Religious bias seen in India revising citizenship claims

Bengali Muslims in Assam fear they could be deported to Bangladesh after publication of list
Religious bias seen in India revising citizenship claims

Registrar General Shri Sailesh (right) and National Register of Citizens state coordinator Prateek Hajela talk to media in Guwahati on July 30 about a draft citizenship list that has sparked fears of deportation of largely Bengali-speaking Muslims. (Photo by Biju Boro/AFP)

Religious bias is suspected in an Indian government move that could result in millions of people who migrated from Bangladesh five decades ago losing their citizenship rights.

India's National Register of Citizens (NCR) on July 30 published a list accepting as Indian citizens those who migrated from neighboring Bangladesh before March 25, 1971, a day before the Muslim nation declared independence.

The list prepared for people living in Assam state bordering Bangladesh left at least four million people uncounted, making them stateless.

"The issue is of international importance as it affects relations with neighboring countries including Bangladesh," senior politician and opposition Congress leader Anand Sharma told media in Delhi hours after the list was published.

Many Bengali Muslims are worried they will be deported en masse. The list has created tension in Assam, which is notorious for its Hindu-Muslim riots and a linguistic battle between native Assamese and outsiders, mostly Bengalis.

Sharma questioned the methodology used for preparing the list. "It raises question marks on the credibility of the process," he said.

Of more than 32 million people in Assam who submitted documents to prove their citizenship, the names of over four million were missing from the published list. Many people in the districts of Karimganj, Silchar and Dhubri say they came well before 1971 but could be deprived of Indian citizenship and face deportation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist-led government and his Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules the state, have backed moves to get rid of foreigners, meaning mostly Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh.

As opposition to the list increased, officials claimed what was published was only a draft and the final list was not ready yet.

"I want to emphatically say that this is only a draft and not the final NRC," Home Minister Rajnath Singh told parliament after the issue was raised by Rahul Gandhi's Congress party and the regional Trinamool Congress.

"Everyone will have the full opportunity to file claims or objections as per provision in law."

Singh said the final list will be published only after the disposal of claims and objections. "This is a very sensitive matter and I would urge members not to create a panic situation," he said.

The influential All Assam Students' Union, which has been spearheading the campaign against illegal migrants, expressed satisfaction over publication of the list.

Asom Gana Parishad party president and former Assam chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta said the list's publication meant part of the Assam Accord had been realized.

"No political party should claim credit for it. It is just because of the bold steps by the Supreme Court that the NRC — which is the first such document on genuine Indian citizens in Assam to be published since 1951 — is soon going to see the light of the day," he said.

The issue of migration from Bangladesh has its origin in 1971 when Bangladesh declared freedom from Pakistan, ending its existence as East Pakistan. It forced millions of people to flee to neighboring India.

After years of intense agitation, the Assam Accord of 1985 was signed by Rajiv Gandhi's government in Delhi and Assam student leaders. It agreed that the names of those who came to Assam after March 24, 1971, would be deleted from electoral rolls and expelled.

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