Thousands began refiling documents in northeastern India’s Assam state Tuesday to prove their citizenship after almost 4 million residents were excluded from a draft list that could put them at risk of becoming stateless.
The much-anticipated process did not draw expected long lines at 2,500 centers set up across the state, which shares a 262-km (163-mile) border with Bangladesh, as those seeking to be added to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) have 60 days to file.
NRC contains what New Delhi describes as genuine Indian citizens residing in Assam, a sliver of India squeezed between Bhutan and Bangladesh. It lists those who can prove that they or their parents were in India before Bangladesh became a nation in 1971.
Assam, which has a population of about 32 million, boasts the second highest number of Muslims – 34 percent – among all Indian states. It is updating its NRC for the first time since 1951.
India believes that the hundreds of thousands who fled the civil war in Pakistan and crossed the border into Assam to escape the fighting should go back to Bangladesh. The government in Dhaka, on the other hand, says it won’t accept them.
Those whose names were not among the 29 million included in the draft NRC have to file using one of the 10 required documents to prove their citizenship.
Pruning five documents
The NRC update is supervised by India’s apex court, which recently ruled in favor of NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela’s suggestion to prune the five documents from the original list of 15.
The decision means 4 million people, mostly Bengali-speaking Hindu and Muslim migrants from neighboring Bangladesh, must use acceptable documentation including land deeds, permanent resident certificates, passports, bank and post office accounts and birth certificates issued before March 24, 1971, two days before the start of the Bangladeshi war of independence against Pakistan.
The NRC is aimed at detecting and deporting an estimated 20 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants living in India, according to the government.
The court removed the original 1951 NRC list, electoral rolls of 1966 and 1971, citizenship certificates, refugee certificates and ration cards from the list of acceptable documents, which were all issued by the federal or the state government.
“It’s a ploy to disfranchise Bengali-speaking people living in Assam,” Chitta Paul, adviser to the All Assam Bengali Youth Students Federation, told BenarNews.
The 4 million Assam applicants learned of their plight when the draft list was published on July 30.
The court’s ruling on Hajela’s suggestion triggered controversy as ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and opposition parties said they were not consulted. They are planning to move an all-party resolution in the assembly against the new guidelines.
“If all the political parties agree, we can move a resolution against NRC coordinator Hajela on his plan to cut the list of documents,” Chandramohan Patowary, BJP senior minister in the state, told BenarNews.
BJP national president Amit Shah, on the other hand, recently likened illegal immigrants to termites eating into the country, a description criticized by Bangladesh officials.
“BJP is playing a double game on the NRC issue. The Hindu nationalist party wants to make NRC a major election issue in 2019 to polarize Hindu population in their favor,” political analyst Yogendra Yadav told local media. “By doing so, the party is playing with fire.”
Earlier this month, the West Bengal unit of BJP launched a three-week campaign to organize small group meetings at village and district levels to explain why an updated NRC list is important for the state.
“There are about 10 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in the state, and we have been demanding for a long time to push them back,” senior West Bengal BJP party official Sayantan Basu told BenarNews at the time.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who leads the All-India Trinamool Congress party, said she opposes the central government’s plan to use the NRC to identify and deport Bangladeshi migrants living in India without proper papers.