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India’s Hindu nationalist Government to make 2 million Muslims stateless

27th Sep 2019
India’s Hindu nationalist Government to make 2 million Muslims stateless

People queue to check their names on the draft list of the National Register of Citizens outside a centre in Rupohi village in Assam on August 31
(Photo: Reuters/PA Images/Anuwar Hazarika)

Sajeda Haider

Nearly two million people, mostly Muslims, in the northeastern state of Assam in India have been declared stateless in their own country thanks to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) released by the Indian Government.

Citizenship applicants have less than four months to appeal in a very long-drawn, ill-equipped and biased system. If they lose the appeal, they face detention and deportation.

As they are self-proclaimed Indians and no country is willing to accept them as its citizens, the big question is, where will India deport these stateless people? The ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi calls them all ‘illegal immigrants’ from Bangladesh and would like to push them across the border. However, Dhaka refuses to accept that they are Bangladeshis, and more importantly, cannot cope with another two million refugees having just harboured 700,000 Rohingya Muslims escaping genocide in Myanmar.

Much like the Rohingya crises, the origins of the Assamese problem dates back to the 19th Century colonial-British rule over the entire subcontinent. The British moved peoples across to places where they needed them. Then suddenly at the time of granting independence, they partitioned lands with blatant disregard for how the newly drawn borders will affect the indigenous population.

East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, was created as a country within India in 1947, surrounded by the Indian state of West Bengal on its western border and the states of Assam, Mizoram, Meghalya and Tripura on its eastern side. As the two countries were being born many families, including Hindus and Muslims, who did not want to be part of a Pakistan but wanted to be a part of a secular India, rushed to states like Assam. The native Assamese increasingly resented the newcomers as they felt they were taking up all the economic and employment opportunities.

In 1971 East Pakistan was engulfed in a bloody independence war with Pakistan and finally with the help of India became an independent country that is now Bangladesh. During the war millions, both Hindus and Muslims fled into India and many of them remained in Assam.

Ethnic Assamese felt even more threatened, and the simmering tensions boiled over in the slaughter of more than 2,000 Bengali Muslims (the unofficial figure runs to around 10,000) in what became known as the infamous Nellie massacre of 1983. Two years later, the Indian Government signed a peace accord with the Assamese rebels in which they promised to create a method to identify people who came into Assam after 24 March 1971 and who, along with their descendants, would not be considered citizens of India.

However, this was an impossible exercise, and while plans were devised for a citizenship list no government, state or central body had tried to take on the humongous task, until the rise of the BJP. For the Hindu nationalist party, it became an easy tool for dividing the population along sectarian lines and winning Assamese votes.

During the 2014 election trail in Assam, while Modi was still Chief Minister of Gujarat, he promised to oust all “ghuspethiyos” (intruders or infiltrators) from the country. For the BJP only Muslims are infiltrators, the Hindus who have come into India from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Afghanistan, etc., are considered to be refugees.

Once the BJP came to power both in Delhi and in Assam, the state government finally published a draft of the NRC in 2018, and four million people discovered they were not on the list, including some high-profile Hindus of Bengali origin. After a huge public outcry and months of appeals, half of those excluded from the first list managed to get themselves on to the register. At the beginning of September this year, the final draft of the NRC was published which still excluded 1.9 million names – mostly of Bengali Muslims.

(Photos for The Muslim News)

There are some 100 Foreigner Tribunals already set up in Assam to deal with the appeals by those who have been excluded from the list and the state government has decided to set up another 200 more Tribunals. However, it is an impossible task for these 300 courts to register and try the 1.9 million cases within the 120 days fixed for appeal.

“The Foreigners Tribunals are not at all well-equipped and don’t have the necessary infrastructure. Also, the members are mostly found to be incompetent. Besides, these courts are often criticised for being prejudiced and biased against Muslims,” said Imtiaz Rahman, an advocate.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, agrees and says they have noticed that Foreigner Tribunals are more lenient on Hindus who are appealing their citizenship ruling than Muslims. “As human rights experts, we are right now saying that this process has been arbitrary and discriminatory,” said Ganguly. Some Muslims have already committed suicide because of the anxiety they feel over the NRC.

Experts argue that many rightful citizens have been excluded from the NRC simply because they don’t have the documents to prove their status. Birth dates are a matter of guesswork in much of rural India and even among the urban poor and birth certificates are generally not made by them. Decades-old paperwork is hard to come by because often the poor lose these in floods and other natural calamities that befell their homes.

But for the ruling BJP none of these humane issues matter. The NRC is yet another stick to beat Muslims with and a gimmick to catch votes and win elections. Amit Shah, Indian Home Minister, in one of his hate speeches during the last elections, said: “These infiltrators are eating away at our country like termites. The NRC is our means of removing them.”

He has promised to extend the NRC to the whole country that would mean that 200 million Indian Muslims could be rendered stateless if he has his way.

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