This is the most important piece of paper in her life,” I shouted. “It has to be right.” The next day, he duly returned to the municipal offices to get a corrected birth certificate.

Our ability to notice and quickly rectify mistakes in a critical document like a birth certificate reflects our privilege — he has a PhD and I have an MSc. But for millions of poor, uneducated Indians, slapdash official documents — with spelling errors, mixed-up dates and other casual errors — have long been routine, if they are lucky enough to possess official documents at all.

Now that India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party has pledged to undertake a massive exercise to separate illegal immigrants and their descendants from the rest of the population, shoddy or lost documents could result in many Indians being stripped of citizenship, and consigned to second-class status, with an uncertain future.

In the tea-growing border state of Assam this weekend, authorities revealed that 1.9m residents have been excluded from a new national register of citizens prepared on the orders of the Supreme Court. They were acting at the behest of Assamese activists furious about illegal migration from Bangladesh, with strong initial backing from the BJP.

To be included on the list, individuals had to provide documents to prove that they, or their direct ancestors, had lived in Assam prior to 1971, when the turbulent creation of Bangladesh led to a torrent of refugees seeking shelter in India.

The BJP has long griped that India’s overwhelming Hindu majority has been overrun by illegal immigrants from Muslim-majority Bangladesh — people the BJP typically describes in sinister terms as “infiltrators”. Home minister Amit Shah has gone further, declaring “illegal immigrants are like termites. They are eating the grain that should go to the poor; they are taking our jobs.”

During just concluded parliamentary elections, Mr Shah pledged to extend the registration process across the country — to separate longtime Indian citizens from illegal migrants, and their descendants. The ruling party wants to strip the latter of voting rights, social welfare benefits and other privileges. But Assam’s experience has shown the pitfalls of India’s haphazard public record-keeping, the historically thin presence of its state machinery in impoverished remote areas, and the tumultuous lives of the poor. They offer unstable building blocks for a fair, transparent, document-based citizenship determination process.

Providing a chain of documentation — without any inconsistencies in the spelling of names, or any other errors — across multiple generations has proven unduly onerous in one of India’s most backward states, with high illiteracy and frequent displacement due to flooding. Women have been particularly disadvantaged, lawyers say. Many never attended school and married before being old enough to vote at 18. Their first official documents often carry married names, making it impossible for them to prove their lineage.

Ironically, the BJP is now up in arms over Assam’s process, as they did not get the results they sought. About half of the 1.9m left off the register are said to be Hindus, who the BJP considers its core constituency.

India undoubtedly has a right to police its own borders, and stop the flow of illegal migrants from neighbouring countries. But New Delhi should recognise that in Indian circumstances, trying to hunt down illegal migrants who settled here decades ago — and their native-born descendants — is both cruel and futile. The process is putting millions of ordinary people, Hindu and Muslim, through unimaginable financial and emotional hardship. Better to look forward — and focus on bringing a brighter future to all those who call India home.

Letter in response to this column:

It’s time to initiate a new Nansen passport for all / From Henry Wessells, Upper Montclair, NJ, US

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