Millions in limbo as nativist anger roils Indian state

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Activists of the Minority Youth Federation shout slogans against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lead central and Assam state government during a protest rally following the publishing of the first complete draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), in Kolkata on July 31, 2018. (AFP)
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Social activists hold posters during a protest following the publication of a draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Kolkata on August 1, 2018. (AFP)
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An Indian security personal stands guard as residents stand in a queue to check their names on the final list of National Register of Citizens (NRC) at a NRC Sewa Kendra (NSK) in Burgoan village in Morigoan district on July 30, 2018. (AFP)
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The All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) Members of Parliament hold placards against the non-inclusion of over 40 lakh people in Assam's National Register of Citizens during a protest in Parliament in New Delhi on July 31, 2018. (AFP)
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In this Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018 photo, Muslim farmer Abdul Mannan, 50, left, and Anuwar Hussain, 21, center, review the certificates of members of their family whose names were left out from the National Register of Citizens draft in Mayong, 45 kilometers (28 miles) east Gauhati, India. (AP)
Updated 11 August 2018
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Millions in limbo as nativist anger roils Indian state

  • In the 1980s that erupted into violence, with hundreds of people killed in Assam amid waves of anti-migrant attacks
  • Assam has a population of roughly 33 million, with a little over one-third of them Muslims

MAYONG, India: The rice farmer doesn’t know how it happened. Abdul Mannan just knows a mistake was made somewhere. But what can you say when the authorities suddenly insist one of your five children isn’t an Indian? What do you do when your wife and daughter-in-law are suddenly viewed as illegal immigrants?
“We are genuine Indians. We are not foreigners,” said Mannan, 50, adding his family has lived in India’s northeastern Assam state since the 1930s. “I can’t understand where the mistake is.”
Neither can nearly 4 million other people who insist they are Indian but who now must prove their nationality as the politics of citizenship — overlaid with questions of religion, ethnicity and illegal immigration — swirls in a state where such questions have a long and bloody past.
Today, nativist anger churns through the hills and plains of Assam state, just across the border from Bangladesh, with many here believing the state is overrun with illegal migrants.
“India is for Indians. Assam is for Indians,” said Sammujjal Bhattachariya, a top official with the All Assam Students Union, which has been in the forefront of pushing for the citizenship survey. “Assam is not for illegal Bangladeshis.”
“We need a permanent solution,” he added.
On Friday, some of the 3.9 million residents left off Assam’s draft list of citizens began picking up forms to file their appeals, wading into a byzantine legal and bureaucratic process that many fear could lead to detention, expulsion or years in limbo.
Mannan, his two daughters and two of his sons were all listed on the citizenship list released in July. But his wife, a 17-year-old son and his daughter-in-law were nowhere to be seen. No explanation was given.
“We are worried that the names are not there,” said Mannan, who lives with his family in a bamboo-walled hut, supporting them on about $150 a month in farming income. “How will we live? What will we do? How will we stay in Assam?“
For decades, fears of widespread movement across the porous border with Bangladesh have triggered tensions between the state’s majority ethnic group, Assamese-speaking Hindus, and its Bengali-speaking Muslims.
In the 1980s that erupted into violence, with hundreds of people killed in Assam amid waves of anti-migrant attacks. New Delhi eventually ruled that anyone who could prove their family had lived in India before Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence, which drove millions of Bangladeshis to flee across the border, would be considered an Indian citizen.
But proving that can be deeply complicated in a region where basic paperwork — birth certificates, marriage certificates, leases — has only recently become commonplace in many rural villages.
State officials insist they have done everything possible to make the procedure fair.
“It’s been an extremely exhaustive process,” said Prateek Hajjela, the coordinator of the citizenship project that involves 52,000 officials, visits to 6.8 million families and countless hearings to examine the details of family trees.
But the politics of religion and ethnicity have been on the rise in India since 2014, when the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was swept to power in national elections. The party quickly pushed to update the citizenship registry in Assam, where politicians have eagerly grabbed hold of the issue.
“First our target is to segregate the foreigners. What steps we will take against them will come next,” Assam’s top elected official, Sarbananda Sonowal, told the Times of India in an interview early this year. “They will have only one right — human rights as guaranteed by the UN that include food, shelter and clothing.”
“For almost 40 years our people have been living in a state of confusion and uncertainty,” he told the newspaper.
Today, hundreds of Bengali-speaking Muslims with suspect nationality are already living in a half-dozen detention camps in Assam.
Assam has a population of roughly 33 million, with a little over one-third of them Muslims.
“The concern over illegal migration is indeed genuine,” said Akhil Ranjan Dutta, a political analyst and professor at Gauhati University in Assam. “But unfortunately, political parties have always tried to score brownie points on the issue purely to gain votes.”
Few deny there has been widespread illegal migration into Assam, often by poor Bangladeshis in search of work as farm laborers. The state’s demographics have shifted dramatically in recent decades, with the percentage of Bengali-speakers jumping from 22 percent in 1991 to 29 percent in 2011, and the percentage of Assamese-speakers declining. Many analysts, however, say those numbers in part reflect the higher birth rates among Muslims. Estimates on the number of illegal immigrants vary wildly, from a few hundred thousand to many millions.
While Muslims appear to dominate the 3.9 million people left off the citizenship rolls, they aren’t the only people now facing a bureaucratic gauntlet.
“I don’t know about politics. I am a poor man. I work all day, eat, and sleep at night. I don’t go anywhere else,” said Khitish Namo Das, 50, a rail-thin Hindu farmer who insists he was born in India and whose family of eight — except for one daughter-in-law — are now considered illegal.
“When the names did not appear on the list it made me worry,” he said, then reassured himself: “I have the documents so I don’t think I need to worry too much.”
It’s not clear what will happen to people who, once their appeals are used up, are still not listed as citizens. Detention is a strong possibility for some, but impoverished Bangladesh insists it will not accept mass expulsions back into its territory. Activists worry many could be left in limbo for years, perhaps decades, stateless wanderers like Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims.
Even some of those who support the citizenship survey say the migrants are a significant part of the economy.
“Those immigrants play a very important role in supplying your labor economy. So if those people are given work permits, minus political rights, they could be very valuable in Assam,” said Nani Gopal Mahanta, an Assam-based political analyst.
But he defends the survey: “It’s a question of sovereignty, it’s a question of the security of this country.”
Officials insist that the process will be open and trustworthy.
“It’s going to be a fair procedure,” Hajjela, the project coordinator, said last week. “We will ensure that no genuine citizen gets left out, and at the point in time, ensuring that the ineligibles don’t find their names there.”


Taliban’s Ghazni assault sparks new Pak-Afghan tensions

Updated 18 August 2018
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Taliban’s Ghazni assault sparks new Pak-Afghan tensions

  • Pakistan’s Foreign Office says Afghanistan has not shared any evidence to support its recent allegations against Pakistan
  • Imran Khan’s idea of a soft border between Pakistan and Afghanistan may have suffered a big setback in the wake of the Ghazni attack

PESHAWAR: In the backdrop of the Taliban’s brazen assault on the southern city of Ghazni in Afghanistan, President Ashraf Ghani alleged that the bodies of the perpetrators had arrived in Pakistan, though Islamabad maintained that Kabul had not officially shared any information or evidence in this regard.
Soon after that, the Afghan president said in a fiery speech to a jirga in Ghazni: “I have a message for Pakistan. Dead bodies (of the Taliban) have arrived in (Pakistan). Peace cannot be forcefully imposed on Afghanistan. Where did they (Taliban) come from and why are they being treated in (Pakistani) hospitals?”
But Pakistan strongly rejected reports claiming that some Taliban fighters involved in the Ghazni attack had been offered medical treatment in its hospitals.
In the absence of any official communication through regular channels established bilaterally, such reports cannot be given any credence, said Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Saturday.
Haq Nawaz, a senior Peshawar-based security analyst, told Arab News that the newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan faced a string of daunting challenges, such as economic revival, political stability, tackling corruption, and improving relations with his country’s immediate neighbors.
However, he added that recent developments in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have stepped up violent activities, will probably constitute a much bigger predicament for the new political administration.
He recalled that Khan had mentioned in his victory speech that he wanted a European Union-style soft border with Afghanistan, claiming that the idea had seemingly received a setback after the Ghazni attack.
“The latest bout of allegations will have a negative impact on the process of reviving good relations between the two neighboring countries,” Nawaz noted.
Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa also expressed “deep concern” over the recent surge in violence in Afghanistan and lamented in a statement released by the military’s media wing the loss of precious lives.
Bajwa reiterated that Pakistan was not supporting terrorist activities inside Afghanistan. He added that the allegation about the movement of injured or dead terrorists from Ghazni to Pakistan was incorrect.
However, the army chief noted that there were scores of Pakistanis working in Afghanistan, and that some of them periodically fell victim to acts of terrorism along with their Afghan brothers inside Afghanistan. “Terming such victims as terrorists is unfortunate,” he maintained.
Yet, the Afghan president sought an explanation from Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership on the Ghazni attack.
“Imran Khan, you are the son of Pashtun parents. Investigate this and give me an answer. General Bajwa, you have repeatedly given me assurances over phone calls that special attention would be given to the issue of peace in Afghanistan once elections took place in Pakistan. Now give me an answer,” Ghani said while addressing a group of tribal elders attending the jirga.
Bajwa said that different factions of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan hiding in their sanctuaries in Afghanistan after assuming Afghan identities, were transported to Pakistan for medical help after receiving injuries.
Nawaz said the Afghan government should share relevant evidence with Pakistan in this case, arguing that using the media or social media to deal with such serious and sensitive developments can worsen the situation.
He said it was not just a statement or allegation from an ordinary official since the claim was made by a head of state, adding that both countries should settle such teething issues through dialogue and diplomatic channels.
However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted in its statement: “Such reports can only be viewed as malicious propaganda to vitiate the existing cooperation between the two countries.”