4 Million Bengalis in Assam to lose Indian citizenship under NRC

The second draft of the Indian National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published on Monday 30th July, adding further tension to relationships between government officials and Bengali Muslims living in Assam. The NRC included 29 million (2.9 crore) of the 32.9 million (3.29 crore) applicants in Assam, leaving 4 million (40 lakh) to potentially lose their Indian citizenship. Whilst the Government has included anyone with proof of residence before March 25, 1971, those without official immigration documents are left to file objections to remain citizens. Assam is the first Indian State to receive an NRC update, in what some residents are calling a Muslim “witch hunt”.

Indian officials have claimed the NRC is necessary to “remove illegal immigrants” who use forged documents to remain in India, but campaigners believe there is a separate motive. Nazrul Ali Ahmed is a campaigner from Assam and likens the NRC in Assam to the persecutions in Myanmar. “They are openly threatening to get rid of Muslims, and what happened to the Rohingya in Myanmar, could happen to us here” he told BBC reporters. Ahmed called the Government’s actions a “conspiracy to commit atrocities.” Abdul Suban is another Bengali-speaking Muslim who has lived in Assam for more than 3 decades and is still trying to prove his citizenship. Prateek Hajela, coordinator of the NRC, reminded residents this week that the draft was “completed, not final” and assured residents that there was “no differentiation on the basis of religion or language” in decisions made for the NRC.

Despite reassurances from Government officials, the sudden priority placed on the finalisation of the NRC in the lead up to the 2019 election, hints at an obvious political move. The register began in 2015, shortly after the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but has rapidly accelerated with two drafts published just 6 months apart. The Hindu nationalist party has previously been accused of inciting violence, with 700 outbreaks of religious based violence in 2016 alone, according to a joint report by Centre for Study of Society and Secularism and the Minority Rights Group International. The party’s affirmation that it would look favourably upon Bengali-speaking Hindu migrants, further confirms speculation that the NRC is merely a driver to secure political gain.

On the 18th February 1983, the Nellie Massacre saw more than 2,000 descendants of Bengali Muslim immigrants massacred in Assam, in an effort to remove so called ‘illegals’. Suban says that the NRC is just a continuation of this objective, “[the] NRC is trying to finish us off. Our people have died here, but we will not leave this place.” Tension between Muslim and Hindu Indians has a long history, stemming from the early 700s as Islam spread into the Indian Peninsula, particularly to modern day Pakistan. This conflict carried into British India, where many of these Muslim migrants relocated into Assam before the partition between Pakistan and India was created, in 1947. Whilst many of the Bengalis living in Assam have family history dating back to this time, without documentation of ‘legal migration’ they face deportation. Government officials have claimed that those found not to be legal citizens will not face immediate deportation. However, once that time arrives it is not clear where they will be moved to, having no other citizenship or having lived anywhere but India.

Prime Minister Modi should reconsider policies which violate international human rights legislation and leave Indian residents stateless. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified by India, states that “everyone has the right to a nationality”. Bengali Muslims living in Assam have a long family history in the country and to remove their citizenship would result in further refugee crises in the region. There is no easy solution to tensions between religious groups, but cooperation will prevent tragedies like Nellie occurring again. For those whose documentation cannot be proven, residential status should be guaranteed and the potential to file for legal citizenship must be provided.