4 million Indians fear loss of citizenship, deportation

New register in Assam spells bad news for those who have lost their documents in floods, sparks rallies
4 million Indians fear loss of citizenship, deportation

Social activists hold posters during a protest following the publication of a draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Kolkata, India on Aug. 1. The country on July 30 stripped 4 million people of citizenship in the northeastern state of Assam, under a draft list that has sparked fears of deportation of largely Bengali-speaking Muslims. (Photo by Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP)

The recent updating of a list of Indian citizens in the northeastern state of Assam, known for its tea plantations, pilgrimage sites and silk bazaars, has stirred up a hornet's nest as protesters decry the move.

Published on July 30, the second draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has effectively hacked into the population and excludes four million residents.

The census was carried out by Hindu nationalists from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which governs a number of states including Assam and New Delhi.

The BJP had promised to stem the influx of illegal immigrants, swollen by members of the "Bengali" linguistic minority and Muslims from neighboring Bangladesh.

In doing so, they have decided to apply an old accord existing only in Assam that deprives all people of Indian citizenship if they are unable to prove resided on Indian soil prior to 1971.

While the authorities have stressed the register is only "a temporary list," there is deep anxiety over the fate of millions of people who risk becoming stateless.

"People have a right to know who is Indian and who is foreign," said Indian Home Affairs Minister Rajnath Singh, in justifying the list.

"We are only applying the decisions of the Supreme Court," he added.

Reacting to the wave of panic caused by its publication, he appealed for calm.

"There is no reason to panic," he said. Singh reiterated that those excluded from the register have legal means to contest their status and have it reviewed.

They can still appeal to "foreigners tribunals." A final list will be published on Dec. 31.

In a rare interview granted on Aug. 12, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also sought to quell fears, promising that, "no citizen of India will have to leave the country."

But not everyone has been appeased.

Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of neighboring West Bengal state, which shares a border with Assam, took to her Twitter account on Aug. 19 to mark her discontent on World Humanitarian Day.

"Respecting human rights is one of the basic tenets of our constitution. On this day, my heart goes out to the 4 million people who have become refugees in their own country because of #NRCAssam," she wrote.

Moreover, critics say proving one's nationality can be a huge challenge in India.

Further fuelling public anger, the 12.5-percent segment of the state's population that is being targeted represents some of the most poor and vulnerable residents in Assam.

According to the local press, countless anomalies were detected in the compilation of the dossiers, such as miss-spelt names and the exclusion of certain individuals whose entire families were registered.

Some families claim they are being unfairly persecuted by the new rule as they have lost official documents that would confirm their eligibility for statehood due to the monsoon floods that regularly lash the region.

For now, these families have shown calm as they await the belated distribution of the forms they need to lodge their appeals.

"We fear large-scale manipulation of the verification procedures, which could exclude real Indian citizens and separate families, particularly Muslims and people of Bengali origin," says Kavita Srivastava of the People's Union for Civil Liberties.

Human rights groups fear the move is just the latest example of a political policy of discriminating against the 9.5 million Muslims of Bangladeshi origin in Assam.

They say Muslims have for years been used as scapegoats for a range of social issues by Hindu nationalists.

Unique to India, this process of having to register for citizenship is, however, not new to Assam.

The NRC was established in 1951 after India won its independence from the colonial British government in 1947, a milestone celebrated every Aug. 15.

At the time, millions of families were split between India — a secular, majority Hindu nation — and Pakistan, an Islamic nation.

In Assam, on the border with what was formerly known as East Pakistan, people's fear of seeing their demography and ethnic culture modified as a result of a heavy presence of "Bengalis" was already in place.

The issue again came to the fore when Bangladesh separated from Pakistan in March 1971 and nearly 10 million Muslims fled to India, mostly to Assam, over the next seven months to escape the fighting.

The register appears designed to show little if any mercy: Any person who is unable to prove his or her presence in India before March 24, 1971, will be excluded from the citizens' list.

This rule is part of an accord wrested from the government by the Assam Students Union (AASU) in 1985 after riots that killed 2,000 Muslim refugees.

However, the accord was never implemented.

The Supreme Court was petitioned in 2009 and demanded the accord be properly applied in 2014. It then took many more years for it to be implemented.

BJP sympathizers have lauded their party's "courage" in accomplishing what previous governments had not dared to.

They compare if favorably with the socially liberal Congress Party, which tolerated the inflow of migrants across the porous border with Bangladesh and declined to engage in controversial registration processes, resulting in many guaranteed votes.

Congress suffered in the 2014 election but remains one of the two biggest parties in India after having governed for most of the post-independence period.


Opposition slams brazen 'plot'

The opposition is now accusing the BJP of exploiting communal divisions for its own gain ahead of the general election in 2019.

Maulana Ajmal, a Muslim parliamentarian from Assam, has not hidden his stupefaction. "Four million people excluded is an enormous figure," he said. "Excluding such a considerable number of names from districts where the minority is concentrated could be a plot to reduce the political representation of Muslims."

Congress Party Chairman Rahul Gandhi denounced the creation of "mass insecurity" while Banerjee predicted the latest move could trigger a "bloodbath".

Adding more fuel to the fire, another controversial bill aims to grant nationality to certain groups of foreigners, mainly Hindus, yet excludes Muslims.

According to political analyst Amulya Ganguli, with its will to demonize Muslims, the BJP's objective is to portray itself as a nationalist party fighting against "infiltrators" who are endangering national security.

He said the complex registration procedure could drag on beyond the needs of the BJP, which is using the issue to win over more voters ahead of the poll.

So what do those who are excluded from the register face losing?

They could be deported, detained, and stripped of all their rights, among other scenarios envisaged in the absence of established directives.

Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi had often stated during past campaigns that illegal Muslims would be expelled and in December 2017, Himanta Biswa Sarma, a minister in Assam, said they would be deported.

But sending them to Bangladesh, which does not agree to that scenario, seems improbable.

In a sign of the current disquiet, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sushma Swaraj had to reassure Dhaka earlier in August by repeating that the current register had not been finalized.


Uniformization of culture

Moreover, on July 22 the government authorized the construction of a big detention center for illegal immigrants in the Assam district of Goalpara, without providing any further details.

Some 2,000 undocumented people have already been intercepted and held in six detention centers where the living conditions are so dire the National Human Rights Commission has publicly slammed them.

Coincidentally, the Supreme Court recently asked the authorities to submit reports on the conditions at these facilities by Aug. 24.

Now parties in other northeastern states are demanding a series of protectionist measures be put in place as they are afraid of seeing a flood of people who have been ostracized in Assam pour into their states.

In Meghalaya, a tribal state that shares a 900km border with Assam, the Khasi Students Union (KSU) has taken the law into its own hands and, following the publication of the draft register, erected checkpoints to conduct identity checks on local roads.

"The indigenous communities of Assam have certainly been reduced to minorities as a result of the influx of illegal migrants," said Donald V. Thabah, general secretary of the KSU.

"But now the only state that is going to easily accessible for illegal migrants is Meghalaya," he added.

For these states, the preservation of their identity is an historic issue. Insurrections motivated by ethnic and other conflicts have punctuated the history of the region, which have been subjected to repression by New Delhi for decades.

Now such grievances are targeting India's ruling Hindu nationalists, who stand accused of trying to standardize the region's culture by encouraging more Hindus to migrate there. 

Meanwhile, many human rights advocates have been sounding alarm bells, recalling the tragedy faced by Rohingya Muslims who have been rendered stateless by Myanmar.

This, combined with a military crackdown last August, sparked a mass exodus of an estimated 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh, where most of them still exist in refugee camps amid appalling conditions.

The United Nations has dubbed this one of the worst humanitarian crises the world has seen in decades.

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