As It Happens

Workers in India fear they're building their own prisons during citizenship crackdown

In the Indian state of Assam, people are anxiously waiting to find out if they will be be sent to a camp designed for illegal immigrants — even thought they've spent their entire lives in the country. 

Detention camps erected in Assam state, where 1.9 million have been left off a citizenship list

Shefali Hajong, a labourer whose name is excluded from the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), poses for a picture at the site of an under-construction detention centre for illegal immigrants. (Anuwar Hazarika/Reuters)
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In the Indian state of Assam, people are anxiously waiting to find out if they will be sent to camps designed to house so-called illegal immigrants — even though many say they've spent their entire lives in the country. 

Officials recently published a citizenship list that excluded approximately 1.9 million people living in the region.

Now, as construction of the detention centre continues, even some of the workers who have been left of the list say they're fearful they could end up behind the very walls they're building. 

Zeba Siddiqui is a Reuters journalist who is covering the construction of the camp. She spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about what she learned. Here is a part of their conversation. 

Who exactly might be detained in this camp that the government is building? 

So it's unclear who might end up at this detention camp that India is building.

There are about 1, 200 ... people ruled to be illegal immigrants by tribunals in Assam who are currently at detention facilities built inside jails.

So one government official told us that those people will be moved to the detention camp. But there is a lot of fear about whether, you know, the nearly two million people who've ... been taken off the citizenship list that came out recently in Assam are also going to end up … in these detention centres. 

An outer wall of an under-construction detention centre in Goalpara district in the northeastern state of Assam, India. (Anuwar Hazarika/Reuters)

How did the Indian government and the government of Assam identify these 1.9 million people in the state that it now says are illegal? 

In Assam there's been a movement against illegal immigrants for a long time. For decades actually. There are ethnic groups in Assam that have wanted such an exercise to be conducted. 

And the Supreme Court of India in 2015 ordered for this exercise to be started and then it started that year, and what the government has asked for is for all the people who … live in Assam to submit documents, proof of their residency in Assam. 

So they've asked for documents proving that … they or their ancestors lived in India before March 24, 1971, which was the eve of the Bangladesh Liberation War from Pakistan. So that was when Bangladesh was created. 

They've had to submit documents like birth certificates and property data and school certificates.

[That's] a complicated exercise in India, especially in a place like Assam, which is very poor — one of India's poorest states — and many people there don't even have birth certificates and there are errors in their names. 

What kinds of stories are you hearing from people you speak with? 

The stories that I've been hearing as well have been people have been really tense about the whole process. Local activists have, you know, compiled numbers of suicides that they say are connected to this process because, you know, losing citizenship is a huge deal. 

Assam, as I said, is also one of India's poorest states. These people, in many cases, don't even have the means to travel to appeal. 

And then to find out that they're not on the list, you know, given that there's no clarity about what's going to happen with them — whether they will be deported to Bangladesh, whether they will be sent to a detention centre or a jail — it makes them very anxious. 

People stand in a queue to check their names on the draft list of the NRC. (Anuwar Hazarika/Reuters)

Some are comparing it to what's going on in Kashmir where the mostly Muslim population of that [region] have lost their rights and that status they had within the state of India. So is it a fair comparison to say what's happening in Kashmir is similar to what's happening in Assam?

So I think that both of these are very different things. In Kashmir what's happened is that the special constitutional status of the Jammu and Kashmir state has been revoked. And yes that's led to ... people losing those rights. 

But what's happening in Assam is completely different because these people are, you know, at the risk of becoming stateless.

Officials in Assam have said that they would be looking at providing refugee status to the Hindus who were not on the list. But they have made no such assurances to the Muslims.

When might they start putting people in this detention centre?

So the target date of completion, according to the workers and the contractors that we spoke to who were working at the camp, they want to complete it by December. 

What happens after that, we'll have to wait and see because officials haven't really commented on that. So there's very little clarity on when people might actually start being, you know, taken to the camp.

Labourers work at a construction site of a detention centre. (Anuwar Hazarika/Reuters)

I understand you've spoken with workers there … who fear that they may end up being held and being detained in this compound that they're helping to build.

I spoke to workers there, including a few women, who told me that they were not on the, you know, the citizenship list that had come out.

These are, again, very poor women who belong to Indigenous tribes and they were forced to work there in a sense because they needed the money. They're earning as little as $4 a day. 

They were sort of joking about how they might end up there. But again, you know, at the end of it when you talk to them a little bit more, they talked about how tense they were about the whole process and that they didn't know what was going to happen with them, but that they had to continue to work there to earn a living.

Written by Sarah Jackson with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.