More than 4 million people were excluded from a list released Monday of citizens in northeastern Assam state as the government seeks to identify and deport Bangladeshi migrants living in India illegally.
The list known as the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is being updated for the first time since 1951 to include people who have legal documents issued up to March 24, 1971, their descendants, and descendants of people on the original list, the government said.
Of the nearly 33 million applicants, names of about 29 million people were included in the list, as critics of the process said it unfairly targeted minorities and Muslims.
Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament in New Delhi that the process was completely impartial, adding that people whose names were not on the list should not panic as they would get an opportunity to prove their Indian citizenship.
“Persons who do not find their names can apply between Aug. 30 and Sept. 28,” said Registrar General of India Sailesh.
“Any person who is not satisfied with the outcome of the claims and objections can file an appeal before the Foreigners Tribunal,” said Sailesh, who uses only one name. He did not give a time frame for when such appeals would be settled.
‘Refugees in their own country’
About 265 km (165 miles) of India’s border with Bangladesh is in Assam, which boasts the second highest number of Muslims – 34 percent – among all Indian states.
The government admitted that many poverty-stricken Assam residents who did not have valid identification documents would bear the brunt of the NRC.
Ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had pressed for completion of the NRC update as it swept to power in the state in 2016. The Indian government deployed paramilitary forces to prevent possible violence following the list’s publication.
Minority rights groups threatened statewide protests last year if the state’s Muslim population was excluded from the NRC. “Assam will burn if 500,000 Muslims are left out of the NRC,” Arshad Madani, president of leading Islamic organization Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, said at the time.
The process of updating the NRC for Assam started in 2013 under the supervision of the country’s top court. The first draft with names of 19 million applicants was released on Dec. 31, 2017.
“We are worried because people are being made refugees in their own country. It’s a plan to throw out Bengali-speaking people and Biharis from Assam,” said Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, which borders Assam.
“As many as 4 million Bengalis have been declared non-Indians. Bengal and Bangladesh will be the most affected by this decision,” she said. “What will happen if they want to push them back and if Bangladesh does not want to take them back? The Parliament must legislate to protect these human beings.”
BJP national secretary Rahul Sinha challenged the West Bengal leader’s comments.
“Mamata Banerjee is unnecessarily making the waters muddy. The Assam government is not targeting bonafide citizens of the country,” Sinha said. “They are trying to identify the illegal immigrants.”
The All Assam Students Union (AASU), which spearheaded the movement against illegal immigrants, welcomed the list and called it a historic day.
“The 38-year long struggle has given a fruitful result to the people of Assam,” adviser Samujjal Bhattacharya told BenarNews. “We are satisfied but this is only the first step to make Assam free from illegal migrants.”
Opposition claims irregularities
The country’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC), pointed out irregularities in the report.
“Four million ineligible names is a very high figure and very surprising. We will raise this issue with the government and in Parliament. BJP has a political motive behind this,” Ripun Bora told BenarNews. He leads the INC’s Assam Congress committee.
Another regional party, Trinamool Congress, alleged that the government had “intentionally eliminated more than 4 million religious and linguistic minorities from the NRC.”
“It will have serious ramifications on the demography of different states adjoining Assam. Prime Minister Narendra Modi should give a clarification on this in parliament,” party official S.S. Roy said.
Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, meanwhile, said he had not been contacted about the list.
“We have not received anything official, just heard that a debate about the illegal Bengalis has been going on there,” he told BenarNews. “We will give our reaction when we get the official communication about it.”
Paritosh Paul in Kolkata and Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report.