India strips millions of Bengali-speaking Muslims of citizenship in Assam

Published 30.07.2018 00:00
Updated 31.07.2018 20:23
Abdul Suban, a farmer, and his wife pose for a photograph outside their home in Nellie village, in Morigaon district, in the northeastern state of Assam, India July 25, 2018. Reuters Photo
Abdul Suban, a farmer, and his wife pose for a photograph outside their home in Nellie village, in Morigaon district, in the northeastern state of Assam, India July 25, 2018. (Reuters Photo)

Similar to the Rohingya in Myanmar, hundreds of thousands of Muslims living in the state of Assam are facing the risk of becoming stateless following the Indian government’s new citizenship policy

The Indian government excluded more than 4 million people from a draft list of citizens in the border state of Assam, mostly Bengali-speaking Muslims who could not produce valid documents. The move created fear among Muslims whose fundamental rights as Indian citizens are under risk they believe.

The state's National Register of Citizens (NRC) was updated yesterday for the first time since 1951 to account for illegal immigration from neighboring Bangladesh. The application process for inclusion in India's national register started in 2015. Of more than 32 million people who submitted documents to prove their citizenship, the names of 4,007,707 were missing, Sailesh, India's registrar general and census commissioner, told a televised news briefing in Assam's main city of Guwahati.

Rights groups and activists say the drive targets Muslims who are Indian citizens, a charge the government denies. They have also criticized the government's move, saying the deletion of people from citizenship rolls was similar to Myanmar's removal of rights and protections for its Rohingya community in 1982.

The government said those missing from the list would have a chance to resubmit documents between Aug. 30 and Sept. 28, and had the option to appeal at the foreigners' tribunal. However, many have been facing severe problems.

The targeted people are mostly illiterate, poor and unaware of what is happening regarding citizenship, according to the Students Islamic Organization of India (SIO-India). Anti-Muslim bias among border police and authorities leads to fatal results for Muslims who are trying to prove their Indian citizenship with documents.

Shamsul Haq and Zesmina Beegam are among hundreds of thousands of Bengali-speaking Muslims who have a "D mark" against their name on the voters list. The couple, categorized as "doubtful voters" three years ago, were sent to a detention camp in Goalpara. Even though they possess the necessary documents to prove their Indian citizenship, they were subjected to an anti-Muslim reaction by the police force in charge of delivering the notice.

Work on the citizens' register has accelerated under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). With an eye on the 2019 national election, the BJP's Hindu-first campaign has become more strident, critics say, playing to its core base with divisive programs such as the citizenship test in Assam, already a tinderbox of ethnic and religious tensions.

Elsewhere in the country's northern heartland, the lynching of Muslim cattle traders has risen under Modi, in a country where many Hindus consider cows to be sacred, further deepening social divides. The BJP has denied the lynching having any connection with it being in power. Modi has at least twice publicly spoken out against cow vigilantes.

To be recognized as Indian citizens, all residents of Assam had to produce documents proving that they or their families lived in the country before March 24, 1971. However, since the Muslim families residing in the Brahmaputra valley are vulnerable to erosions, they are forced to move in order to work and earn a living. This has created problem with their documents, SIO-India said.

The Muslim community in Assam has been subjected to violations as they are considered foreigners by the Assamese community. Citizenship and illegal migration are volatile issues in tea-growing and oil-rich Assam, home to more than 32 million people, about a third of whom are Muslims. In the Nellie massacre in 1983, around 2,000 Muslims were killed in a violent protest by a native Assamese group. Hundreds of thousands of people fled to India from the Muslim-majority Bangladesh after it declared independence from Pakistan in 1971, setting off a nine-month civil war. Most of them settled in Assam and the neighboring state of West Bengal, where there are similar demands to send back illegal Muslim immigrants.

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