NEW DELHI: More than four million people left off a draft list of citizens in northeast India yesterday have effectively been made stateless, campaigners said, likening them to the Rohingya minority driven out of Myanmar. Fear gripped the border state of Assam as India’s census chief released the list of citizens in the state, which excluded those unable to prove they or their parents arrived before March 1971 when neighboring Bangladesh was created.
Assam lies on the border with Muslim-majority Bangladesh and 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 government. “Millions have now been rendered stateless,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “There are grave reasons for concern that those without proper documentation will be targeted,” she said, warning that “India should not become another Myanmar or United States”.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority, were driven out of Myanmar last year and are now in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Security was beefed up across Assam as thousands of Muslims left off the registry worried about being sent to detention centers or deported. Critics see the citizenship test as a means to target Assam’s Muslim minority, a charge Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) denies.
Campaign group Avaaz said it “bears stark parallels with Myanmar’s removal of Rohingya rights and protections”. “The international community is fighting to stop a process that is alarmingly on track to potentially render millions of people stateless, and vulnerable to indefinite detention, violence or worse,” said Ricken Patel, Avaaz executive director.
Hundreds of thousands of people fled to India from Bangladesh during its war of independence from Pakistan in the early 1970s. Most of them settled in Assam. The tea-rich state of 33 million people has been racked by waves of violence for decades as residents, including indigenous tribes, have clashed with both Hindu and Muslim settlers, whom they accuse of plundering resources and taking away jobs. About 2,000 suspected migrants were butchered in a single day in Nellie in 1983. Nearly all were Muslim, and many were children.
The government said the draft was not meant to drive people out and those not on the list would be able to reapply in a process overseen by India’s Supreme Court. “There is no question of any coercive action against anyone,” said Home Minister Rajnath Singh. But Asmita Basu, programs director at Amnesty International India, said the government had failed to make clear what would happen to those rendered stateless. She urged it to extend the time for appeals beyond the deadline of Sept 28, provide legal aid, and ensure families were not torn apart in the process. “India does not even have an agreement with other countries, particularly Bangladesh, on deportation,” she said. “It is crucial that the government make public their plan for dealing with those at risk of being rendered stateless and ensure that their rights are not violated.”
The Assam government has brought in 25,000 extra security force members from outside the state in case of trouble. News of the draft register sparked opposition protests in the national parliament, forcing the adjournment of upper-chamber hearings for the day. Just over four million of the more than 30 million people who applied to be on the list were excluded from the draft, said Shailesh, the registrar general of India, who uses one name. “No genuine Indian citizens need to worry as there will be ample opportunities given to them to enlist their names in the final list,” he told a news conference in Assam’s biggest city Guwahati.
He said appeals could be made under “well-laid-down procedures” starting Aug 30. The definitive list is to be finalized in December. “We are going to provide assistance to anyone whose names are not included in the document and whoever wishes to file a claim and objection in this regard,” Shailesh added. BJP won control of Assam in 2016 after promising to expel illegal immigrants from mainly Muslim Bangladesh and protect the rights of indigenous groups. Assam, where one third of the population is Muslim, is the only Indian state to compile a register of citizens.
“I am feeling good after seeing the name of mine and other four members of my family in the draft list,” Abdul Gani, a journalist based in Guwahati, told AFP. “We were a little worried as the first draft did not include our names. However, we had belief in the system.” Satyendra Garg, a home ministry official who was at the Guwahati press conference, said there “was no question of sending anyone to detention camps based on the draft list”. The Assam controversy comes as the government looks at amending the citizenship law to allow certain “persecuted minorities”, including Hindus and Christians from neighboring countries, to obtain legal status after six years of residency in India. Other groups must wait 11 years to become naturalized citizens. – Agencies