India strips millions of Bengali-speaking Muslims of citizenship in Assam

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Similar to the Rohingya in Myanmar, hundreds of thousands of Muslims living in the state of Assam are facing the risk of becoming stateless following the Indian government’s new citizenship policy

India said Monday it had excluded more than 4 million people from a draft list of citizens in the border state of Assam who could not produce valid documents, under a controversial draft citizenship list that has sparked fears of deportation of largely Bengali-speaking Muslims.

Security has been tightened across the state, which borders Bangladesh, as thousands of Bengali-speaking Muslims worry about being sent to detention centers or deported, a Reuters witness said.

The tea-rich state of Assam has long been the center of social and communal tensions with locals campaigning against illegal immigrants, a fight that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government has championed.

The government said the draft was not meant to drive people out and those struck out of the list would have a chance to reapply.

“Based on this draft, there is no question of anyone being taken to detention centers or foreigners’ tribunal,” Sailesh, India’s census commissioner who uses only one name, told reporters in Guwahati, the state’s main city.

“Adequate and ample scope will be given to people for making objections. No genuine Indian citizen should have any fear,” said Sailesh.

Hundreds of thousands of people fled to India from Bangladesh during Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan in the early 1970s. Most of them settled in Assam, which has a near-270 km (165-mile) border with Bangladesh, and the neighboring state of West Bengal, where there are similar demands to send back illegal Muslim immigrants.

More than 30 million people had applied and 4,007,707 had been excluded from the list, Sailesh said.

The targeted people are mostly illiterate, poor and unaware of what is happening regarding citizenship, according to the Students Islamic Organization of India (SIO-India). Anti-Muslim bias among border police and authorities leads to fatal results for Muslims who are trying to prove their Indian citizenship with documents.

Shamsul Haq and Zesmina Beegam are among hundreds of thousands of Bengali-speaking Muslims who have a “D mark” against their name on the voters list. The couple, categorized as “doubtful voters” three years ago, were sent to a detention camp in Goalpara. Even though they possess the necessary documents to prove their Indian citizenship, they were subjected to an anti-Muslim reaction by the police force in charge of delivering the notice.

To be recognized as Indian citizens, all residents of Assam had to produce documents proving that they or their families lived in the country before March 24, 1971.

Sailesh did not provide a breakup of people who had failed to make to the draft list.

Critics see the citizenship test as another measure supported by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) aimed at minority Muslims. With an eye on the 2019 national election, the BJP’s Hindu-first campaign has become more strident, critics say, playing to its core base with divisive programs such as the citizenship test in Assam, already a tinderbox of ethnic and religious tensions.

The BJP denies any bias but says it opposes a policy of appeasement of any community.

Authorities in the state have previously said the citizenship test was crucial to protect ethnic Assamese, many of whom have demanded removal of outsiders they accuse of taking jobs and cornering resources in the state of 33 million.

The first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), released Dec. 31, confirmed the citizenship of 19 million people, leading to jubilation for some and heartbreak among others.

The NRC, however, told the Supreme Court this month that 150,000 people from the first list, a third of them married women, would be dropped from the next one, mainly because they provided false information or gave inadmissible documents.

“If the government has decided to brand us foreigners what can we do?” said Abdul Suban, 60, a Bengali-speaking Muslim, earlier.

“The NRC is trying to finish us off. Our people have died here, but we will not leave this place.”

Elsewhere in the country’s northern heartland, the lynching of Muslim cattle traders has risen under Modi, in a country where many Hindus consider cows to be sacred, further deepening social divides. The BJP has denied the lynching having any connection with it being in power. Modi has at least twice publicly spoken out against cow vigilantes.

The Muslim community in Assam has been subjected to violations as they are considered foreigners by the Assamese community. Citizenship and illegal migration are volatile issues in tea-growing and oil-rich Assam, home to more than 32 million people, about a third of whom are Muslims. In the Nellie massacre in 1983, hundreds of Muslims were killed in a violent protest by a native Assamese group.

Source: Daily Sabah

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