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India’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) draft has caused concern within the nation, as 4 million residents of the Indian state of Assam do not appear on the list. Assam is a border state with a high population of Bangladesh-Indian people, many of whom identify as Muslim. During the brutal Bangladesh Liberation War, which is known for the use of genocidal rape and massacres by the Pakistani army, many Bangladesh citizens relocated to India to escape the violence. This occurred in the early 1970s, and most immigrants found a home in the border state of Assam.
Now, many legitimate citizens are fearful of deportation. The NRC’s goal is to find illegal immigrants, as they classify true citizens as those who have proof of roots in the state since March 24, 1971. The Assam Accords were put into effect in 1985, and these accords stated that the year for eligibility as an India citizen was 1971. Those whose names were on the 1951 NRC document, or who can prove ties in the nation up until 1971, will be permitted to stay. These accords were implemented in the wake of the Assam Movement. This movement was championed by the All Assam Students Union, which protested against illegal immigration in the area. The organization was mainly focused on the removal of Bangladeshi immigrants. It lasted for about six years, finally concluding with the Accords which were signed between the protesters and the government of India. The intent was to allow the protesters a space in politics by giving them increased representation, but tensions still remain in the state and the nation as a whole.
Even though the Assam Movement was generally non-violent, the Nellie Massacre of 1983 was devastating to Muslim communities in India. Many people were murdered by “protesters” armed with machetes attempting to rid India of Muslim immigrants.
The government of India has attempted to quell people’s fears regarding the list of citizens, as the Indian registrar general stated at a briefing in the city of Guwahati, “No genuine Indian citizens need to worry as there will be ample opportunities given to them to enlist their names in the final list.” However many are still unsure of their status and the NRC’s motivations. NRC Coordinator Prateek Hajela also spoke out against criticisms, claiming that no true citizen would be deported in any instance.
The process of determining who qualifies for citizenship, out of 33 million people, has taken three years so far, and is being conducted by the Supreme Court. Currently, only about 29 million people are categorized as citizens. With each draft, more names are added to the list, but the final version will be released in December. It was introduced by Narendra Modi, the current prime minister of India and a Hindu nationalist politician. Many suspect the citizenship test is ethnically and religiously motivated. The Assam government has made it clear exactly what those excluded from the list must do in order to qualify for citizenship, giving them time to appeal and provide acceptable documentation. However, because the cut off date is decades ago, it will be incredibly difficult for some to find proof dating back to 1971. This is specifically a dilemma in Assam, where many people live in poverty and lack education, making it even more difficult to secure the necessary documentation.
Security has spiked in the wake of this announcement, with the states surrounding Assam tightening their borders to avoid receiving influxes of scared Assam residents. Assam itself is also filled with tension and increased militance, as the government has sent an extra 22,000 paramilitary officers to the state. Given the history of the state, the current xenophobic tendencies of many residents is unsurprising. Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code has also been implemented in 7 districts of Assam, which states that more than four people are not allowed to congregate. This restriction of freedoms has birthed more panic within Muslim communities.
Al Jazeera reported on a veteran, Azmal Haque, whose name was not on the list. He served in the Indian army for thirty years and retired two years ago, yet his citizenship was not secure after the most recent draft was released. Instances such as this have left people feeling insecure about their futures in India.
The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), an important party active in Assam which represents the interests of Muslims in the state, has actively voiced concerns. The General Secretary of the political organization, Aminul Islam, was vocal about his issues with the missing 4 million names and the shock that his party experienced when the NRC was released.
The NRC was labelled as “the biggest exercise for disenfranchisement in human history,” by Suhas Chakma, a human rights advocate. While the protection of Indian citizens is incredibly important, the current method of doing so leaves many valid residents out of the picture. Muslim identifying people are being unfairly surveilled, and until the final NRC is released, one cannot tell whether Chakma’s claim is true. For now, many people are living in uncertainty and fear, a fact that must be remedied to prevent religious tensions from heightening as they did decades ago.