Asia India

India excludes 4 million people from draft citizens list in Assam state

MUMBAI – India’s registrar general said on Monday that 4,007,707 people had been excluded from a draft national register of citizens in the border state of Assam, in a move that has raised fears for the future of people in the region.

Sailesh, the registrar general and census commissioner of India, said those excluded from the list would not be deported from the country and would have a chance to file an appeal.

More than 30 million had provided documents to prove their citizenship.

India says the process is to root out hordes of illegal Bangladeshi migrants.

But it has sparked fears of a witch hunt against ethnic minorities in Assam.

Fearing violence, officials say that no-one will face immediate deportation.

However, they say that a lengthy appeal process will be available to all – even if it means millions of families will live in limbo until they get a final decision on their legal status.

Authorities say the updating process – carried out for the first time in six decades – is aimed at detecting and deporting undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh.

But critics have condemned the effort, saying it threatens to make Muslim citizens and long-term refugees of Bangladeshi origin stateless – similar to Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya minority.

Assam is home to more than 32 million people, about a third of whom are Muslims.

Prateek Hajela, the official tasked with updating Assam’s NRC, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that some 4.8 million people in Assam “have failed to provide appropriate legacy documents” in advance of the preliminary list’s publication on Saturday – the second time such a list is being published, the first being at the beginning of the year.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to power in Assam in 2016, has vowed to expel people who are not listed on the NRC.

“All those whose names do not figure in the NRC will have to be deported,” Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam’s finance and health minister, told reporters on Wednesday, without clarifying where those affected would be expelled to.

He said the local government has mobilised more than 40,000 police officers and paramilitary troops in the border state before the preliminary list’s publication.

“We are taking no chances and hence, all security measures have been taken.”

Hindu people of Bangladeshi origin will be allowed to stay in India, he said, in line with federal policy to shelter Hindus who face persecution in their home countries.

Tens of thousands of refugees – both Muslims and Hindus – fled to Assam from Bangladesh during its war of independence from Pakistan in the early 1970s.

Anti-migrant sentiment has long festered in the border state.

In the 1980s, hundreds of people were killed in anti-immigrant protests, resulting in a 1985 accord between the government and protesters, which declares anyone who entered the state without documents after March 24, 1971, to be a foreigner.

In order to be recognised as Indian citizens for the latest update, all residents of Assam had to produce documents proving that they or their families lived in the country before that date.

The process is being overseen by India’s Supreme Court, which has ordered the final register to be published by June 30. The top court also gave Assam’s government a June 30 deadline to complete the verification process.

In February, the government requested an extension, saying it was “impossible” to meet that deadline. But the court turned down the request, saying its job was “to make possible the impossible”.

Judges also refused to appoint a second coordinator to help with the verification process, while also ordering Assam’s government to hold local council elections – slated for April – without affecting the NRC update.

Abhijeet Sarma, president of the Assam Public Works, a group that petitioned the Supreme Court to expedite the NRC update in 2009, hailed the judges’ decision.

“We welcome the Supreme Court’s unambiguous verdict that leaves the government with no options but to comply without making excuses,” he told Al Jazeera.

The Supreme Court is helping to “fulfil the aspirations of ethnic Assamese, who have faced a demographic invasion from East Bengal which is now Bangladesh,” said Sammujal Bhattacharjee, chief adviser to the All Assam Students Union, another group that campaigned for the registration drive.

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