A mass citizenship check in India leaves 2 million people in limbo

On Saturday morning, Farid Ali, a farmer dressed in his best sky-blue kurta and a white prayer cap, walked quietly into his village headquarters and received devastating news.

>> Suhasini Raj and Jeffrey GettlemanThe New York Times
Published : 1 Sept 2019, 03:29 AM
Updated : 1 Sept 2019, 03:29 AM

His name wasn’t on the list.

He looked, he waited, his legs began to shake, his dry lips began to move and he prayed there had been a mistake. But his name wasn’t anywhere.

Ali’s citizenship in India, where he has lived all his life, was now in question, and he could soon be separated from his family and hauled off to a prison camp.

He is one of nearly 2 million people in northeast India who were told Saturday that they could soon be declared stateless in a mass citizenship check that critics say is anti-Muslim. The news arrived in small, sunlit offices across the state of Assam, where citizenship lists were posted that drew huge crowds. Many walked away shocked and demoralized; others were joyous.

Just about all of those excluded from the list were ethnic Bengalis, whose families have migrated to Assam during various periods over the past 100 years. The majority are Muslim, said several lawyers and human rights activists.

Along with India’s recent decision to revoke the autonomy of its only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, the Assam citizenship check has intensified a sense of despair among India’s minority Muslims, as the Hindu nationalist wave led by Prime Minister Narenda Modi surges ever higher.

“I am more Indian than you,” Ali told an Indian journalist. “I am more Indian than these soldiers standing guard.”

But it didn’t matter now, he said. And he began to cry.

Assam, a hilly green state near the borders of Myanmar and Bangladesh, has been haunted for decades by conflict between locals and migrants. In the 1980s, after hundreds were slaughtered in an anti-immigrant pogramme, Assamese leaders signed an agreement with India’s central government that was meant to bring peace. Under that deal, there would be a mass citizenship check to ferret out illegal migrants, whom the indigenous Assamese blamed for all sorts of problems.

Only now, decades later, is that being done. And in Modi’s India, increasingly polarised between Hindus and Muslims, it has taken on a religious cast.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been pushing a Hindu supremacist agenda for all of India, has eagerly jumped into this citizenship debate, stirring up anti-immigrant feelings and doing it with a clear anti-Muslim bent.

Party officials have demonised migrants much as right-wing groups have across the world. India’s home minister, Amit Shah, has repeatedly referred to migrants from Bangladesh, an overwhelmingly Muslim country, as “termites.”

Indian authorities are now racing to build new prisons in Assam, including an enormous one to house thousands of people they expect to round up for deportation — though how many will actually be deported, and how many will be marooned in an indefinite state of limbo, is far from clear. In any case, the walls are already going up.

A preliminary Assam citizenship list published last year left off 4 million of Assam’s 33 million residents. Most applied for reconsideration, and the lists published Saturday showed that about half of them had made the citizenship cut.

The 1.9 million who did not can appeal to Foreigners Tribunals — opaque, quasi-judicial courts with a record of discrimination.

Anas Tanwir, a lawyer who has handled more than 50 appeals of Foreigner Tribunals’ rulings before the Supreme Court, said many of the Muslims he represented had not gotten a fair shot.

“For years there has been propaganda against Bengali Muslims,” he said. “People say Bengali Muslims will steal your kids, they’ll steal your jobs. They are taking over your land and destroying your culture. That they even eat human meat.

“It’s xenophobia at its best,” he said.

Earlier this year, he said, a tribunal official offhandedly said of a Muslim Bengali mother whose citizenship was being questioned: “She has gifted seven children to India. It’s time now to send her off.”

Many ethnic Bengalis in Assam have lived in India since birth. They don’t consider themselves to be from Bangladesh, and they have no documents linking them to that country, which is why they could become stateless if India denies them citizenship.

It is not as if Bangladesh, a densely populated and poor nation, is champing at the bit to absorb nearly 2 million more people.

Many of the potentially stateless come from families who settled in Assam before India became independent in 1947. Back then, there were no borders between India and Bangladesh; it was all one British-controlled territory.

Ali, for example, traces his roots in India to 1931. He has tried to meet the criteria that all of Assam’s residents were told to meet: providing documents that showed he or his ancestors had lived in India before midnight on March 24, 1971, when Bangladesh split from Pakistan and became its own nation.

But vast numbers of people here, amid the rice paddies, dirt roads and flimsy, bamboo-walled houses, are poor and illiterate. They would have problems reading old property deeds or fraying birth certificates, let alone finding them.

In many cases, perhaps because of clerical errors or name changes, some people have been deemed citizens while their siblings or parents have not. For some reason, Ali and his seven children were excluded, while his wife was considered a citizen. Ali doesn’t know why; he can’t read.

The Home Ministry has granted everyone excluded from the list four months to appeal. Indian officials have tried to reassure an increasingly anxious public that the process will be fair.

But critics say the government’s anti-Muslim bias was revealed when it tried to pass a bill this year offering citizenship to migrants from neighbouring countries — if they were Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsees or Jains. It was clear to everyone which of South Asia’s major religions had been left off that list.

The government said it was trying to help religious minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. To critics, it looked like another anti-Muslim campaign.

In the past year, lawyers and human rights defenders say, anxiety over Assam’s citizenship checks has driven dozens of people in the state to suicide, both Muslims and Hindus.

But overall, Hindus excluded from the list appear to be more confident that they won’t actually be deported. Several politicians have said they will make sure that Hindu Bengalis can stay.

“We are banking on the word from the central and state government,” said Shrichand Pareek, an upper-caste Hindu.

Many Muslims feel they have no one to turn to. This process has left them feeling frightened, helpless, alone and confused — especially children, whose heads have been filled with visions of being pulled away.

“Sometimes I imagine detention camps to be like these big tarpaulin tents set amid a vast field where my family will never be able to meet me, see me,” said Noor Jahan Begum, a 13-year-old girl who had been worried about making the list. “I think the detention camp is like a monster that will eat me up.”

But Saturday, she proved to be one of the lucky ones. She made it.

”We are going to buy a big chicken and prepare fish curry from the best variety of fish available to us,’’ said her jubilant father, Najrul Islam. “It is the biggest relief of our lives.’’

c.2019 The New York Times Company