Assam, India’s Disturbing “Muslim-Free” Laboratory
Maria Tavernini 18 October 2019

Last August 31st, local authorities in the Indian state of Assam published the updated list for the National Register of Citizens’ (NRC), which includes the names of residents that are considered “genuine” citizens. Some 1.9 million people termed “illegal migrants” have been excluded from the final update and are set to become stateless unless they can prove with valid documentation that they (or their ancestors) entered India before March 24th, 1971, the day before Bangladesh became independent. The state of Assam belongs to India’s northeast and shares traits with Bhutan, which it borders in the north, and Bangladesh, to the south. The spectre of the so-called illegal migrants has long haunted people in Assam, where the resentment towards outsiders has grown greater over the years.


Birth of an idea

The National Register of Citizens was first introduced in Assam in 1951 and has not been updated recently. It took five years to check on the 33 million applicants’ paperwork and track to their lineage back. This mammoth exercise started in 2014 and seeks to identify the state’s original citizens and pinpoint undocumented immigrants, according to statements from government officials. Though many believe the focus is rather to identify (and detain) people of Bangladeshi origin, where 90 percent of the population is Muslim. People excluded from the list will be given a window of 120 days to appeal to the regional judicial bodies—the so-called “foreigners tribunals”—with valid documentation proving that they crossed into India before Bangladesh became independent.

In colonial times, migration was quite common across the provinces of British India. During its Partition and the creation of a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan—with the latter being divided into West and East Pakistan (presently Bangladesh)—India witnessed the mass migration of populations, especially Bengali Hindus, across the newly created (yet not fortified) border. When East Pakistan suffered political unrest against the backdrop of economic difficulties, the civil uprising eventually led to the independence of Bangladesh from the rest of Pakistan. This was 1971. Masses of refugees from the war-torn state entered India, even after the end of the civil war. The NRC was already in place then, as was resentment, fuelled by cyclic agitations against the so-called “infiltrators”. In the ‘80s, the student mobilization known as the Assam Movement, which asked for the detection and deportation of foreigners, was undoubtedly the heaviest expression of these sentiments. After years of litigation, in 2014, the Supreme Courte ruled the NRC should be updated.


BJP turns towards open discrimination

India’s home minister, Amit Shah— prime minister Narendra Modi’s right-hand man, who has supported the NRC update since the early days—has often referred to migrants of Bangladeshi origin as “termites” and has promised to throw all “infiltrators” out of the country. Shah has never made a secret of his grudge against India’s Muslim population (which amounts to almost 200 million people, or 14.2 per cent of the total) and over the years has always pushed for more communal and majoritarian policies. Under Modi’s rule, the government has enforced the progressive differentiation of the country’s population based on religion. At a political rally in Kolkata on October 1st, Shah said: “I [want to] assure all Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain refugees they won’t have to leave the country, they will get Indian citizenship and enjoy all the rights of an Indian national”. To this he added that the Indian government would bring back the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which will ensure these people get Indian citizenship.

The amendment of the Citizenship Act (1955) was first proposed in the lower house of the Indian parliament in 2016 and has recently been brought up again by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), expression of the Hindu far-right. If the bill is passed, refugees from minority communities like Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan—excluding those from Muslim communities—will be granted Indian citizenship. With this bill, the BJP is challenging the Indian Constitution’s secular character and is openly discriminating against people on the basis of their faith. As for the NRC, which the government plans to extend to other states, the initial agenda of “detecting, detaining and deporting” (the 3-Ds approach) all the people excluded from the list doesn’t seem so feasible. During a bilateral meeting on the 5th of October, Bangladesh’s PM, Sheikh Hasina, made it clear she won’t take back any undocumented migrants. India assured her that it is being dealt with as an internal matter.


Jails, detentions camps, separated families

At this point, it’s not clear what awaits all the people excluded from the final update. Some are being detained in the state’s six detention centres for illegal migrants, inside existing jails where conditions are “sub-human”. After reports came out on the deplorable condition detainees are forced to endure in these camps, the Supreme Court stepped in and the government speeded up construction of a huge detention camp just for foreigners in Matia in the district of Goalpara, which can house over 3,000 inmates. The state government sent a proposal for ten additional camps to detain people stripped of their citizenship. Some people have been jailed for over five years—namely, since 2014 when the NRC census exercise first started. Reports of families torn apart, with members of the same group, even children, being separated from their elders grow ever more common. Very seldom did poor families who migrated decades ago from Bangladesh keep the needed papers; even fewer can afford the long and costly process of appeal.

“India has more than 1.3 billion residents, the overwhelming majority of whom are citizens. A tiny, tiny fraction of the country’s population comprises foreigners. Most of them are probably long-term residents and it is safe to assume the majority do not have proper entry or residence documents because successive governments simply never bothered to create a rational migration and refugee policy”, wrote Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of the Indian newspaper The Wire. He continued: “Of these, the largest single group are of Bangladeshi origin, but there are also people from Tibet, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, most of whom have been living in India for years and have children who are full-fledged Indian citizens”. There are also many Hindus of Bangladeshi origin who didn’t make it onto the list. The first draft list published a year ago excluded 4 million people. Despite the number having halved in the final version, it turns out that many people were upset with the result.

“Today, there are three sets of players, and all of them are unhappy with the NRC. The entire agitation was built on the premise that there are millions of illegal immigrants in India from Bangladesh. Those agitating were agnostic, never communal. So they were equally opposed to Hindu as well as Muslim Bengali immigrants”, explains Harsh Mander, a renowned human rights activist, who has been closely involved with people excluded from the NRC in an interview in the fortnightly Frontline. As Mander notes: “The numbers they spoke about were 8 million, 15 million and so on. [… But] only 2 million immigrants have emerged and even in this figure, there are 4 lakh [i.e. 400 thousand] people who have not appealed to Foreigners Tribunals. […] So, we are looking at 1.5 million people”. This, Mander argues, “means that the entire basis of the agitation that the Assamese ethnic people would be submerged with the influx of people was not true”. He believes that the entire exercise made no sense, not because it was executed poorly, but because the BJP is a communal party and there was a deliberate “othering” of Muslims.

This, of course, has become the new normal in Modi’s India.


Photo: B. Boro / AFP

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