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India: Thousands of Assam Muslims Fear Release of Citizen Registration

Jhumur Deb
Guwahati, India
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Indian Muslims offer prayers during the Eid al-Adha festival in Guwahati, the largest city in Assam, Sept. 2, 2017.
Indian Muslims offer prayers during the Eid al-Adha festival in Guwahati, the largest city in Assam, Sept. 2, 2017.

Bengali Muslims in the northeastern Indian state of Assam await the publication of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) later this year, as millions of alleged illegal immigrants from Bangladesh face the risk of being rendered stateless.

The NRC, which is being updated for the first time since 1951, is aimed at detecting and deporting an estimated 20 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants living in India, according to the government. The updated registry is slated to be released on Dec. 31.

In Dhaka, government officials repeatedly refuted New Delhi’s claim of an illegal influx, making deportation almost impossible since Bangladesh does not accept those who have crossed into India as its citizens.

“We are having sleepless nights,” Faiz Rehman, a resident of Assam’s Muslim-dominated Barpeta district, told BenarNews. “I have been living in India since the 1960s, but I have no documents to prove it. If my name is left off the NRC, where will I go?” he said.

Rehman is one of almost 500,000 Bangladeshi-origin Muslims living in Assam who fear being left out of the NRC since India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in the state last year while promising to flush out all illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.

The NRC is being updated to include names of people, or their descendants, who are in the 1951 registry and those with legally admissible documents issued up to March 24, 1971, the state government said. It aims to detect and expunge all undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants and those who settled in India after the birth of Bangladesh in 1971.

About 265 km (165 miles) of India’s 4,096-km (2,545-mile) 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.

“But it is the only way to check the illegal influx of Bangladeshis,” Prateek Haleja, an NRC coordinator in Assam, told BenarNews.

“No genuine Indian citizen will be left out of the final list. But those who came from Bangladesh before1971 should have known that they will be asked to show documents sooner or later,” he said.

Haleja said those who could prove their family members were listed in India’s electoral rolls from 1952 to 1971 would be considered genuine Indian citizens.

Threats of protests

Assam’s minority rights groups have threatened statewide protests if the state’s Muslim population is excluded from the NRC.

“Assam will burn if 500,000 Muslims are left out of the NRC,” Arshad Madani, president of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, said at a news conference in New Delhi on Wednesday.

“The BJP wants to throw Muslims out of the country. When [thousands] of people are left out of the NRC and branded as foreigners there will be repercussions among the people,” Madani said.

The BJP said that Madani’s statement indicated some groups are against a smooth transition of the registry’s update.

“How come Madani knows that 500,000 people will be excluded from the register when the draft has not been prepared. BJP has, time and again, made it very clear that no foreigner’s name will be included and no Indian citizen’s name will be excluded from the NRC,” BJP spokesman Pramod Swami was quoted as saying in the Times of India.

The All Assam Minority Students Union said it plans to mobilize a crowd of almost 12 million people for a rally in Guwahati, the state’s capital, on Nov. 27 to exert pressure on the government to ensure that no genuine Indian citizen is left out of the NRC.

“We will see to it that the names of each and every genuine Indian Muslim are included in the list,” Ainuddin, general-secretary of the students union, told BenarNews.

The state government has asked New Delhi for additional security forces following reports that some groups may try to instigate communal tensions leading to the registry publication, an Assam government official told BenarNews on condition of anonymity.

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