More than one million people in India’s Assam state, including a majority of Bengali speakers, may be declared stateless as a deadline to file applications for inclusion in a citizenship registry expired Monday, officials said.
Authorities in northeastern Assam began updating the state’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) this year – the first time since 1951 – in a controversial move that provoked accusations of discrimination against Muslim residents.
The state shares a 262-km (163-mile) border with Islamic-majority Bangladesh and boasts the second highest number of Muslims – about 34 percent – among all states in Hindu-majority India. But officials had said that an estimated 20 million Bangladeshi migrants without proper immigration documents were living among Assam’s population.
“Till the last date of deadline, which is Dec. 31, we have received 2.9 million claim applications and 7,000 objections out of the four million people who were excluded from the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that was published on June 30,” a senior NRC official who requested anonymity told BenarNews.
The Indian government, which is led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has claimed that the entire process of updating the NRC would be completed by the middle of 2019. The 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.
About 2,500 NRC help centers were set up across the state to receive the claims and objection applications.
The final draft of the NRC had listed 29 million people, leaving out four million applicants.
The Supreme Court gave those were excluded until Dec. 31 this year to submit their objections and file documents to support their claims.
A majority of the one million who could be classified as stateless speak Bengali, the NRC official told Benar on Monday, adding that “if they are Bengali speaking and cannot provide documents, they must be foreigners.”
“At this time, we have not yet sorted out who are foreigners,” he said.
The much-anticipated process of refiling of claims and objections did not draw the expected long lines at the help centers set up across the state.
The NRC contains a list of what New Delhi authorities had described as “genuine Indian citizens” residing in Assam, a sliver of India squeezed between Bhutan and Bangladesh.
It list includes those who can prove that they or their parents were in India before Bangladesh became a nation in 1971.
After the final draft of the NRC, the High Court came up with a list of acceptable documents that helped create more confusion, rights groups say.
“Illiterate, poor people who comprise a large percentage of those excluded, do not understand much of the complexities and this has led to the slow filing of claims,” Hafiz Rashid Choudhry, a senior advocate and a Muslim minority leader, told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, human and civil rights activists criticized the Indian government’s failure to explain its plans on people excluded from the citizens list.
“The Indian government has not announced any policy about what it will do with the thousands of people left out of the citizen registry,” Harsh Mandar, a civil rights activist, told BenarNews.