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A human tragedy in the making

  • Published at 12:02 am September 15th, 2019
An illogical process? REUTERS

India is making its own people stateless. Bangladesh shouldn’t have to pay the price

India has now generated debate and controversy through the publication of a list of people who constitute the citizenship of Assam, its north-eastern state. The final version of this list has effectively stripped 1,906,657 people in that state of their citizenship. 

This National Register of Citizens (NRC) includes those who according to relevant Indian administrative authorities have been able to prove that they were inhabitants of that state before March 24, 1971.

The process of having the NRC started in 1951 after the partition of India and the creation of West and East Pakistan to determine who was born in Assam and was therefore Indian, and who might be a migrant from the neighbouring region.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has long railed against illegal immigration into India, and has been using this also as a political weapon for the last three years in particular.

Such an approach has generated frustration and anger, as Assam is one of India’s most multi-ethnic states, where marginal people from different parts of India have habituated for more than 80 years working in tea gardens and agricultural farms. 

Consequently, the question of having to prove their identity and citizenship has led to vexation among Bengali and Assamese-speaking Hindus and Muslims, as well as, a medley of tribespeople -- most of whom are descendants of immigrants who settled there during British rule or many decades ago.

Residents excluded from the NRC now can appeal against the administrative decision -- a potentially long and exhaustive appeals process -- in specially-formed courts called Foreigners Tribunals, as well as, subsequently in the High Court and Supreme Court. 

Those seeking justice will be financially challenged, and thus have difficulty in raising money to fight their cases. There is also the possibility that the applicants might be detained in different detention centres if they lose their appeals in the High Courts. 

The media has reported that there are more than 200 such courts in Assam today, and the numbers are expected to go up to 1,000 by October. The majority of these tribunals have been set up after the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP came to power in 2014.

Media has also openly accused such courts of not only bias, but also opaque and riddled with inconsistencies. They pointed out that families are unable to produce documents due to poor record-keeping, illiteracy, or lack of money to file a legal claim. 

Reports have also surfaced that people have been declared as foreigners by the courts because of differences in spellings of names or ages in voter rolls, and problems in getting identity documents certified by authorities. 

In June this year, an unfortunate judicial measure resulted in a serious uproar and national outrage after a decorated Indian army veteran Mohammed Sanaullah spent 11 days in a detention camp after being declared a “foreigner.” 

In this context, human rights activists have also noted that detention centres presently suffer from “grave and extensive human distress.” Such a situation has apparently led to scores of Bengali Hindus and Muslims committing suicide since 2015.

Such an evolving scenario both in the drafting of the citizen’s register and the functioning of the tribunals has sparked fears of a witch hunt against Assam’s ethnic minorities. 

Many local Assam politicians have remarked that the list has nothing to do with religion. However, analysts and human rights activists are now commenting that this is a format that is targeting the state’s Bengali community, a large portion of whom are Muslims. 

Some observers like Barooah Pisharoty have also noted that the BJP since the election has slightly changed tack. They are trying to exclude Bengali-speaking Hindus from the list because the Bengali Hindus are a strong voter base of the BJP. The principal opposition Congress party in the Indian Parliament said last year that it was not enough to allow people left off the list to file appeals. 

It called on Modi and his ruling BJP to ensure that the process is fair, and that it doesn’t discriminate against people based on their religion, a concern voiced by many given Assam’s multi-ethnic make-up.

This approach was partially taken following comments made by the then BJP Party President Amit Shah, presently the home minister. 

He sparked outrage with remarks like infiltrators -- in an apparent swipe at undocumented Muslim migrants -- being termites that need to be destroyed. He also said: “We will remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs.”

One thing needs to be understood by the Assam administration presently in control of the BJP: Densely populated Bangladesh is already suffering from having to look after more than a million illegal Rohingya immigrants from the Rakhine state of Myanmar. 

Consequently, there is no question of Bangladesh being forced to receive more alleged infiltrators. Such a measure could seriously affect bilateral relations.

It might also encourage insecurity and possibly generate unfortunate clouds of communalism. This is an internal matter of India and that matrix needs to be understood.

Consequently, India and the state government of Assam, instead of generating more despair, anxiety, and anger, might consider giving those designated as stateless people participatory presence within the Indian paradigm after their release from detention centres. 

These grateful persons, enjoying basic rights, will then promote India’s successful democratic socio-economic development and stability instead of possible instability and violence. This will be beneficial for the sub-region. 

Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]