Mass statelessness looms for Hindu and Muslim Bengali speakers after harrowing, often fatal, test for citizenship
Special provision to save only Hindus is an option, but it faces resistance in a region where identity is more cultural than religious
Assam is updating the 1951 National Register of Citizens (NRC) – the only province in India to do so – to separate Indian citizens from undocumented immigrants, mostly from what is now Bangladesh and was once part of Pakistan, and, before that, undivided British India.
The first complete NRC draft, published on July 30 last year, left out over 4 million people. Another 100,000 people were removed in June. The biggest province in India’s mountainous northeast, Assam’s population is estimated at 35 million.
The final NRC list is being compiled after cross-examinations of the 3.1 million who appealed against their exclusion. How many names will finally be left out is anybody’s guess, but if the two earlier lists are any indication, there are at least hundreds of thousands of people who stand to be declared stateless in a country they know to be their own.
The closest regional parallel to such large-scale statelessness in recent times was the 1982 mass disenfranchisement of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, before their massacre years later that started the exodus exactly two years ago.
Some fear widespread violence and protests when the list comes out next week. Zamsher Ali, a team leader at non-profit Citizens of Justice and Peace, says activists like him are working on the ground to convince potential victims to take the legal route in challenging the decision rather than give in to desperation. His organization – and many others – in preparing volunteers with legal and paralegal training.
“More than violence, I fear a spike in the number of suicides. The people who will be excluded are the poorest and the weakest, with little means to either sustain a legal challenge or mount political protests. After being put through untold misery to prove their citizenship, many of them will see it as the end of the road,” Ali says.
Suicide culture Prevails in Assam ………
According to data from Citizens of Justice and Peace, the NRC exercise has so far driven 57 people to suicide.
Born in Assam, Nirode Baran Das, 70, who had taken to practicing law after retiring as a teacher, hanged himself after he received an NRC notice marking him as a foreigner. He pinned the notice to his suicide note.
Himat Ali, 50, hanged himself in June, anxious about his wife’s name being absent from the NRC draft list. In 2016, Balijan Bibi, 43, did the same after a Foreigners’ Tribunal, a quasi-judicial body that makes citizenship judgments, declared her husband a foreigner and sent him to a detention center.
The stress and shame over losing citizenship, and the fear of being incarcerated, have also taken lives. Gauranga Roy died of a heart attack when he learned he was not on the list. So too did Mujibar Rahman, on his way back from an NRC office, where he went to find out why his wife’s name had been struck off.
What will happen Next in Assam……!!!
The government this week said those who found themselves excluded from the final NRC list would get four months to appeal to the tribunals and higher courts, during which time they would be able to keep their citizenship. There is no official word on what happens should their appeals be overturned.
Not Just Government but Assamese are also accountable to Nativist vigilante mobs……
“This is what will happen if you don’t have an NRC certificate: every time police, or even nativist vigilante mobs, demand to see your NRC certificate and you can’t produce it, you are basically at their mercy,” says Jnanendu Bikash Roy Talukdar, a Bengali-speaking native of Assam who manufactures stonecutting machines in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan. “Anything can happen, from extortion to assaults and worse. You become vulnerable from the day you are out of the NRC.”
A Second Class Citizens………???
Those who will lose citizenship are eventually liable to be incarcerated and deported, though Bangladesh has expressed no interest in taking them. That means India has to build a lot of detention centers, and quickly, or millions of people will be forced to live as second-class Indian citizens with limited rights and unlimited vulnerability.
“Stateless persons risk being deprived of access to basic rights and services that are often linked to nationality status, including access to education, health care, and legal employment, the ability to buy or sell property, open bank accounts, or even get married. Statelessness can also lead to restrictions on freedom of movement and result in prolonged and arbitrary detention, as well as deportation,” UNHCR spokeswoman Liz Throssell tells This Week in Asia.”
Amit Shah, the Home Minister and Modi’s closest aide, refers to illegal migrants from Bangladesh as “termites” eating the country’s resources.
Assam is Just a Test case ……more to come !!!!
As the BJP does not view Hindus from Bangladesh as illegal immigrants but as refugees, “Bangladeshi” has become shorthand for Muslim migrants in India. The BJP’s consistent position has been that while non-Muslims can seek asylum in India, claiming persecution in their Muslim home countries, there are no grounds for Muslim refugees from these countries to come to India. If they do, they are merely economic migrants or, worse, “infiltrators” who the government has every right to deport.
In its implicit labeling of the Muslims as the outsider and the unwanted, required to prove their Indianness, the NRC has been loaded with the kind of symbolism that animates Hindu-right politics. The project also dovetailed perfectly with the historical loathing the Assamese reserve for outsiders who are seen to be taking their land and threatening their culture.
How BJP’s India Look like ????
Keen to showcase Assam as a test case of Hindu primacy by expelling Muslim migrants, the BJP made it one of its prime electoral issues earlier this year. Beginning with the state, Modi’s party aims to implement the NRC across India.
The government has amended an old law, empowering district magistrates all over the country to set up Foreigners’ Tribunals, which had so far been unique to Assam.
The Economic Times reported that New Delhi had asked all provinces to each set up at least one detention center with modern amenities. To help, it has reportedly issued an 11-page “2019 Model Detention Manual”. With the NRC, Assam could be the starting point of a wider sweep against Muslims.
The term Bangladeshi conveys a sense of foreignness that justifies unequal treatment. In reality, however, many among the target group came to Assam before there was a Bangladesh, and many of them are Hindus.
Much to the discomfiture of the BJP, more Hindus than Muslims may be declared stateless as the NRC process is not meant to distinguish between the two. This could boomerang on Modi’s party unless the Hindus sieved out in the NRC are restituted somehow.
To do that, the BJP had planned to pilot a law change through the Citizenship Amendment Bill, providing citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from Muslim-majority Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.
But the amendment had to be shelved after opposition parties in parliament objected on the grounds that it violated the spirit of India’s secular constitution.
In the northeastern states such as Assam, there was added resistance to any change in citizenship laws because of fears it would legitimize the residency rights of non-Assamese Hindu migrants. The northeast went up in flames when New Delhi tried to amend the bill in January.
Apart from a change in law, the government could try to naturalize the excluded Hindus by an ordinance, which does not require parliamentary approval. Either way, to preserve its vote base, the BJP would have to find a way to guarantee citizenship to the Hindus left out.
With a separate set of rules for Hindus, while punishing Muslims, the BJP would also send a clear signal reaffirming its commitment to the Hindu cause.
Coming on the heels of the abolition of the statehood of Jammu & Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, and the anti-Muslim rhetoric and optics around the NRC, a special citizenship law only for Hindus would cement the BJP’s status as the party that shows Muslims their place in India – its prime source of appeal to its Hindu base.
It’s clear the BJP is up to something but we will not accept any underhanded attempts at protecting illegal Hindu foreigners
“Questions can be raised [on the NRC process]. If necessary, in future, we will take whatever steps that will be required,” Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal says this week, hinting at the possibility of legislative action after the NRC list is announced.
For excluded Hindus like Suro, that may be the only hope – but Assamese leaders are in no mood to accommodate them.
“It’s clear the BJP is up to something but we will not accept any underhanded attempts at protecting illegal Hindu foreigners.
The NRC is a court-mandated secular process of finding foreigners, we will not allow the government to undermine it through communal means,” says Lurinjyoti Gogoi, general secretary of the All Assam Students’ Union, the powerful youth organization that spearheaded a six-year nativist movement in the 1980s that changed Assam’s politics forever. “We will fight it politically and legally,” he says.