ASSAM, India — Dilip Biswas had lived in the small northeastern state of Assam for 40 years, growing rice on his land and cooking lunch at a local restaurant, when one day in 2009 the police came knocking on his door. Despite being an ethnic Bengali, a targeted minority in the state, Biswas had never doubted his Indianness. But suddenly he was told to prove it, leave the country forever, or go to jail.
Biswas was given the option to appear in a special court called a “Foreigners Tribunal,” a quasi-judicial system that orders the removal of so-called non-Indians from the country. The number of these tribunals has nearly tripled under India’s nationalist leader Narendra Modi.
Biswas says he sold his land to pay for a lawyer and certified documents dating back decades proving his life in India—and his right to stay. But the court was unmoved: Biswas was declared a “foreigner” and thrown in prison. What’s worse, his wife and two young daughters were also declared foreigners, and sent to a separate detention center for women. They were jailed for nearly a decade.
“I didn’t meet my father for nine years. Still they kept us there, separated,” Kalpana, now 17, said, her voice breaking as she cried quietly. Biswas, meanwhile, says he was held in a cell with 60 other men, some of whom were murderers.
In February, the state’s high court said that the tribunal had made an error: It was only Dilip Biswas, not his family, who should have been on trial. Furthermore, the tribunal had been wrong to reject land-revenue paperwork Biswas offered as proof his family had lived in Assam for at least one generation.
The Biswases are among tens of thousands of people who have been declared illegal in India’s Foreigners Tribunals, opaque courts that are unique to Assam. A VICE News and Type Investigations probe has revealed the tribunals to be rife with bias, inconsistency, and error.
Now, on the heels of a resounding re-election victory by Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which ran on an aggressively anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim platform, the state of Assam is using these tribunals to embark on what may be one of largest purges of citizenship in history. The state flagged 4 million people as possible foreigners last year; on August 31, they will find out if they have to face trial in the tribunals that jailed the Biswases.
The fear in Assam is omnipresent. An agrarian state known for its tea and rhinos could soon be the site of a statelessness crisis similar to what Myanmar’s attacks on the Rohingyas have wrought, but with four times as many people in its crosshairs.
The effort to rout out illegal immigrants primarily affects Bengali-speakers, who make up about a third of Assam’s population. While Hindu Bengalis like the Biswases are also targeted, Muslims are disproportionately impacted. In Assam, speaking Bengali and practicing Islam—the predominant language and religion of neighboring Bangladesh—have long been conflated with being foreign. In reality, Bengali and Islam are spoken and practiced by a large minority of Indians in the state. Many whose citizenship is under scrutiny are poor and illiterate, unprepared to deal with the tribunals’ opaque legal process.
The anti-Bengali sentiment has roots in British meddling during the Colonial era. A resulting seven decades of tension between Assamese speakers, indigenous tribes, and Bengali speakers over land, forest and language have led to horrific massacres and toxic identity politics. Today, Bengalis may speak Assamese and celebrate local festivals like Bihu, but many Assamese nationalists see them as outsiders siphoning off limited local resources.
Over the years, local and national politicians have fanned the flames. And the groundwork for this latest purge has been laid at the highest levels of the national government.
Modi himself has explicitly targeted Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh; speaking at an election rally in West Bengal in 2014, the then-candidate for prime minister said: “These Bangladeshis better be prepared with their bags packed.” The president of the BJP, now a minister in charge of national security, has referred to Bangladeshis as “ghuspetiya” or “infiltrators,” and “termites” who are “eating our food grains that should go to the poor.”
In 2016, Modi’s anti-immigrant drive became even more starkly anti-Muslim, with the government trying to allow any non-Muslim illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to become Indian citizens. Assam protested, seeing it as an attempt to accommodate Bengali Hindus in their state. The law did not pass, but it remains a BJP priority.
(This is an excerpt from the full article that can be read here.)