On 1 September, a Twitter user living in Maharashtra sent a direct message to the handle of Indian Civil Liberties Union, a collective of lawyers and activists that aims to “fight against hate mongering, discrimination and corruption.” A Muslim from Pune, he had queries about the National Register of Citizens—a citizenship list published by the government that aims to identify who qualifies as an Indian citizen and, significantly, exclude those who do not. The final list, published on 31 August, excludes over 1.9 million individuals. These people have 120 days to prove their citizenship before foreigners’ tribunals—quasi-judicial courts empowering district magistrates to decide whether a person living illegally in India is a foreigner or not.
When assured that the NRC was for Assam, the Twitter user replied, “What if implemented across India? So wanted to correct all things in advance.” He said his grandfather had moved to Maharashtra before the 1930s, and that he was not from Assam.
The publication of the final list has created a wave of panic, with many Muslims wondering what the implications of an NRC-like exercise for the rest of India would mean. Leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party have demanded similar measures be taken in their states, such as in Delhi and West Bengal. Amit Shah, the union home minister, has repeatedly declared his commitment to making this a national project. “Various people have raised all kinds of questions about national register of citizens,” he said, during his address, in Guwahati, to the chief ministers of the northeastern states soon after the publication of the list. “I want to clearly say that not a single illegal migrant will be allowed to stay in the country by the government of India. That is our commitment.”
A gazette notification about updating the National Population Register, or NPR—a proposed database of all Indian residents, distinct from the NRC—has added to the sense of anxiety. Messages on social media urging people to collect their identity papers and government-issued documents have sent people scrambling.
“Most of the people who have contacted us are Muslims,” Shivangi Sharma, a law student, told me. Sharma is a member of the Indian Civil Liberties Union, and answers a helpline dedicated to callers seeking information about the NRC. “Most of the calls and emails are from Indian Muslims who live abroad, or from rural areas, asking us about what documents are needed, how to collect family-legacy data and so on,” she said. She has fielded several phone calls and nearly sixty messages on Twitter and Facebook since 1 September.