4 million in Assam risk losing Indian citizenship

Their exclusion from draft register sparks insecurity and fears of mass deportation

Bhartiya Janata Party activists shouting slogans last Thursday during a rally in Kolkata in support of the publication of the first complete draft of the National Register of Citizens, and against what they say was illegal immigration from Bangladesh
Bhartiya Janata Party activists shouting slogans last Thursday during a rally in Kolkata in support of the publication of the first complete draft of the National Register of Citizens, and against what they say was illegal immigration from Bangladesh.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Two sitting members of the Assam state legislative assembly, a retired army officer and the nephew of former Indian president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed share a common worry.

They are among more than four million individuals who may lose their Indian citizenship after their names were excluded from a draft list of a national database of citizens in the eastern state of Assam.

Another notable missing name is that of Assam's former chief minister Syeda Anwara Taimur, the only woman who had served in that position in Assam and the first Muslim woman to become chief minister in India.

The release of this second draft list last Monday - following that of the first on Jan 1 - brings the number of applicants found eligible for inclusion in the National Register for Citizens (NRC) in Assam to 28.9 million. The authorities had received applications from the state's 32.9 million residents.

Those left out can apply again for inclusion from Aug 30 to Sept 28, ahead of the NRC's finalisation in December. If left out from the final register, individuals can seek legal recourse.

It is still not clear, though, what will happen to those who may have their citizenship finally withdrawn.

The exercise has prompted growing insecurity among individuals, many of them poor daily-wage labourers, who say they do not have the necessary documents dating back more than four decades to prove their citizenship.

Admissible documents are electoral rolls, land and tenancy records, refugee registration certificates, government service certificates and birth certificates, among others.

The media in Assam has reported a rising number of suicides in recent months - at least seven, according to one such report - that have been linked to trauma arising from the possibility of being declared stateless, and of mass deportation.

The NRC has also been criticised for its tawdry execution as it leaves out many bona fide citizens who claim they have submitted the necessary documents.

This mammoth initiative began in May 2015 under a Congress-led state government and has been monitored by the Supreme Court. It seeks to update the NRC of 1951 with names of those persons or their descendants who appear in the state's electoral rolls, or in any one of the other admissible documents issued up to March 24, 1971.

It is the fallout of an agreement, known as the Assam Accord, signed between groups protesting against illegal migrants and the Congress-led federal government in 1985. It deems anyone who entered the state after March 24,1971 as an illegal resident and vows to deport him or her.

Assam shares a long land and riverine border with Bangladesh and many locals resent migrants, both Muslim and Hindu, from the country. They cite pressure on limited resources and a threat to their identity from the growing number of Bengali-speaking migrants.

This tension has often resulted in violence, including the killing of more than 2,000 Bengali-speaking Muslims in Nellie in central Assam on Feb 18, 1983.

Bangladesh has already distanced itself from the exercise. Its Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu told India's WION television channel that the exercise is an "internal situation and Bangladesh has nothing to do with it".

Dr Walter Fernandes, the founder director of North-Eastern Social Research Centre, told The Straits Times: "There is no way we can send them back to Bangladesh. It cannot afford to accept them. It has a population density of more than 1,200 per sq km, compared with Assam's figure of less than 500."

The federal government is reportedly considering giving them long-term work permits. There is, however, the fear that those stripped of citizenship could become victims of attacks by vigilante groups.

Meanwhile, political parties have been sparring over this exercise ahead of the general election next year. Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah described the four million as "infiltrators" and claimed credit for the exercise.

"The Congress started the NRC process but lacked the courage to throw out illegal Bangladeshi immigrants because of vote-bank politics. Even now it has sacrificed national security to oppose the NRC," he tweeted.

Criticising the "politicisation" and "communalisation" of the whole exercise, Dr Fernandes said "this has to be stopped right away... We have to get down to the serious business of figuring out what will happen to those who will be declared stateless".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2018, with the headline '4 million in Assam risk losing Indian citizenship'. Subscribe