India excludes 4 million from citizen list in Assam state, sparking fears of mass deportations

India says hundreds of thousands of people have illegally entered the country from neighbouring Bangladesh over decades and settled down in the northeast. Bangladesh rejects the claim

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 July, 2018, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 July, 2018, 9:26pm

India said on Monday it had excluded more than four million people from a draft list of citizens in the border state of Assam who could not produce valid documents, a move that has sparked fears about the future of thousands in the region.

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

The tea-rich state of Assam has long been the centre 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.

In 1983, scores of people were chased down and killed by machete-armed mobs intent on hounding out Muslim immigrants.

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 centres or foreigners’ tribunal,” Sailesh, India’s census commissioner who uses only one name, told reporters in Guwahati, the state’s main city.

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 270km (165-mile) border with Bangladesh.

Indian or not? In tea state, Muslims fear being declared stateless amid drive against illegal immigrants

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

To be recognised 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 break-up of people who had failed to make to the draft list.

Rights groups have criticised the government’s latest move, saying the deletion of people from citizenship rolls was similar to Myanmar’s removal of rights and protections for its Rohingya community in 1982.

Avaaz, a US-based rights group, said Monday there was no effective appeal body and those left out would not have enough time to present their case.

“It’s just Muslims who will likely have to go through a complicated, unfair appeal with no right to counsel, ending in no hope of staying if they lose,” Ricken Patel, the executive director of Avaaz, said in a statement.

In New Delhi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh sought to allay fears about Assam.

“No coercive action will be taken against anyone. Hence there is no need to panic,” Singh said in the upper house of parliament.

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.

In India’s Assam, a Rohingya-like refugee crisis in the making

The first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), released on December 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.”

The final national register containing the names of only Indian nationals after weeding out illegal migrants will be published after the disputed claims are settled.

“Nowhere else in India have we carried out such an exercise to have a list of (Indian) nationals,” said NRC Coordinator Prateek Hajela.

Additional reporting by Associated Press and Agence France-Presse