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Archbishop seeks clarity on Indian citizenship laws

Bhopal prelate wary of division and unfair treatment of tribal and low-caste people

Archbishop seeks clarity on Indian citizenship laws

A protester waves a placard during a demonstration against India's new citizenship law in New Delhi. (Photo: AFP)

An Indian archbishop has called for more clarity from India’s government over its plans to implement a National Register of Citizens (NRC) and a Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) amid violent protests.

Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal said the laws would divide the country if they were implemented in the same way as the NRC in the northeastern state of Assam, where 1.9 million people have been left stateless.

Home Minister Amit Shah told parliament last month that the NRC will be implemented throughout the country.

“If the NRC is implemented in the country, its worst victims will be scheduled caste and scheduled tribe people,” Archbishop Cornelio told ucanews on Dec. 21, referring to people who make up more than 25 percent of India’s population.

“They will not be in a position to prove their identity and at a stroke millions of these poor people will become stateless.”

The NRC aims to identify illegal immigrants who entered India after March 25, 1971, and deport them to their native countries.

In Assam, those people now declared stateless were unable to provide documents of their ancestors before 1971 as most belong to indigenous and other socially backward groups.

Most indigenous people live in forests and have no documents to prove their ancestry. Dalits are in a similar position and often live on small pieces of rented land.

“Millions of innocent Indians will be adversely affected in this process. We need to be more clear what the government is planning to avoid confusion,” said Archbishop Cornelio.

The prelate said he is not against the government gathering data of citizens but is anxious to avoid a repetition of what happened in Assam.

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Critics say the NRC and CAA are discriminatory laws aimed at targeting Muslims, who make up more than 14 percent of India’s population. Hindus account for 80 percent and the rest include Christians, Sikhs, Jains and Zoroastrians among others.

Indigenous leader Gulzar Singh Markam told ucanews that the government should clear up any doubts before proceeding with the NRC nationwide.

“Indigenous people seldom have such a long family history to satisfy the government,” he said.

“Many still live in forests without any valid legal documents and if an Assam-like situation arises, they will all become foreign citizens.

“Now the government can easily say ‘No issue, they can become citizens’ as there is already the CAA in force. But there is a danger. In this exercise, a tribal will no longer will be a tribal, nor a Dalit a Dalit.”

Supreme Court lawyer Govind Yadav said tribal people and Dalits would lose their original identity and their special protection under the Indian constitution.

He does not agree that the NRC and CAA are specifically targeting Muslims and pointed out that 1.3 million Hindus had recently been made stateless in Assam alongside 600,000 Muslims.

At least 21 people have died in recent protests over the citizenship changes.

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