World

More Than 4 Million People Who Should Be Considered Citizens Aren't Recognized by Xenophobic Government of India

Heart-wrenching tales of families split apart by dubious Foreigners Tribunals.

President Donald J. Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi | July 7, 2017
Photo Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead, Public Domain via Wikimedia

Can a nation, 71 years after its formation, turn the very basis of citizenship on its head? If you look at the twin developments happening under aggressively hegemonic regimes, in both the U.S. and India, it appears it can. The scale of the tragedies unraveling as families are split, as talks of a barbed wire fence and wall gain hysterical ground and even higher courts in these lands rubber-stamp attitudes that fundamentally alter the basis of the creations of both nations, are huge.

In India, at present, a staggering 4 million-plus (4,007,008) persons have been excluded from the first final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a process that has its root in the movement against foreigners that shook the state of Assam decades ago, following the Indo-Bangladesh war (1971).

On July 30, 2018, a staggering 4 million-plus were rendered citizenship-less, seriously questioning the character and efficacy of the process. India’s Supreme Court, under whose aegis the process is being undertaken, has been quick to assure citizens that no legitimate citizen will be excluded from the potent mix of bureaucratic callousness, regional xenophobia and religious supremacies that dominates Indian politics today. Add to that extremely long-winded and un-people-friendly court procedures of redressal, and the humanitarian crisis acquires even more monstrous proportions.

What was the Assam movement? It was a vocal, if violent and exclusivist student movement borne out of an agitation against unemployment that unleashed the “outsider and infiltrator paradigm.” It is this sentiment that led to demands—across Assamese society—for such a Register, and finally the Court was drawn in as monitor. Since the mid-late 1970s, with the powerful streetwide demonstrations against the “outsider” dominating the discourse, it has become, and remains today, virtually impossible for rational discussion to navigate the issue. In 1985, the then majority Congress government, headed by Rajiv Gandhi, signed the Assam accord with agitating students, following the agitation, an accord that expressed a foreboding intent, the expulsion of all “illegal Bangladeshi migrants.” That sentiment has solidified in this northeastern state, and the expulsion of all “illegal immigrants” irrespective of religion, has been the consensus demand in Assam. For the first time making its electoral debut into the otherwise culturally diverse and complicated northeast (seven states are part of this region dubbed the “northeast” by the colonial British), the supremacist BJP rode to power here in 2016. Since then it has also captured Tripura, for 25 years a left bastion.

2018: The months leading up to the process of the publication of the final draft of the Register (NRC) were marked with widespread protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. Both the ruling BJP (at the Center) and the Sonowal government (in the state) are today seen to be using the smokescreen of the process of updating the NRC in a bid to camouflage their actual position on the bill.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, introduced by the Narendra Modi government in Parliament, has raised fundamental issues that have a particular bearing on Assam and other northeastern states. The bill proposes to make non-Muslim “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh eligible to apply for Indian citizenship, as long as they are not Muslims or Jews. The bill’s statement and objects of reason says that “under the existing provisions of the Citizenship Act, 1955, persons belonging to these six minority communities, from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who have either entered into India without valid travel documents or the validity of their documents have expired are regarded as illegal migrants and hence ineligible to apply for Indian citizenship and it is proposed to make them eligible for applying for Indian citizenship.” Besides, the bill also proposes to reduce the period of residency in India required under the act for eligibility to apply for citizenship to six years from the current period of 11 years.

Today, sentiment in Assam, in the influential middle class, retains this contradictory and rigid character. What has changed fundamentally is the politics in New Delhi, the country’s capital. Today, the central government has a stated agenda: an alteration of the fundamentals of Indian citizenship, based on the criteria of faith. In addition, a dubious and uninterrogated twin process of declaring persons foreigners (by Foreigners Tribunals) and “D” Voters (“doubtful voters”) by the Central Election Commission is being intertwined and confused with a process that should have been completely de-linked from the other two.

It is this twist and complication that has rendered the ongoing process of preparation of the NRC complex and twisted. The hysteria around “illegal immigrants especially if they are Muslim” has dominated the election speeches of Narendra Modi and other party stalwarts and is also outlined in the party’s manifesto in the state. (The BJP won elections here for the first time in 2016.) In its manifesto, it was upfront on its agenda, as I wrote on Sabrang India:

“ ‘Our priority is the illegal infiltration and detection and deportation of these infiltrators,’ [BJP President Amit Shah] said while adding that the Vision Document, which is a roadmap for progress on all sectors, has also assured that a law would be enacted to deal sternly with industries, business establishments, small and medium enterprises or any other agencies employing infiltrators. This kind of statement in a party’s vision document raises serious questions about policies that may be set into motion on employees and laborers of a particular denomination.

“This campaign is ominous, just as it was when, in the April of 2014, the then prime minister in waiting, Narendra Modi, said at a rally in Srirampur, ‘BJP’s position is very clear, votebank politics has destroyed the country... Those who are Bangladeshi infiltrators, will have to go back,’ welcoming those with Hindu blood from across the border. 

“This campaign pitch by Modi and followed by others had drawn rich dividends for the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls of May 2014. The party’s vote share had gone up from 11.47 percent in the 2011 state assembly elections in Assam to 36.5 percent in May 2014.”

Ironically, the process of the finalization of the draft register is happening under the monitoring of the Supreme Court, a process underway and accelerated since 2009. But this seemingly neutral and self-contained process, under the Court’s eagle eye, cannot be de-linked from real politics on the ground. As I had argued in my editorial, “Who Is an Indian? Can the NRC decide?” published on August 2, 2018:

“The whole demand for an NRC—a process that enjoys a wide support from different sections of the Assamese population—has been mired in a web of complexities, political not legal, powered by a strong regional sentiment, bordering on hysteria. The NRC is, by definition, a list of citizens. The inherent problem with the process for the preparation of NRC in Assam comes from its use as a device to detect illegal immigrants from among the legalized immigrants under a presumption that people with a particular cultural, ethnic and linguistic identity are immigrants (both illegal and legalized) without a rational basis. This is contrary to both constitutional provisions and to Citizenship Law as it shifts the burden of proof. It makes vulnerable those sections that have little or no access to documentation and record, worse still, are poor and otherwise marginalized anyway, everyday victims of a state and a bureaucracy. Such a presumption—about immigrants—has subjected roughly 12 percent of the population of the state to such an arbitrary procedure which is designed to exclude, rather than include, them.

Four days after the release of the controversial NRC final draft, we are being told that 55 percent of those callously disenfranchised are women, over 1 lakh (one hundred thousand) belong to the Gorkha tribe, and that neighboring Bengal state did not respond to over 1,00,000 queries sent by the NRC. It will be a while before any rational segregation of the exclusionary date can take place. Some stories of exclusion, however history will record, as symptomatic of this flawed process: a Freedom Fighter, a man and his family who fought the British in 1857, the nephew of India’s fifth president, the deputy speaker of Assam’s state assembly, a Hindu Bengali laborer, a pregnant woman… all these and 40 lakh more are out of the NRC. Some of course will find it harder than others to get back on.”

The process of the NRC took our team to Assam, and the stories that have emerged are heart-wrenching. They have also exposed a huge gap in media coverage that ought to have been, over decades and months, looking at the way Foreigners Tribunals have been working in the state for decades declaring persons “declared foreigners” in dubious fashion—often higher courts have upturned the verdicts. For decades this unquestioned and unmonitored process has been going on, with “mainstream” India turning a blind eye.

One family lost a wife and mother seven years ago, after the Foreigners Tribunal declared her a foreigner, and obviously they just did not have the wherewithal to contest. They do not know where she is, or if Indian border forces have deported her. Seven years ago, Ainal Haq’s wife was declared a “foreigner” and sent to a detention camp. Then, without her family members being informed, she was allegedly deported to Bangladesh. Haq has documents to prove that she was in fact an Indian. What does that mean for accountability, for due process?

A man was in a detention camp for five long years. Saken Ali has found himself incarcerated in a detention camp due to a minor variation in his name in official records. In a truly Kafkaesque twist to the tale, now his family members are facing the same fate. A fate reserved for “Bangladeshis,” “illegal immigrants”—a fate worse than death.

I have also argued that:

“The insistence (by the NRC) that this process and the declaration of Voters as ‘D’ Voters (Doubtful) or ‘DF’ (Declared Foreigners) are not interlinked is not borne out by ground reality. While the latter two are handled by the Election Commission under a different statute, the NRC authorities have non-officially assumed the power of the tribunals in relation to burden of proof, D voters and those ‘declared foreigners’ by the tribunals by passing controversial, last-minute Orders linking the two (May 1 and 2 Orders of the NRC Coordinator). Detention Camps—cramped rooms in six locations within Assam’s jails—are the fate of those who will finally not make the NRC; and this is precisely the fate of those ‘declared foreigners’ by the 100 Foreigners Tribunals in the state. Besides, the NRC Coordinator has decreed that those declared foreigners by the FT will not be included in the NRC, never mind the fact that these orders (in a whopping 80 percent of the cases) have been overturned by higher courts.”

The process was tainted by bureaucratic callousness that refused to factor in regional ethnicities and diversities. The state of Assam is dominated in consciousness by the Brahmaputra Valley, but the Barak Valley (largely Bengali-speaking), where the city of Silchar is located, is also very much part of the ethnography of the state. Today, our initial studies have shown a large number of exclusions from those districts that have a larger domination of Bengali-speaking Hindus:

“Assam has 33 districts presently, of which 10 districts have a more than 50 percent Muslim population. However, other than Darrang, all other, nine, Muslim-dominated districts of Assam are seeing lower percentage drop rates from the NRC draft list as compared to other districts with a lesser Muslim population… This overall situation has created trepidation, fear and dissatisfaction amongst the state leadership of BJP.”

Is this a coincidence or part of a wider sinister design as the push for amendments to the Indian Citizenship Bill, 2016, gains ground? The BJP and the ruling supremacist dispensation, clear in its agenda to turn India into a religious theocracy, is nothing if not brazen and frank. In December 2015, a year before the controversy over the amendment to the Indian Citizenship Act had consolidated, Kailash Vijayvargiya, the national secretary of the ruling party and Bengal co-observer, had openly declared that all Hindus who have crossed over to India from Bangladesh or Pakistan since the 1970s will be given citizenship after the amendment is passed by Parliament.

Today, the powerful politicians of the ruling dispensation including Vijayvargiya appear confident of juggling regional hysteria with religious supremacies. Vijayvargiya has been vocal over the past weeks since the publication of the draft NRC on July 30. Quoted in India’s premier business newspaper, the Economic Times, on August 3, he says:

“ ‘We have categorised illegal migrants. One is the persecuted Hindus. The other group is of Bangladeshi Muslims who infiltrated to get financial benefits from the country. So, the Hindus and other non-Muslim migrants do not need to worry. Even if they fail to submit the required documents, the government will protect them,’ Vijayvargiya said.

“ ‘Moreover, they will be awarded citizenship after we bring the citizenship amendment bill in Parliament. But, Bangladeshi Muslims sneaked in to earn money. They are not persecuted. Why should they be protected?’ ”

So, while the Assamese middle class sentiment will be placated by bringing in such a Register of Citizens, however flawed (and flawed it is given the scale and quality of exclusions, never mind the inaccessibility and unfairness of the redressal process), electoral concerns in next-door Bengal and other parts are sought to be placated by assurances around the Citizenship Bill. It is a dangerous game that the ruling party is playing, a game that has the potential of triggering not just a humanitarian disaster, but violence and resentment on a large scale. Elections in India come next year, where Modi’s challenge is to display his continuing sway over the electorate.

But election or no election, the process has triggered a huge challenge for the Indian establishment, bureaucracy and the fundamentals of governance. Potentially we are on the verge of rendering hundreds of thousands of persons citizenship-less. We have no extradition treaty with our neighbor Bangladesh. Is anyone even able to absorb the implications of the humanitarian crisis looming?

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Author’s Note: My organization, CJP, is in the process of documenting the exclusions and organizing people to battle bureaucracy and legal hurdles. The challenge lies in numbers, the inaccessibility of the areas and the fact that most of whom excluded are among the most poor and marginalized in the state. We urge you to tune in!

Related Articles:

Exclusion From NRC Allegedly Leads to Two Suicides in Assam
Assam’s Former Dy Speaker’s Kin Declared ‘Foreigner’
India’s former President’s family left out of NRC in Assam
Who Is an Indian? Can the NRC Decide?
Azad Hind Fauj Soldier’s Family Excluded From NRC Final Draft
The Curious Case of Syamlal Ali

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Teesta Setalvad is a writer, activist, and journalist living in India. She is also the secretary of Citizens for Justice & Peace and a writing fellow for the Independent Media Institute