Guwahati: More than four million people were excluded from a draft list of citizens released on Monday by a census official for India’s northeastern border state of Assam, in a long-running campaign against immigrants, sparking uncertainty about their future.
Activists say the process may lead to deportation of ethnic minorities — mostly Bengali-speaking Muslims — to Bangladesh, although India has no repatriation treaty with its eastern neighbour. Most are from families who fled what’s now Bangladesh during its violent partition from Pakistan in 1971. They settled in Assam, which borders the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to the north and Bangladesh to the south and is home to several rebel groups.
On completion of verification of all applicants, the complete draft is being published. The process has been completely transparent, fair, objective and meticulously carried out. Based on this draft, there is no question of anyone being taken to detention centres or foreigners’ tribunals.”
- Sailesh | Registrar General of India
The resource-rich state is in the grip of social and communal tension as residents campaign against illegal immigrants, a fight backed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government. 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 news briefing in Assam’s capital city of Guwahati. “On completion of verification of all applicants, the complete draft is being published,” the government said in a statement.
Why is the Indian government keen on a new list of citizens?
The legally-binding list is being updated for the first time since 1951 to recognise Indian citizens living in Assam and identify those not legally living in the state. Those who can’t prove that they came to Assam before March 25, 1971 will be deemed illegal migrants.
“The process has been completely transparent, fair, objective and meticulously carried out,” Sailesh, the Registrar General of India, said in a televised press conference in Guwahati. India’s home minister Singh, called the registration process impartial. There was no need to panic, Singh said, adding that those missing from the draft list could resubmit their papers. “Some people are unnecessarily trying to create an atmosphere of fear,” the home minister told parliament. “I want to assure all that there is no need for any apprehension or fear.”
What is the situation after the list was published?
Officials said security had been tightened across the state as thousands of Bengali-speaking Muslims worry about being sent to detention centres or deported. Soldiers stood guard at government offices, where thousands of people queued to check their names on the so-called National Register of Citizens (NRC). The list was uploaded on a government website, but many in remote regions of Assam, who lack internet connectivity, travelled to government booths set up for the exercise to determine their status.
Why has such a situation developed in Assam?
The northeastern state of Assam has been racked by waves of violence over the years as residents, including tribal groups, have clashed with both Hindu and Muslim settlers, whom they accuse of plundering resources and taking away jobs. Scores of people were chased down and killed by machete-armed mobs intent on hounding out Muslim immigrants in 1983.
No genuine Indian citizen will be devoid of their citizenship rights. I also urge people not to make any communal statements ….”
- Sarbananda Sonowal | Assam Chief Minister
According to the new list published yesterday, about 29 million people have been found eligible for inclusion in the citizenship document from around 33 million applicants. “No genuine Indian citizen will be devoid of their citizenship rights,” Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, said in a tweet. “I also urge people not to make any communal statements and remain watchful against falling prey to rumours.”
What is the new criteria for citizens?
To be recognised as citizens, all residents of Assam had to produce documents proving that they or their families lived in India before March 24, 1971. The government said those missing from the list would have a chance to resubmit documents between August 30 and September 28, and had the option to appeal at the foreigners’ tribunal.
“Although we have been told that we can apply once again to get our names enlisted in the citizenship list, we are worried about our future,” said Nur Banu, a 45-year-old woman from the Darrang district, whose family of six was missing from the list. The first draft, released on December 31 last year, confirmed 19 million people were citizens. But the NRC told India’s top court this month that it would drop 150,000 people from that list — a third of them married women — mainly because they had provided false information or inadmissible documents.
They are trying to isolate Muslims, the number that has come out is high and it is surprising. We are going to fight it out.”
- Ripun Bora | Assam state chief of Congress party
What are critics saying about the new list of citizens?
Critics see the citizenship test as a measure supported by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) aimed at driving out minority Muslims. “They are trying to isolate Muslims, the number that has come out is high and it is surprising,” said Ripun Bora, the state chief of the opposition Congress party that has espoused the cause of minorities.
India has no repatriation treaty with Bangladesh. These people will become stateless - their future remains hanging. The BJP has no ambivalence at all, they want to keep the Bengali Hindus and exclude the Muslims.”
- Nanigopal Mahanta | Head of political science department at Gauhati University in Assam
“We are going to fight it out.” India has no repatriation treaty with Bangladesh, said Nanigopal Mahanta, head of the political science department at Gauhati University, noting the message from the ruling BJP was clear. “These people will become stateless — their future remains hanging,” Mahanta said. “The BJP has no ambivalence at all, they want to keep the Bengali Hindus and exclude the Muslims.”
Some people are unnecessarily trying to create an atmosphere of fear. I want to assure all that there is no need for any apprehension or fear.”
- Rajnath Singh | Federal Home Minister
What happens to those whose names are not there on the list?
Indian Home Minister Singh said those excluded will be given chance to make claims and objections. “This is a very sensitive issue and it should not be politicised,” he said. Sailesh, the registrar general of India, gave no break-up of those who had failed to make the draft list, but added: “Based on this draft, there is no question of anyone being taken to detention centres or foreigners’ tribunals.
Villagers arrive by boat to check their names in the final draft of NRC at a centre at Goroimari in Kamrup district. PTI
”But many people whose names were not on the list were worried. Four family members did not figure on the list, said Habibur Rahman, in the district of Sonitpur, about 200km east of Guwahati. “I had submitted all requisite documents,” he said. “I am surprised why the names of our family members were not there.”