Millions in Assam face being made 'stateless'

Villagers in India's Assam checking their documents earlier this month at a National Register of Citizens help centre for those whose names were not in the final draft of the register. Those not on the list could now face being stripped of their Indi
Villagers in India's Assam checking their documents earlier this month at a National Register of Citizens help centre for those whose names were not in the final draft of the register. Those not on the list could now face being stripped of their Indian citizenship and rights.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

KARAIBIL (Assam) • Indian farmer Nur Mohammed can barely sleep for worrying that his wife might soon be made stateless, put in a detention camp and deported.

She is one of four million people left off a draft National Register of Citizens published in July in the north-eastern state of Assam - provoking accusations of discrimination against Muslim residents and of stoking ethnic tensions.

Those not on the list, who could now face being effectively stripped of their Indian citizenship and rights, can challenge their omission by providing certain documents to prove they are legal residents - but many lack the necessary paperwork, and the Dec 31 deadline is looming.

"We are genuine Indian citizens," said Mr Mohammed, 66, his voice low and quivering. "While my name, the names of my two sons and daughter appeared in the list, the name of my wife is not there," he told Agence France-Presse.

The draft list excludes all those unable to prove they were in the state before 1971, when millions fled Bangladesh's war of independence and sought refuge in Assam and elsewhere. Those born in Assam after 1971 have to prove that their parents or grandparents entered India before that.

But getting hold of documents in a state where many are illiterate and lack even basic papers is a challenge.

Less than two weeks before the deadline, only around 1.5 million people left off the draft list have submitted claims to be included, the Assam government says.

 
 
 

Mr Mohammed's wife Yarjan Nesa submitted a certificate issued by the head of her village in the rural district of Kamrup to establish her link with her mother, but it was rejected.

Assam has seen many major influxes in India's turbulent history, beginning when the British colonial rulers brought in Bengalis to work on tea plantations. Immigration continued after independence in 1947, and today Bengali speakers make up around 30 per cent of Assam's 31 million people.

Tensions in the ethnic and religious melting pot have at times boiled over into violence - 2,000 Bengalis were butchered in one day in 1983 - and have increased pressure for a lasting political solution.

Critics say the process is being used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party - which runs Assam - to stoke anti-Muslim feelings ahead of elections next year.

Some two-thirds of the Bengalis are Muslim, the rest Hindu.

Assamese speakers, the largest community, are mostly Hindu.

Mr Amit Shah, Mr Modi's right-hand man, has said India must act against "infiltrators who were eating the country like termites".

Bangladesh has said it will not accept any deportees, and Mr Modi has reportedly told Dhaka this is not on the cards. Becoming effectively stateless could make normal life - accessing healthcare or education - much tougher.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2018, with the headline 'Millions in Assam face being made 'stateless''. Print Edition | Subscribe