Assam's Citizenship Row

Photo Source: Outlook India

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe UpFront

Over four million people have been stripped off their citizenship in July 2018 by the Indian State of Assam by India’s National Register of Citizens. This exercise had been in the making for the last three years and was monitored by the Supreme Court of India. 

Around 400,000 data entry operators and government officials have been involved in this exercise. Many bogus and fake submissions have been detected by India’s National Register of Citizens.

Thousands of troops were deployed before the first draft was made public. The idea to update the register was to mainly identify illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. This has happened first time since 1951. From 1985 to February 2018, a total of 29,738 foreigners have been expelled.

This exercise had been a psychological despair to thousands of people when they were suddenly declared as illegal immigrants. 

Hundreds of thousands of people from Bangladesh fled to India, during the Bangladesh war of independence from erstwhile East Pakistan, between March and December 1971. Most of them settled in Assam.

Historically, since the beginning of the 20th century, there has been an influx of people from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) due to an oppressive feudal system (Zamindari). The British colonists had encouraged immigration to Assam as well. The Muslim league wanted Assam to become a part of erstwhile East Pakistan, however, Assam’s only Sylhet district became part of erstwhile East Pakistan. During the partition, the borders were porous, and not protected, so people had continued to come.

These migrants now make a chunk of the population in Assam’s 15 districts, out of 33 districts. In 1983, more than 2,000 suspected migrants were massacred by a mob in the village of Nellie. Assam, in fact, has had a history of ethnic tensions between indigenous Assamese communities and Bengali Muslims.

Most of them are engaged in agriculture and work as farmers. Some have claimed that they had been detained in the camp for a mere spelling error. There were also quite a few people, who shared their space with convicts accused of murder and rape. The powerful All Assam Student’s Union (AASU) has been spearheading the anti-immigrant movement.

According to Indian Express, many people found their names with spelling errors. Sometimes a man’s photo appeared against a woman’s name, or some different surnames popped up. At times, only the middle and last names have been published.

Initially, many workers, who worked in small shops, in many regions of Assam, continued to work in their small shops and declared it as a rumour.  Others feared, that they might be killed when hundreds of people were taken in cars, in some places. Many hundreds continue to be detained in a camp in Silchar, one of the six detention centres in Assam. Around 35 people ate and slept in one room and shared one toilet with no locks in the camp. Some people had declared all their necessary documents, but complain that their names are not on the list. There were also quite a few cases, who had supposedly paid agents to procure voter card and PAN card. 

The demand for the update of National Register has been there for some time. The first agitation happened in 1979, and the first decision to update the register was taken by Central Government in 1999, but the work did not begin. In July 2009, Assam Public Works – an NGO – filed a petition in Supreme Court, demanding an enquiry into NRC. It was in 2010 when the government decided to inquire into the citizen register in two districts, but the work was halted by public violence in Barpeta district.

One of Assam’s foremost intellectuals, Hiren Gohain believes:The danger is now from the Hindu rightist forces who want to encourage Bangladeshi Hindus to come to Assam, settle down here and in their own words 'save Assam from the Muslim menace'. Islam and Muslims in their views are a menace. They mean by India as a Hindu India. That is their solution to the problem. Their (the BJP) idea of citizenship is like that of Israel. As in Israel, every Jew, wherever he is born, is considered entitled to citizenship. India is mentioned as the home of Hindus.”

The Supreme Court has decided that anyone who came to Assam, after 1971, would be stripped off their citizenship and would be called a foreigner. According to The Telegraph, “people whose names appear on the 1951 NRC and those who appear on any voter list in Assam up to midnight of 24 March 1971, and the descendants of the above are eligible to register for the NRC. People who came to Assam from Bangladesh between 1 January 1966 and 24 March 1971, registered themselves with the Foreigner Regional Registration Office, and were declared by the Foreigner Tribunal as Indian citizens are also eligible.”

In an article by Taslima Yasmin on The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s position has been that there has been no unauthorised migration to Assam since 1971. She emphasised that out of many issues between India and Bangladesh, illegal migration from Assam has never been brought up by the Indian government.

There has been no humane approach implemented by the Indian government, considering the sensitive regional dynamics in the region. Some political analysts blame that the politicians inside Assam didn’t act against illegal immigration because for vote bank.

When an eminent perfume businessman launched his party, All India Union Democratic Front (AIUDF) in 2005, the party was seen banking on Muslims of Bangladesh or East Indian origin.

Ever since the BJP came into power in Assam, the opposition, both at the regional level and central level, have accused the party of targeting Muslims.

BJP, the party in power, believes that the Congress party led by Rajiv Gandhi didn’t have the mantle to act against illegal immigrants, at that point in time.

During the election campaigns, it had vowed to act against outsiders and has kept its word on that, post elections. People, however, can file petitions between August 30 to September 28.


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