Fear grips ‘stateless’ millions in India’s Assam

Some four million people were left off a draft National Citizens Register (NRC) published in July in the northeastern state of Assam. (AFP)
Updated 21 December 2018
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Fear grips ‘stateless’ millions in India’s Assam

  • Those born in Assam after 1971 have to prove that their parents or grandparents entered India before that
  • Getting hold of documents in a state where many are illiterate and lack even basic papers is a challenge

KARAIBIL, India: Indian farmer Nur Mohammed can barely sleep for worrying that his wife might soon be made stateless, put in a detention camp and deported.
She is one of four million people left off a draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) published in July in the northeastern state of Assam — provoking accusations of discrimination against Muslim residents and of stoking ethnic tensions.
Those not on the list, who could now face being effectively stripped of their Indian citizenship and rights, can challenge their omission by providing certain documents to prove they are legal residents — but many lack the necessary paperwork, and the December 31 deadline is looming.
“We are genuine Indian citizens,” said Mohammed, 66, his voice low and quivering.
“While my name, the names of my two sons and daughter appeared in the list, the name of my wife is not there,” he told AFP.
The draft list excludes all those unable to prove they were in the state before 1971, when millions fled Bangladesh’s war of independence and sought refuge in Assam and elsewhere.
Those born in Assam after 1971 have to prove that their parents or grandparents entered India before that.
But getting hold of documents in a state where many are illiterate and lack even basic papers is a challenge.
Less than two weeks before the deadline, only around 1.5 million people left off the draft list have submitted claims to be included, the Assam government says.
“There is large-scale illiteracy in our area, people don’t have access even to basic education,” said Akram Hussain, an activist helping people file claims.
“They have been living like this for ages but now all of a sudden they are being asked to bring documents to prove their identity.”
Mohammed’s wife Yarjan Nesa submitted a certificate issued by the head of her village in the rural district of Kamrup to establish her link with her mother, but it was rejected.
“I do not have any other document as I have never been to school or never had a bank account anywhere,” she said.
Assam has seen many major influxes in India’s turbulent history, beginning when the British colonial rulers brought in Bengalis to work on tea plantations.
Immigration continued after independence in 1947, and today Bengali speakers make up around 30 percent of Assam’s 31 million people.
Tensions in the ethnic and religious melting pot have at times boiled over into violence — 2,000 Bengalis were butchered in one day in 1983 — and have increased pressure for a lasting political solution.
The first, failed, attempt at screening in Assam was made in 1951.
In 2008, a prominent Assamese campaigner lobbied India’s Supreme Court — six years later the court ordered the federal government to update its citizens register.
Critics say the process is being used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP party — which runs Assam — to stoke anti-Muslim feelings ahead of elections in 2019.
Some two-thirds of the Bengalis are Muslim, the rest Hindu. Assamese speakers, the largest community, are mostly Hindu.
UN special rapporteurs expressed “serious concerns” in a recent letter to the Indian government about the process “stoking ethnic tensions.”
Abdul Kalam Azad, a local researcher and activist, says he has recorded at least 26 related suicides since the NRC process began in 2015. The impact on mental health is set to be a “huge problem,” he told AFP.
Modi’s government has said no “genuine” Indian would be left off the register but Amit Shah, Modi’s right-hand man, has said India must act against “infiltrators who were eating the country like termites.”
Activists say claims get rejected due to minor errors and that even some officials are confused.
Bengali-speaker Baharjan Nesa, 88, said she was left off with her son and daughter-in-law even though she has a copy of a 1954 Indian electoral roll featuring her father’s name.
Others omitted include Hajjong people who arrived in the 1960s from what is now Bangladesh and were given refugee status.
Once the December 31 deadline has passed, a “verification” process begins in February.
What will happen to those who still don’t make the cut remains to be seen — with some hard-liners calling for mass deportations.
Ominously, 1,037 people including 31 minors have already been put in six cramped detention camps. Reports say a seventh camp with capacity for 3,000 people is being built.
Bangladesh has stated that it will not accept any deportees and Modi has reportedly told Dhaka that this is not on the cards.
But even if people are not moved en masse to camps or ejected, becoming effectively stateless could make normal life — accessing health care or education — much tougher.
“Am I also going to be detained?” said Baharjan Nea. “I don’t know what to do. Where do I get another document from?“


At least 10 dead as fire rages on Black Sea ships

Updated 22 January 2019
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At least 10 dead as fire rages on Black Sea ships

  • Twelve people were rescued from the burning vessels but there was little hope of finding any more survivors
  • The strait connects both Russian and Ukrainian ports in the Azov Sea to the Black Sea

MOSCOW: Ten crew died and another 10 were missing presumed dead in a fire that broke out on two ships while they were transferring fuel in the Black Sea, Russia’s Transport Ministry said on Tuesday.
The vessels which caught fire on Monday have the same names as two Tanzania-flagged ships, the Maestro and Venice, which last year were included on a US sanctions advisory as delivering fuel to Syria.
Twelve people were rescued from the burning vessels but there was little hope of finding any more survivors, a spokesman for the Transport Ministry’s maritime unit said. The focus had switched from a rescue operation to a search for bodies, he added.
The spokesman said the vessels, which had a combined crew of 32, were still on fire and rough no attempts were being made to put out the blaze because of rough sea conditions.
Russian maritime officials said on Monday that the vessels were carrying out a ship-to-ship transfer of fuel in the Kerch Strait, which separates Crimea from Russia.
On Nov. 20 last year, the US Treasury Department added nine Russian and Iranian individuals and companies on its sanctions list for participating in the shipment of petroleum to Syria.
It also issued an advisory note warning of the potential sanctions risk for any entities involved in such shipments which listed 35 ships, including the Maestro and Venice, as having delivered oil to Syria between 2016 and 2018.
Reuters reported in December that both the Maestro and Venice continued operations after the Treasury announcement, and regularly entered Crimea’s Temryuk port, according to Refinitiv data.
In the port, liquefied petroleum gas of Russian and Kazakh origin is transferred onto tankers for export, via the Kerch Strait.
The strait, between Russian-annexed Crimea and southern Russia, connects both Russian and Ukrainian ports in the Azov Sea to the Black Sea.
In November, Russia detained three Ukrainian navy vessels and their crews in the vicinity of the strait, fueling tensions between the two countries. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.