India’s Muslims ‘living in fear’ of being branded stateless

The NRC is designed to identify genuine citizens of India while declaring anyone without valid papers as stateless. (Reuters)
Updated 04 October 2019

India’s Muslims ‘living in fear’ of being branded stateless

  • Minister assures Hindus of citizenship status as Muslims panic over NRC checks

NEW DELHI: Sabina Bibi and her three-year-old daughter queued for more than 12 hours without food just to get a spelling corrected in her ration card.

The 33-year-old daily wage worker joined hundreds of men and women with similar concerns standing in line outside the government Block Development Office in Basudevpur, in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal.

For Muslims in the eastern Indian state, which borders Bangladesh, these are nervy times.

Panic has swept through the Muslim community, which makes up 34 percent of the West Bengal population, following last month’s announcement by the Indian Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) would be implemented throughout the country. The NRC is designed to identify genuine citizens of India while declaring anyone without valid papers as stateless.

In the northeastern state of Assam, where the checks were recently applied, more than 1.9 million people of all faiths were branded stateless because their names did not appear on the official citizenship list. Half of them were thought to be Hindus.

However, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has assured Hindus and other non-Muslim communities that they will be given citizenship status following proposed changes to the country’s Citizenship Act 1955.

The BJP government plans to introduce a citizenship amendment bill in the next session of Parliament to allow for stateless Hindus to be declared Indian citizens, but no such reassurance has been made to the millions of Muslims living in the country.

And fears are particularly heightened in West Bengal which the BJP is hoping to capture in the next assembly elections. Muslims there are worried that by introducing the NRC, the BJP might try to disenfranchise the sizable Muslim population.

“Ever since the BJP said it was going to introduce the NRC in West Bengal, Muslims in the state have been living in fear. They don’t want to take any chances,” said Bibi.

“My husband, who works as a construction worker in Kerala (a state on India’s southern Malabar Coast), told me that I should get the names in our ration cards corrected. It’s a question of our existence and I did not mind standing in the queue to get my name and my husband’s corrected,” she told Arab News.

Saira Bano, 21, from Sherganj village also in the Murshidabad district, spent more than 10 hours waiting to get her 65-year-old father’s misspelt name corrected in his ration card, an important government document.

“It’s not a normal time now. We cannot afford to ignore even a silly mistake in the official document. Our identity is in question. We have a government in Delhi which looks at India from the prism of Hindu and Muslims, and Muslims are treated as others,” she said.

In the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal there have been reports of suicides over the NRC threat. Prof. Abdul Matin of Jadavpur University, who runs an NGO in the district, said at least 16 people had died in the last month in NRC-related cases.

“Three people committed suicide because of the tension, at least four people died due to heat exposure while standing outside government offices, and three people suffered a heart attack because they could not sort out their documents,” added Matin.

Subrata Chakraborty, a journalist based in the Murshidabad district, said: “Life in rural Bengal has come to a standstill with people preoccupied in procuring papers and streamlining their official documents.

“Hardly any economic activity is taking place in the area. Shops in rural areas are closed. It’s an unprecedented situation. Muslims are more worried after minister Shah’s statement on Tuesday in Kolkata where he openly assured Hindus that the government would take care of them.”

BJP spokesperson in West Bengal, Sayantan Basu, said: “The BJP is going to bring NRC not only in West Bengal but all over India. But the NRC will only be introduced in West Bengal after the passage of the citizenship amendment bill in Parliament.

“Through this amendment we want to ensure citizenship to prosecuted Hindu and other minorities who have come from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he told Arab News.

“Muslims who are genuine citizens of India do not need to panic. No country would like to give shelter to illegal immigrants. Would you expect the US to give you citizenship if you enter the country illegally?”

Matin said: “There is a deep sense of panic in all the Muslim-dominated districts of Bengal. The fear is all the more pronounced after Shah’s open declaration that Muslims would not be included in the citizenship amendment bill.

“Muslims are worried from where they will get their legacy certificate. People are not so particular about maintaining documents. They think that the way people in Assam had to present their forefather’s data will be the same in Bengal.

“Rabble-rousing speeches by BJP leaders are further pushing the minority community into panic mode. Muslims feel they are unwanted in BJP’s India,” the political scientist added.

Pregnant mom, unborn child die in India

Updated 08 July 2020

Pregnant mom, unborn child die in India

  • Devastated family mourn latest victim of health system struggling to cope with outbreak

NEW DELHI: The death of an expectant mom and her unborn child after 13 hospitals in one day refused to treat her has put India’s strained health care system under the spotlight.

The devastated husband and 6-year-old child of eight-month pregnant Neelam Singh, 30, are still struggling to come to terms with the “unwarranted loss” a month after her agonizing death in an ambulance outside a hospital in New Delhi.

With more than 100,000 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in the Indian capital, Singh became another victim of a health system battling to cope with patient demand due to a lack of bed space and infrastructure.

That, however, has been little comfort for her family members who said they would never be able to overcome the trauma.

“Those 12 hours were the most traumatic experience of our lives, and we have to live with that trauma,” Shailendra Kumar, Singh’s brother-in-law, told Arab News on Tuesday. Singh had developed complications with her pregnancy on June 5, and Kumar said she was rushed to the same hospital in Noida, Uttar Pradesh where she had been going for regular checkups, but was turned away.

“Shivalik (hospital) gave no reason for refusing to admit her. Despite our pleadings, the hospital did not budge from its stand,” Kumar added.

A day-long ordeal ensued, with one hospital after the other unable to treat her. Eventually, she died in an ambulance some 35 kilometers away from her home in Khoda.

“I took her to 13 hospitals, both government and private facilities, and every one refused to admit her. The image of her writhing in pain will always haunt me,” said Kumar, who was accompanied by Singh’s husband. He added that the reasons provided varied from “high costs” to a lack of facilities.

“One hospital told me that I could not pay the high cost so better try my luck somewhere else. At Sharda Hospital in Greater Noida, I was asked to buy a coupon for COVID-19 treatment for 4,500 rupees ($60), which I did, but still, they refused her entry. It was not the loss of one life but two lives,” he said, referring to her unborn child.

He pointed out that the entire family was in a state of shock following her death with her husband “the worst impacted.”

Kumar filed a complaint against Shivalik and other hospitals but said so far “no action has been taken.”

A day after Singh’s death, the district magistrate of Gautam Buddh Nagar, which Noida falls under, ordered an inquiry and issued instructions for all hospitals “to admit patients regardless of the nature of the case.”

However, 20 days later, on June 26, a similar incident was reported in the Dadri area of Noida.

On that occasion, 21-year-old Robin Bhati had developed a fever, and relatives had taken him to a nearby hospital where a week earlier he had been admitted suffering from influenza. However, the hospital refused to admit him and referred him to a different facility.

Five hours and four hospitals later, a city hospital agreed to take him in, but by then Bhati was already seriously ill and hours later he died after suffering a heart attack.

“We don’t know whether he was a COVID-19 patient or not, but why should hospitals refuse to admit a patient in need of immediate attention,” his uncle Jasveer Bhati told Arab News. A number of the Noida hospitals which allegedly denied admission to Singh and Bhati refused to comment on the cases.

In a statement on Monday, the office of Noida’s chief medical officer said: “Strict instructions have been given to all the private and government hospitals to admit all patients showing COVID-19 symptoms.”

Dr. Loveleen Mangla, a pulmonologist working with Noida-based Metro Hospital and Heart Institute, said: “The government did not prepare itself to face this situation. Now the government is trying to create extra beds and medical facilities, but it’s late. They should have done this three months ago when the nationwide lockdown started.

“With the entire medical infrastructure overstretched and not many quality health workers available in the government hospitals, it’s a grim scenario now,” Mangla added.

With more than 723,000 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, India is now the world’s third worst-affected country after the US and Brazil, with approaching 21,000 people losing their lives.

And the problem is not unique to northern India.

On Saturday, the southern Indian city of Bangalore reported the case of 50-year-old Vasantha, who was rejected by 13 hospitals before she was accepted by the K.C. General Hospital where she eventually died.

Lalitha, a relative of Vasantha, said: “Some hospitals said they didn’t have beds; some said they didn’t have COVID-19 testing facilities, and that way we lost critical hours. She died because of a problem with her respiratory system.”

Experts have questioned whether health care facilities in India are being overstretched purely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Anant Bhan, a Delhi-based independent researcher in global health, policy and bioethics, said: “Is there a real shortage of beds or is it the shortage caused by lack of efficient management? If the cases increase further, we might find it difficult to provide care.”