Uncertain future for Assam Muslims in BJP's India

Nearly two million non-Hindus face jail or deportation if they can't prove citizenship
Uncertain future for Assam Muslims in BJP's India

People line up to seek the help of a computer operator in Morigaon, Assam, on Aug. 31 to see if their names are in the National Register of Citizens. (IANS photo)

ucanews.com reporter, New Delhi
September 9, 2019

Anxiety has gripped Assam after the federal government declared nearly 2 million people in this northeastern state illegal immigrants.

The pro-Hindu Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government published on Aug. 31 the final version of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and it omitted 1.9 million people currently living in Assam.

Those excluded from the list are considered illegal immigrants who have infiltrated from Bangladesh; they have been given four months to prove their Indian nationality. If they cannot they face being jailed or deported to Bangladesh.

The neighboring Muslim-majority country, already battling the Rohingya influx, will not be “in no mood to take” people from India, says civil rights activist Ajaz-ur-Rahman, so the problem will therefore remain India’s.

“That means close to 2 million people will live in detention centers as stateless people, deprived of basic rights, including access to education, health care and legal employment,” he predicts.

The move is rooted in a longstanding demand by BJP and associated Hindu-sympathetic groups that India should deport “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh. They often perceive such people to be Muslims, who alter the “demographic and cultural stability” of the Hindu majority state.

Pro-Hindu Policy in Action

The BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has long been supportive of Assam updating the 1951 National Register of Citizens (NRC) – the only state in India to do so. His stance has worried non-Hindus ever since he came to power in 2014.

Only those people — or their ancestors — who were registered in certain specific government documents issued up to midnight of March 24, 1971 and living in Assam can be counted as Indian citizens in the state.

The cut-off date has links with 1971 India-Pakistan war, which ended in the liberation of East Pakistan and formation of Bangladesh in March 26, 1971. India wants to jail or deport all those came to after Bangladesh was formed.

Abdul Bariq, a 52-year-old schoolteacher, is missing from the final list, so he faces a tough task to prove his Indian nationality, despite the fact he has documents proving he is living legally in Assam.

One must not only submit proof of identity but must establish a link with an ancestor who entered the country before the 1971 cut-off date.

“This entails elaborating a family tree and requires foolproof documentation, which most people do not have,” Bariq said.

The draft list published on July 30, 2018 left out more than 4 million people.

The state has some 31 million people, 61 percent of them Hindus and 34 percent Muslims, who therefore make up more than double the national average of 14 percent.

A Muslim woman arrives to check her name on the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Morigaon district of Assam on Aug. 31. (Photo by David Talukdar/AFP)

Game of Religion

Religious leaders and certain rights activists are terming the exclusion as a BJP attempt to consolidate its Hindu vote and push out Muslims, who traditionally vote against the party.

Bariq is one of many who feel the entire process has been bungled. For example, the name of his parents, his wife and two children figure in the list, while his was missing.

“This is why I call it a sham process. It is an attempt to harass the people and expose them to unthinkable hardships,” Barqi told ucanews.com.

He says he submitted all the required documents and “it was ironic to find the name of my parents in the list while mine is missing.”

Rights activist Inam-ul-Rahman says the situation has left thousands of poverty-stricken people stateless. 

“By not producing documents, your existence is declared null and void — you cease to be an Indian and will be asked to go to Bangladesh. That country has no responsibility to take you and you finally land in a detention center,” he says.

Ishfaq-ul-Hassan, a civil society activist based in New Delhi, says it is only Muslims who lose out in this.

The government taking steps to allow itself to give shelter to non-Muslims by amending the citizenship law, empowering it to provide citizenship to “illegal migrants,” which actually means Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain or Christian communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The amendment was passed in the lower house of parliament in January but is still awaits its passage in the upper house.

Hassan said under the law Hindus not in the list of registered citizens would be taken care of but Muslims would be jailed.

“These are the tactics BJP employs for political gains,” says Hassan. “The abolition of special status in India’s only Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, plus the anti-Muslim rhetoric, will only help BJP win more Hindu votes in the coming future.”

In this photo taken on Aug. 28 workers at the National Register of Citizens (NRC) office check documents submitted by people for the NRC ahead of the release of the register's final draft. (Photo by Biju Boro/AFP)

End of the Road?

For many Muslims the exclusion from the list “is the end of the road,” says Zamshar Ali, who works with non-profit Citizens of Justice and Peace that provides legal help to excluded people.

“This will give rise to the epidemic of suicides in Assam,” he warns.

At least 57 people have committed suicide in the state, explicitly connecting their desperation to the process that began in 2016, Ali said.

“The majority of the people being excluded are the poorest and the weakest. They earn meager wages and have no means to fight for their cases legally,” he added. “I fear that they could end up killing themselves and their children to avoid further humiliation.”

Ali cited the case of 70-year-old Nirode Das, a teacher who hanged himself after he received an NRC notice marking him as a foreigner last year. He pinned the notice to his suicide note.

Balijan Bibi, a 43-year-old women, also hanged herself in 2016 after a Foreigners’ Tribunal, a quasi-judicial body that makes citizenship judgments, declared her husband a foreigner and sent him to a detention center.

The past few years have been a period “of severe hardships, both physical and emotional” for thousands of people to prove their citizenship in a country they were born and considered as their own, Ali said.

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