India has deployed paramilitary troops in northeastern Assam state to quell potential unrest as millions of people anxiously wait to see if they are on an official citizens’ list being released by the government on Saturday.
Those who do not make it onto the National Register of Citizens, mainly Bengali-speaking residents, could be considered stateless and foreigners, an NRC official said in December 2018.
“All kinds of security measures have been taken to maintain law and order. We are vigilant everywhere including on social media,” Assam police Director General Kuladhar Saikia told journalists on Friday.
The government announced a ban on gatherings of more than three people at public places in Assam’s capital, Guwahati, and other regions in the lead-up to the NRC’s official publication.
About 4.1 million people were excluded from the list of 32.9 million names when the NRC’s final draft was published in July 2018. Since then, about 3.62 million, who fear detention or even expulsion from India as the country’s Hindu nationalist government says it is cracking down on illegal immigration, have filed appeals to be included on the list.
Following publication, those still not on the NRC can appeal to the Foreigners Tribunal. The government announced it was extending the window to file appeals from 60 to 120 days.
The NRC is updating its list for the first time since 1951 in Assam only, a state that borders Bangladesh and whose population is about 32.9 million, of whom about 34 percent are Muslim.
The list includes the names of people who can prove they resided in the state before March 25, 1971, a day before the start of the Bangladeshi war of independence against Pakistan, and their descendants. Acceptable documentation includes land deeds, permanent resident certificates, passports, bank and post office accounts and birth certificates.
The Indian government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has vowed to deport undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants, a large but unknown number of whom arrived in India and settled in Assam after Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971.
BJP state president Ranjit Dass alleged that people in Muslim-dominated districts had forged citizenship documents.
“Papers have been manipulated by many people – in districts like Dhubri and Barpeta – to enter the NRC. Documents like birth certificates have been fabricated and forged. And NRC authorities have not checked those fabricated documents,” Dass told The Indian Express.
Call for calm
In a message posted on Twitter, the Home Ministry urged residents of Assam to remain calm.
“No one will be put in detention centers until all legal options are exhausted. People whose names don’t appear in the final NRC cannot be declared foreigners until all legal options are exhausted.”
Earlier this month, an Indian official discussed the NRC issue during a visit to Bangladesh
“Less than two weeks ago, the Indian foreign minister visited Bangladesh. He assured us that the National Register of Citizenship is completely the internal issue of India,” Shahriar Alam, Bangladesh’s state minister of foreign affairs, told BenarNews.
“He assured us that the NRC in no way affects Bangladesh. Bangladesh must not worry about it,” said Alam.
However in Assam, some people who despaired that they may be separated from their families if their names were not on the registry, have taken their own lives, according to reports.
On Thursday, Karimganj resident Pritibhusan Dutta committed suicide over fears that his wife, Nomita, could be excluded from the NRC because her name was not included in last year’s final draft.
Nomita confirmed her husband’s death and blamed the NRC.
“He [Pritibhusan] used to tell me that the government will send me to Bangladesh. They will not even allow him to meet me when I will be placed in a detention camp,” she told BenarNews in a phone interview.
“We understood that he was suffering from trauma because my name was excluded from the final draft NRC and we even visited a psychiatrist on Wednesday. But as the final day approached, he committed suicide.”
The National Campaign against Torture reported that about 89 percent of the people excluded from the NRC had suffered from extreme mental distress over fears of being marked as foreigners, The Hindu newspaper reported. The NCAT report said “extreme mental torture” had forced at least 31 people to commit suicide since July 2015.
‘Everybody is worried’
Meanwhile, the list’s release was raising concerns throughout the region, an activist said.
“Everybody is worried here over the NRC. Bengali people from all spheres of life have become panicked,” Tapodhir Bhattachariya told BenarNews.
“It’s a conspiracy to force the Bengali population to leave,” added Bhattachariya, a social activist and former vice-chancellor of Assam University.
According to the general secretary of the All Assam Youth Students Federation, the NRC could break up families.
“We are in a strange situation. In the draft, there are names of parents while their children were excluded. My name was dropped while the names of my parents and my son were included,” Samrat Bhowal told BenarNews.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a statement arguing that the NRC could be used to disenfranchise Muslims living in Hindu-majority India.
“We remain troubled by any government policies or actions that have the effect, whether intentional or not, of undermining religious freedom for vulnerable religious minorities. The National Register of Citizens verification process must not become a means to target and render stateless the Muslim community in northeastern India,” said commission member Anurima Bhargava.
“Proposed policies that suggest that Muslims – and Muslims alone – will face a higher burden for verification, along with worrisome rhetoric, create a negative and potentially dangerous climate for the Muslim community in northeastern India,” Bhargava added.
Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report.