Two million, mostly Muslims, face statelessness as India publishes controversial citizenship list

Updated August 31, 2019

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A total of 31.1 million people were included in a National Register of Citizens, but 1.9 million were deemed ineligible. — AFP/File
A total of 31.1 million people were included in a National Register of Citizens, but 1.9 million were deemed ineligible. — AFP/File

Almost two million people in northeast India were left facing statelessness on Saturday after the state of Assam published a citizenship list aimed at weeding out “foreign infiltrators”, in a process the central government wants to replicate nationwide.

A total of 31.1 million people were included in a National Register of Citizens (NRC), but 1.9 million were deemed ineligible, according to the Assam government. A large chunk of those excluded were expected to be Muslims.

Assam has long seen large influxes from elsewhere, including under British colonial rule and around Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence, when millions fled into India.

For decades this has made Assam a hotbed of inter-religious and ethnic tensions, adding to pressure for a lasting solution. Sporadic violence has included the 1983 massacre of around 2,000 people.

Security was beefed up in Assam ahead of the release of the NRC, with some 20,000 extra personnel brought in and gatherings banned in some locations.

Only those who can demonstrate that they or their forebears were in India before 1971 could be included in the list.

But navigating the complex process is a huge challenge for many in a region of high illiteracy where many lack documentation.

'Termites'

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party runs Assam — and critics say the NRC process reflects the BJP's goal to serve only its co-religionists.

In January, India's lower house passed legislation that grants citizenship to people who moved to India from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan as recently as six years ago — as long as they are not Muslims.

This has stoked fears among India's 170-million Muslim minority for their future.

Home Minister Amit Shah, Modi's right-hand-man, has called for the ejection of “termites” and said before the BJP's thumping re-election victory in May that it would “run a countrywide campaign to send back the infiltrators”.

On August 5, New Delhi suspended the autonomy of Indian-occupied Kashmir. The Muslim-majority region is currently in its fourth week of a near-total communications blackout.

Those left off the NRC have 120 days to appeal at special Foreigners Tribunals, which the government says are being expanded in number.

But activists say that tribunal members are often under-qualified and are subject to “performance” targets, and that the process has been riddled with inconsistencies and errors.

The number of mistakes and the fact that those left off the NRC were expected to include large numbers of Bengali-speaking Hindus has also turned some in the BJP against the process.

“We have lost hope in the present form of the NRC,” Himanta Biswa Sarma, a local BJP minister, said Friday. The party was already mulling a “fresh strategy on how we can drive out the illegal migrants”.

Camps and suicides

Those who have been rejected by the tribunals and have exhausted all other legal avenues can be declared foreigners and — in theory — be placed in one of six detention centres with a view to possible deportation, although Bangladesh is yet to signal its cooperation.

Ten new such camps have been announced. One with space for 3,000 is being constructed in Goalpara, west of Assam's biggest city, Guwahati.

The camps currently hold 1,135 people, according to the state government, and have been operating for years.

Nur Mohammad, 65, spent almost 10 years in one such camp until a Supreme Court order saw him released this month.

“I was born here and lived in Assam all my life,” he told AFP this week. “I don't know if my name will be in the NRC or not.” Media reports say that there have been more than 40 suicides caused by concern over the NRC.

Samujjal Bhattacharya from the All Assam Students' Union (AASU), a key driver behind the NRC, said the register was necessary to protect Assam's indigenous “sons of the soil”.

“We are not ready to live here like a second-class citizens in our own motherland,” he told AFP.

PM Imran tweets about the issue

Prime Minister Imran Khan has also voiced his concern on the matter, saying, "Reports in Indian and international media on Modi government's ethnic cleansing of Muslims should send alarm bells ringing across the world that the illegal annexation of Kashmir is part of a wider policy to target Muslims."

The tweet accompanied a link to a news piece discussing India's measure of issuing a list of people who have been deemed citizens of Assam.