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.”


Protests in Bangladesh after girl is burned to death

Updated 1 min 27 sec ago
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Protests in Bangladesh after girl is burned to death

  • Nusrat Jahan Rafi told her family she was lured to the roof of her rural school in the town of Feni on April 6 and asked to withdraw the charges by five people clad in burqas
  • The violence has shaken Bangladesh, triggering protests and raising concerns over the plight of women and girls in the conservative nation of 160 million people where sexual harassment and violence are often unreported

DHAKA, Bangladesh: Dozens of protesters gathered in Bangladesh’s capital on Friday to demand justice for an 18-year-old woman who died after being set on fire for refusing to drop sexual harassment charges against her Islamic school’s principal.
Nusrat Jahan Rafi told her family she was lured to the roof of her rural school in the town of Feni on April 6 and asked to withdraw the charges by five people clad in burqas. When she refused, she said her hands were tied and she was doused in kerosene and set alight.
Rafi told the story to her brother in an ambulance on the way to the hospital and he recorded her testimony on his mobile phone. She died four days later in a Dhaka hospital with burns covering 80% of her body.
The violence has shaken Bangladesh, triggering protests and raising concerns over the plight of women and girls in the conservative Muslim-majority nation of 160 million people where sexual harassment and violence are often unreported, victims are intimidated and the legal process is often lengthy. Many avoid reporting to police because of social stigma.
“We want justice. Our girls must grow up safely and with dignity,” Alisha Pradhan, a model and actress, told The Associated Press during Friday’s demonstration. “We protest any forms of violence against women, and authorities must ensure justice.”
Tens of thousands of people attended Rafi’s funeral prayers in Feni, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promised Rafi’s family when they met in Dhaka that those responsible would be punished.
At least 17 people, including students, have been arrested in connection with the case, said Banaj Kumar Majumder, the head of the Police Bureau of Investigation.
In late March, Rafi filed a complaint with police that the principal of her madrasa, or Islamic school, had called her into his office and touched her inappropriately and repeatedly. Her family agreed to help her to file the police complaint, which prompted police to arrest the principal, infuriating him and his supporters. Influential local politicians backed the principal, and ruling party members were also among the arrested.
Police said the arrested suspects told them during interrogations that the attack on Rafi was planned and ordered by the school’s principal from prison when his men went to see him. It was timed for daytime so that it would look like a suicide attempt, Majumder said.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that Rafi’s family said that they had received death threats before the attack telling them to drop the case.
While Rafi’s case is now being treated with urgency, that wasn’t the case until her death.
A video taken on March 27 while Rafi reported the assault shows the local police chief registering her complaint but telling her that the incident was “not a big deal.” The chief was later removed from the police station for negligence in dealing with the case.
For Bangladeshi women, it is often not easy to file sensitive complaints with police. Victims often fear further harassment and bullying. Police also often show an unwillingness to investigate such cases and are often accused of being influenced by local politics or bribes.
But the call for dealing with violence against women, especially related to sexual harassment and assault, is also getting louder.
“The horrifying murder of a brave woman who sought justice shows how badly the Bangladesh government has failed victims of sexual assault,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Nusrat Jahan Rafi’s death highlights the need for the Bangladesh government to take survivors of sexual assault seriously and ensure that they can safely seek a legal remedy and be protected from retaliation.”