Checking documents this month in Assam. Photo: Anuwar Ali Hazarika/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

In just a few days, some 4 million people in India could find themselves without a country.

Why it matters: This could quickly become the largest crisis of stateless people on the planet.

The big picture: This is happening in Assam, a hilly, landlocked state at the eastern edge of India along the Bangladeshi border. (The famous "Assam" tea comes from there.)

Back in the early 1970s, during Bangladesh's war of independence from Pakistan, millions of Bengali Muslims fled across the border into Assam, dramatically shifting the province's demographics and leading to tensions with Assam's Hindu majority.

  • Nearly half a century later, Assam has the largest Muslim minority of any Indian state except Kashmir.

In the mid-1980s, India's government determined that any refugee who crossed the border into Assam after Bangladesh gained independence in 1971 should be a citizen of Bangladesh, not of India.

  • Since then, successive Indian governments have tried to determine which Assam residents have paperwork that proves they lived in India before that date.
  • But for many people, finding the right documents — and reading them, in a state where a quarter of the population is illiterate — is challenging, if not impossible.

Last year, the Assam state government finally published a draft National Registry of Citizens (NRC) that lists everyone who is a legal resident in Assam.

  • 4 million people, mostly Muslims who have been living in India for decades, were not on the list. Those people have until Aug. 31 to prove a pre-1971 claim to residence or they will be deemed illegal.

What to watch: The Indian government, like all governments, has the right and responsibility to know who is living on its territory and under what circumstances. But there are 2 big complications in the case of Assam.

First, what happens to these 4 million human beings if India officially marks them as illegal?

  • Bangladesh has said it will not accept the deportation of millions of people who have been living in India for almost 50 years.
  • Many of these 4 million people were born inside India after 1971. Should those people be "returned" to a country they've never known?
  • Assam authorities are reportedly building detention camps that could constitute a horrific human rights violation.

Second, the Assam crackdown looks like the prelude to a broader bid by the national government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to discriminate against India's Muslims.

  • This spring, the BJP announced that it wants to extend the citizenship registry to the whole country in a bid to remove anyone who isn't a "Buddhist, Hindu, or Sikh."
  • Interior Minister Amit Shah, who headed the BJP in the run-up to its sweeping election victory last year, has called Bengali Muslims "termites" and pledged to throw them into the sea.

The bottom line: The BJP is flush with power after the last election — but seeking to marginalize India's 177 million Muslims from what it means to be "Indian" risks destabilizing a precarious balance among faiths and ethnicities in the world's largest democracy.

Sign up for Signal, a thrice-weekly newsletter from GZERO Media, a Eurasia Group company, and follow @saosasha on Twitter.

Go deeper

1 hour ago - Technology

TikTok to pull out of Hong Kong

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

TikTok said Monday night that it would pull its social video platform out of the Google and Apple app stores in Hong Kong amid a restrictive new law that went into effect last week.

Why it matters: TikTok's move comes as many large tech companies say they are still evaluating how to respond to the Hong Kong law.

4 hours ago - World

Ethiopia's Nobel Peace laureate cracks down on ethnic violence

The image of a Nobel Peace laureate in military fatigues encapsulates the moment in which Ethiopia finds itself — on the verge of a transition to democracy, a descent into violence or, perhaps, a precarious combination of the two.

Driving the news: At least 166 people were killed after an iconic musician, Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, was murdered last Monday in Addis Ababa, the capital. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed responded to the violence by sending in troops and shutting off the internet. High-profile opposition leaders were arrested, along with some 2,300 others.

Updated 6 hours ago - Health

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms tests positive for coronavirus

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said on Monday that she has tested positive for the coronavirus after displaying no symptoms.

Why it matters: Bottoms, one of several Black women on the shortlist to be Joe Biden's running mate, has risen to national prominence in recent months as part of mass protests over racism and police brutality — driven in part by the killing of Rayshard Brooks by Atlanta police.