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?“


British envoy denies Iran summons over tanker attacks claim

Updated 16 June 2019
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British envoy denies Iran summons over tanker attacks claim

  • “I asked for an urgent meeting with the Foreign Ministry yesterday and it was granted. No ‘summons’,” he said
  • Iran’s foreign ministry said the head of its European affairs Mahmoud Barimani met Macaire on Saturday

TEHRAN: Britain’s ambassador to Iran on Sunday denied he was summoned by the Iranian foreign ministry after London accused Tehran of “almost certainly” being responsible for tanker attacks in the Gulf.
“Interesting. And news to me,” ambassador Rob Macaire said in a tweet a day after the Iranian foreign ministry said in a statement that it had summoned the envoy over his government’s accusations.
“I asked for an urgent meeting with the Foreign Ministry yesterday and it was granted. No ‘summons’. Of course if formally summoned I would always respond, as would all Ambassadors,” Macaire wrote.
Iran’s foreign ministry said the head of its European affairs Mahmoud Barimani met Macaire on Saturday and “strongly protested against the unacceptable and anti-Iranian positions of the British government.”
On Friday, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said London had concluded Iran was “almost certainly” responsible for Thursday’s tanker attacks.
He was echoing remarks by US President Donald Trump who said Thursday’s attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman had Iran “written all over it.”
Iran has denied any involvement in the twin attacks.
It dismissed Hunt’s accusations as “false” and chided London for its “blind and precipitous alignment” with US views, according to the foreign ministry.
The latest incident comes as ties between Tehran and London have been strained in recent months, namely over the fate of a British-Iranian mother jailed in Iran on sedition charges.
London has repeatedly called for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was arrested in April 2016 as she was leaving Iran after taking their infant daughter to visit her family.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is serving a five-year sentence for allegedly trying to topple the Iranian government, has begun a hunger strike in protest at her detention, her husband said on Saturday.
She previously went on hunger strike in January.
Richard Ratcliffe urged the Iranian authorities to immediately release his wife and to allow the British embassy to check on her health, and also asked they grant him a visa to visit her.
On Saturday he also stood outside Iran’s London embassy and said he would maintain his own hunger strike and vigil for as long as his wife refused food.