(Bloomberg) -- About 1.9 million people risk losing their Indian citizenship as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government pushes its Hindu nationalist agenda to target so-called “illegal migrants” in the northeastern state of Assam.
Authorities published an updated list of so-called “genuine citizens” on Saturday and those not on the register -- millions who’ve resided in Assam for decades -- now fear they’ll be unable to vote in elections, access welfare programs or own property. Instead they could be forced to live in detention camps or be deported to neighboring Bangladesh. In villages across the state residents are in shock and those excluded from the list are at once angry, scared and resentful.
The state’s Bengali-speaking Muslims -- who’ll be most affected by the government’s actions -- fear the process will be used to strip them of Indian citizenship and change the state’s demographics in favor of the Hindu majority. Since a draft of the list was released last year, it has divided families, forced as many as 1,000 people into detention camps and triggered a rash of suicides. There’s also reports of people being left off the list due to clerical errors or declared a foreigner and kept in detention over a mistaken identity.
“My mother has stopped eating since we told that her name has been rejected and she is on the exclusion list,” said Bahadur Rehman, 29, surrounded by worried family members. “It is wrong that now you are declaring her as Bangladeshi even though we have been here for generations.” He said he will appeal to the state’s Foreigners Tribunal and take the case to the Supreme Court to keep his mother, Jayajmun Begum, 51, with him.
Bangladesh has already said it cannot accept a sudden influx of people, while India’s government can’t permanently house those declared foreigners in camps, said Prabhat Patnaik, an economist and emeritus professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
“The move is just pointless -- it’s making people unnecessarily agitated and tense, causing an enormous amount of distress and panic,” said Patnaik. “The exercise is basically meant to terrorize Muslims.”
Now there are concerns the process will be rolled out in other states across India.
Those excluded from the National Register of Citizenship will have to prove their identity as citizens of the world’s most populous democracy. Many citizens already living below the poverty line have had to mortgage agricultural lands, sell their livestock or their only means of income, such as auto-rickshaws, to meet the expenses of attending the tribunal hearings, the New Delhi-based Rights & Risks Analysis Group said this week.
In the state’s Nalbari district, Jaiful Begum discovered she had been left off the citizenship register, while all her other family members were included. “We are Indians, where we will go?” the 42-year-old said. “How can I not be Indian, when my parents and husband are declared Indian?” she said.
About 31 million people were found eligible in the final citizenship list released on Saturday, according to a statement from home ministry. “Any person who is not satisfied with the outcome of the claims and objections can file appeal before the Foreigners Tribunals,” it said. “The entire process of NRC update has been meticulously carried out in an objective and transparent manner.”
Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was “using communal politics by targeting Muslims and taking political advantage by dividing communities,” said Ainuddin Ahmed, working president of the All Assam Minority Students’ Union by phone on Friday.
The Supreme Court-monitored exercise is aimed at determining who was born in the state of Assam and who might be a migrant from Muslim-majority Bangladesh or other neighboring regions. It counts as Indian citizens those who can prove they were residents of Assam up to midnight on March 24, 1971 -- a day before Bangladesh declared its independence from Pakistan, leading to a war that killed hundreds of thousands.
During those violent months, many families fled across the border into India to live in Assam.
Five decades later, their fate is again uncertain. Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told a local television channel on July 13 the country was already home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees. “We can’t take anymore. Bangladesh is the most densely populated country on the planet.”
Illegal migration has been a source of ethnic conflict and political unrest in the tea-producing state for decades.
The stripping of statehood from minorities is part of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist program that propelled Modi into a second term in government in May with an even greater mandate. Amit Shah, the president of the BJP and now home minister told a rally in September his government would remove every “infiltrator” from the voters’ list. “The infiltrators have eaten the country like termites.”
Politicians from Modi’s party want to replicate the citizenship register nationwide -- it was a key plank in its election manifesto -- which could lead to a surge in sectarian violence at a time when India’s economy is slowing and investor confidence is weak.
The government has separately tried to push controversial legislation that seeks to provide citizenship to so-called illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who are of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian heritage. Modi’s political opponents say it’s a move to shelter non-Muslim refugees and further push its Hindu nationalist ideology.
The developments in Assam have drawn comparisons to other countries who’ve acted against citizens or long-term migrant populations, such as U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy on the so-called “dreamers” brought to America illegally as children and the military attacks that led to more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee Myanmar for Bangladesh in 2017.
The move is the second major government policy this month involving Muslims, after Modi scrapped seven decades of autonomy in Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan.
Fearing a backlash, the federal government and the BJP-run state government in Assam have assured people that those left off the list won’t face detention immediately and can appeal the decision.
Human rights bodies have criticized the NRC exercise, with the United Nations warning it could lead to the “wrongful exclusion” of two million names “without a prior investigation and trial.”
It “must not become a means to target and render stateless the Muslim community in northeastern India,” said Anurima Bhargava of the U.S Commission on International Religious Freedom, in a statement on Aug. 27. “Proposed policies that suggest that Muslims – and Muslims alone – will face a higher burden for verification, along with worrisome rhetoric, create a negative and potentially dangerous climate for the Muslim community in northeastern India.”
(Updates with comments from affected residents in eight paragraph.)
--With assistance from Anurag Kotoky and Kartik Goyal.
To contact the reporter on this story: Bibhudatta Pradhan in New Delhi at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ruth Pollard at email@example.com, Shamim Adam
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