Branded as ‘infiltrators,’ Muslims in India’s Assam fear for future

Born in India 71 years ago, Mohammed Rehat Ali is still traumatized a month after his release from a detention camp. (AFP)
Updated 14 July 2019

Branded as ‘infiltrators,’ Muslims in India’s Assam fear for future

  • The push to render stateless people described as “infiltrators” by Modi’s right-hand man has been limited to the north-eastern state of Assam
  • The Hindu nationalist party wants to replicate it nationwide, alarming Muslims, who critics say are the real focus

KAMRUP: Born in India 71 years ago, Mohammed Rehat Ali is still traumatized a month after his release from a detention camp, struggling to shake off a fear for the future shared by millions — many of them Muslims — under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The push to render stateless people described as “infiltrators” by Modi’s right-hand man has been limited to the north-eastern state of Assam, but his Hindu nationalist party wants to replicate it nationwide, alarming Muslims, who critics say are the real focus.
“I have never expected that I would have to prove my citizenship. I am an Indian citizen, we are born here in Assam and living here for generations,” Ali, an illiterate farmer, told AFP.
But when he was unable to produce the required documents, a “Foreigners’ Tribunal” declared him a Bangladeshi and sent him to a detention camp.
After three years, his sons secured his release by appealing to a higher court, but only after selling their land and cattle to raise legal fees.
He is one of the lucky ones.
Over four million others in the state of 33 million — where immigration has been a hot topic since British colonial rule — were left off a draft “National Register of Citizens” (NRC) last July.
They could not prove that they or their parents or grandparents were in Assam before 1971, when millions fled Bangladesh’s war of independence into India.
Those excluded have been able to appeal, but up to two million people could be left off a final list due at the end of this month, reports say.
Understanding the process and producing the necessary documents in a state where many are illiterate and lack even basic papers is a nightmare for many.
One case that for critics encapsulated the absurdity was Sona Ullah, a retired Indian army captain and a veteran of the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan.
He was sent to a detention camp in May due to a mismatch in his papers. Police even seized his old uniform and he was only granted interim bail after an outcry.
Those who fail to make the cut have to go to one of around 100 “Foreigners Tribunals” currently in place. Another 200 are being set up.
These are a lottery however, campaigners say, and the staff often unqualified.
According to online magazine Scroll, Assam’s coalition government, which is led by Modi’s party, has removed tribunal members if their “performance” falls short.
“The atmosphere has become such that there is a competition to be, what members joke among themselves, the highest wicket-taker — the one who can declare the maximum number of people foreigners,” one former tribunal member told Scroll, using a cricketing analogy.
Most of those left off the draft NRC are Muslims, and critics of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) say this reflects its aim to serve only its co-religionists.
In January the lower house of parliament passed legislation that will grant citizenship to people who moved to India from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan at least six years ago — but not if they are Muslim.
Home Minister Amit Shah has called for the ejection of “termites” and said before the BJP’s election victory in May that it would “run a countrywide campaign to send back the infiltrators.”
What will happen to those who don’t make the cut in Assam remains unclear, with some hard-liners calling for mass deportations, although Bangladesh has already said it will not take any in.
There are currently 938 people in six detention camps. Another with a capacity of 3,000 is set to be built, and the Assam government wants another nine, each for 1,000 people.
But even if people are not moved en masse to camps or ejected, becoming effectively stateless could make normal life — including access to health care or education — tough, raising anxiety levels.
According to the opposition, 44 people have killed themselves since the NRC process began. There are no official figures.
It is a fear that Ali knows well, even as he acknowledges his good fortune in securing a release from the camps.
“I have lost three long years of my life away from my family,” he said.

East Manhattan a ghost town during UNGA

Updated 16 min 39 sec ago

East Manhattan a ghost town during UNGA

  • General Assembly has gone virtual for first time in its 75-year history due to COVID-19
  • Pandemic has dealt devastating blow to New York’s tourism sector, economy

NEW YORK: Even in a metropolis that draws over 62 million visitors each year, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) is usually one of the most publicized events in New York City. Not so much in 2020.

Outside the UN complex on First Avenue, curbside police barricades line the streets. But there is hardly anyone to see except a policeman, a photographer, and only a trickle of local residents going about their business as usual.

As the UN’s signature big meeting has moved online for the first time in its 75-year history, noticeably absent is the severe traffic congestion caused by police-escorted motorcades whizzing by as presidents, premiers, monarchs and other dignitaries swept across Midtown East for top-level, high-stakes meetings and conferences.

Extensive roadblocks had led the city to declare the second part of September “gridlock alert days.”

This year, no more than 200 New York-based diplomats will be allowed in the Midtown East headquarters, said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the UN secretary-general.

The UNGA is meeting by video because of coronavirus, compounding the pandemic’s blow to the city’s economy.

“Last year during the General Assembly we were at 100 percent occupancy, but since the pandemic everything has come down. We’re now at 20 percent,” Sylvia Natividad, who has been working at the Millennial Hilton across from the UN for the past 17 years, told Arab News.

This hotel is a leaders’ favorite, and Natividad has, along the years, met many heads of state. “It’s hard to be impressed by any of them. You want to impress me? Show me what you’re doing for your people,” she said.

Hotels usually reap about $20 million from UNGA attendees’ room rentals alone. But as she and I chatted, our voices echoed across the Hilton’s large, sumptuous but eerily empty lobby. Only one reporter came in, to ask for the key to the restrooms.  

During the initial coronavirus outbreak, this Hilton offered essential workers over 17,000 free nights.

As the pandemic’s early epicenter in the US, New York saw a 90 percent decline in visitors, dealing a harsh blow to its multibillion-dollar tourism industry.

Last year, according to the city’s tourism agency NYC & Co., visitor spending supported more than 400,000 jobs and generated over $70 billion in economic activity.

The loss of the September swarm of visitors is now mostly felt in the city’s bottom line. Local businesses and their workers hurt the most as they see their income evaporate.

Across on 44th Street, Mona’s Kitchen restaurant owner Oliver recalled the “hustle and bustle” of last year, when on average over 18,000 attendees came through the doors of the UN headquarters daily.

“We had people from all over the world. Security was so tight it blocked off each end of the street. You couldn’t even get down the street without proper clearance and badges,” he told Arab News.

“This year it’s a ghost town. It’s been a ghost town since July. You barely get people walking on 2nd Avenue, so we don’t really get people down here.”

New York restaurants are already straining from a months-long ban on dining out, continuing limitations on table service, and worries about the city’s overall path to recovery.

Mona’s Kitchen made $20,000 per day just from breakfast and lunch this time last year, 50 percent more than on regular days.

“We’ll be lucky to do at least $1,000 today. I’m hoping to do a bit more but I don’t think we will,” Oliver said.

“The only reason we’re able to stay afloat and pay the two, three people I have right now is through the government Paycheck Protection Program. We got the Emergency Disaster Loan also. That allows us to pay rent and utilities,” he added.

“But in the next two, three months, if we don’t see a huge increase in sales and people coming back to the city, it’s going to force us to shut down. I can’t afford to pay rent after a couple of months.”

The UNGA has always coincided with the US Open tennis tournament and New York Fashion Week. For that, September has often brought windfall profits for New Yorkers.

It is a crucial month for the restaurants and bars that cater to world dignitaries, tennis fans and fashion partygoers.

Summer tends to be slow for the food industry, and business owners rely on events such as the UNGA to jumpstart autumn activity.

Beyond the diplomats and dignitaries, the UNGA also brings aides, civil society activists and everyday citizens to New York, showcasing the city to the world.

Now, its tourism sector faces a punishing autumn and winter season. As many as one-third of the city’s 230,000 small businesses will not be able to survive, the non-profit organization Partnership for New York City predicted in a July report.

Poverty and unemployment will rise as tens of billions of dollars are lost in revenue, and tourism will dry up.

Despite the economic devastation of the city, Max Riley, who has been living on 1st Avenue for 20 years, still believes that the UNGA is an “incredible experience every fall.”

Security checkpoints and protests are “a reality we just accept as part of living near the UN,” he told Arab News.

Residents of the east side of Manhattan have long complained about privileged diplomatic parking, illegal parking, traffic congestion and street closures resulting from UN sessions.

However, now the pin-drop silence “is just sad,” said Natividad. “But we’re hopeful everything will come back to normal.”

Riley said: “The entire city is empty. It’s not just this neighborhood. Nothing will change until we have a vaccine, then things will come back. It’ll take a little while. Probably in two or three years we’ll be tired of hearing the word ‘renaissance’.”

Still, despite projections of even deeper economic pain awaiting the city in the months to come, Councilwoman Farah Louis told Arab News: “The economic impact must be weighed against New York’s health and safety.”

Opening up the city would have meant letting a million “potential carriers” of COVID-19 into New York, she said.

“The relative loss of allowing coronavirus to ravage New York once again is much more detrimental to the economy than the relative and temporary tourism industry deficit,” she added.