Rohingya Muslims, who have illegally entered India, are trying to obtain certificate of refugee status from United Nations. This has come to light on Tuesday when Railway police arrested five Rohingyas from Guwahati Railway Station here.
Police officials said the Government Railway Police (GRP) staff arrested them from platform no. 1 of the railway station.
At first, GRP staff had apprehended two boys and a girl when they were not able to provide valid identity proofs. After interrogation, two boys were also arrested along with the other three persons.
As per reports, the arrested persons are originally from Myanmar and were trying to go to Delhi. The arrested persons have been identified as Makakmyayum Sahenas, MD Zubar, Mohammad Kamal Hussain, Nurul Hakim and Mohammad Kalimula.
They had earlier been arrested by the Manipur police in 2018.
The GRP sleuths found Myanmar made preserved fruit packets, sweets , white coffee and various kinds of edibles in their possession.
Mizoram police had recently arrested 12 suspected Rohingya refugees—eight women and four boys—for illegally entering the state from Bangladesh.
The suspected Rohingyas entered Mizoram from Bangladesh sans valid travel documents. They were found in the residence of a woman in Bawngkwan area of Mizoram.
They had claimed that her cousin, who lives at Tahan in Myanmar, had asked her for a favour for keeping the “guests” before being taken to the neighbouring country.
Earlier in April, eight Rohingya women were detained at Vairengte along India-Myanmar border for trying to enter Mizoram illegally and were pushed back.
More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine state to neighbouring Bangladesh since August 2017 after a military crackdown, triggering a massive refugee crisis. (Source: NE Now)
At the first international indigenous film festival in Bhubaneswar last month, two young women who lived an ocean apart and barely knew each other euphorically embraced, much to the amusement of the audience. Emmanuela Shinta, 26, an independent filmmaker from Indonesia’s Kalimantan rainforest, and Dinja Jakasika, a 30-year-old village sarpanch from the foothills of Odisha’s picturesque Niyamgiri Hills, had nothing in common — nationality, attire or language. What united them were their indigenous roots and a long history of struggle.
Shinta, who belongs to Indonesia’s Dayak community, which is being rapidly marginalised by the local government’s policy on transmigration and by expansive oil companies, could instantly relate to Jakasika’s struggle. Jakasika belongs to the Dongria Kondh community, one of Odisha’s few remaining tribal groups. Ever since the community turned down a proposal from Vedanta Aluminium to mine the Niyamgiri hills for bauxite in 2013, it has found itself in the cross hairs of the State government.
Shinta first met Jakasika two years ago, at an indigenous film festival in Kalimantan. “When I met Dinja and got to know about their struggle, I was stunned. Wherever I go, I meet indigenous people and find connections even though we don’t know each other or each other’s language. It is very important for us to assert our rights and to be strong. We should stay connected. We will fight together,” said Shinta. Jakasika agreed.
The film festival, which travelled from Bhubaneswar to Puri and ended in Kurli, a Dongria Kondh village in Rayagada district, showcased the anguish and struggle of indigenous communities in India and around the world. A small group of indigenous filmmakers and tribal communities exchanged notes and drew inspiration from each other at the festival.
For the Dongria Kondhs, the film festival was an important occasion to recount the community’s travails over the last decade, and debate what the ‘correct’ model of development could be.
Till the early 2000s, Dongria Kondhs lived peacefully in quiet and inaccessible hamlets on the slopes of the Niyamgiri range, in the Bissam Cuttack, Muniguda and Kalyansingpur blocks of Rayagada district and in the Lanjigarh block of Kalahandi district. Trouble began to brew when in 2004 Vedanta set up a pit-head alumina refinery at Lanjigarh, a nondescript village on the foothills of Niyamgiri.
Tribal elder Dadhi Pushika, in a traditional Dongria shawl |
Bauxite is the raw material for alumina and aluminum, and Odisha has 700 million tonnes of known bauxite reserves, of which 88 million tonnes are estimated to be found in Niyamgiri. In the rush to acquire mining rights, stringent environmental laws were violated, and the Dongria’s consent was not sought. Court cases and local opposition did not deter the company. Then, on April 18, 2013, the Supreme Court gave a clear direction that mining clearance can only be given if gram sabhas, comprising Dongrias, agreed to the project. In what is perhaps India’s first environmental referendum, all 12 villages selected by the government voted against the project.
Activists say the Dongria’s opposition to mining has led to them being perceived as a ‘roadblock’ to development in a region known for grinding poverty and starvation deaths. “The government has not forgotten its defeat by a tribal group. It wants to dominate the discourse of development in the region and muzzle local voices,” said Lingaraj Azad, convenor of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS), which has been spearheading agitation against mining in Niyamgiri.
Today a huge gulf in trust has emerged between the government and the Dongria Kondhs.
Nobody exemplifies this deep divide better than Lada Sikaka, NSS president and once an important voice of the Dongrias. Today, he is distraught. Sikaka’s call for 5 ft roads to the villages rather than the government-prescribed 30 ft roads, primary schools that teach in the Dongria tongue rather than large residential schools, and Indira Awas Yojana houses that incorporate tribal traditions have either been laughed off or ignored by government officials.
Dongria women in traditional attire in Lanjigarh | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout
On the sidelines of the annual Niyamraja Festival held recently on the hills, 5,000 ft above sea level, Sikaka vented his anguish. “The government is offering us a 30 ft road under the pretext that it will be useful during a health emergency. But we don’t want forests razed to the ground for a wide road. The government insists on concrete houses. This for the Dongrias means that all building material will have to be laboriously transported to the hilltops.”
The Dongrias say that the process of selecting beneficiaries for old age, widow and disability pensions is a farce. “How many government officials have ever visited our villages? How do they identify the beneficiaries? They have no idea how many of our people live in the forest,” said Dadhi Pushika, a Dongria elder.
Sikaka said: “Once we convened a meeting at Trilochanpur in the foothills of Niyamgiri. Members of each village gathered and a charter of demands was finalised. But no government official turned up. When the government is not ready to listen to us, why should we care for them?”
The State government’s first attempt at development in this region was in the 80s when it came up with three micro-projects: two Dongria Kondh Development Agencies, in Chatikona and Parsali, and the Kutia Kondh Development Agency.
But, like all well-meaning projects that find little resonance on ground, they could not lift the literacy rate, an abysmal 33% among a population of 11,551. The community said there are barely any schools or anganwadis in the 100-odd hamlets scattered across the Niyamgiri slopes, though the government claims otherwise.
“Crèches were opened in partnership with non-government organisations. Efforts were made to propagate the Kui language in 30 centres. The topography of the area made it impossible to reach each village. Committees from each village were roped in to carry supplementary food to the children. I hope the programme continues,” said Guha Poonam Tapas Kumar, until recently the collector of Rayagada.
A group of women on their way to the Niyamraja festival | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout
There are four government health centres in Trilochanpur, Muniguda and Bissamcuttack, to reach which the Dongrias have to trek three hours. Apart from this, Vedanta Alumina Refinery runs a private hospital as CSR activity. Several deaths have taken place, although there is no mention of this in any government records.
Dongria Kondhs also feel persecuted by security forces. They are suspected of being ‘sympathetic’ to Maoists in the area. “I was abruptly bundled into a police jeep last October and beaten up in custody. I was asked a volley of questions on my alleged links with left-wing extremists. When their egos were satisfied, I was let go,” said Sikaka. In the same month, Dadhi Pushika was subjected to physical assault after Rayagada police picked him up from the village. There was no concrete allegation against him. Jamu Gauda, another villager, faced similar police action.
“Allegations of police intimidation and ill-treatment of the community are deeply disturbing. Innocent tribals are being branded as Maoists,” said Manohar Chauhan, a forest rights activist and former campaigner of Amnesty International.
The Dongria’s simmering anger against the government was stoked further this month when the Supreme Court directed all State governments to evict from the forests all those whose applications for regularisation of occupation had been rejected. As per official records on regularisation of titles under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006, only 252 applications were not approved in Kutia Kondh Development Agency, Lanjigarh jurisdiction. Though the administration has promised to review all applications, confusion prevails in the community. Not all members of the tribe even know what the FRA is.
“Forest dwellers across the country got temporary relief when the Supreme Court stayed its eviction order. But the community continues to feel threatened,” said Chauhan.
The NSS sees a larger conspiracy. “What we are hearing from other activists is that the Supreme Court order has presented a golden opportunity for the government to reject applications regarding individual forest rights, community forest rights and habitat rights and wrest control of Niyamgiri. It will open the doors for bauxite mining in the hills,” said Azad, who was recently arrested for leading protests against Vedanta and later released on bail.
A woman painting a traditional house ahead of a national fair in Bhubaneswar. | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout
At the annual festival, Dongria Kondhs resolved not to yield an inch if the government resorts to forced eviction. “No force on earth can drive us from Niyamgiri. Where will we go? Where will we grow pineapples, banana, oranges, turmeric, cereals and pulses? We would rather die than think of leading a life outside the hills,” raged Kunuji Kutruga, 60, from Khambesi village.
Red, gold and greenA woman in traditional attire | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout
The Dongrias have largely stayed secluded. Their distinctive Kapadaganda shawl, however, has captured the attention of art lovers worldwide. The embroidery involves some very intricate needlework, and the shawl has a special place in Dongria tradition.
The fabric for the shawl is a handwoven cloth made by Dalit families. The traditional green, yellow and red embroidery threads are bought from the market. “Green symbolises the endless chain of mountains and fields. Yellow invokes turmeric and peace, a smile, togetherness, health and happiness of the community. And red is the colour of blood, energy, power, revenge, aggression,” said Purusottam Pattanaik, a researcher with SC & ST Research and Training Institute. The embroidery on a shawl can take months to complete.
Dongria women love ornaments, hair accessories and flowers. “But the shawl gives us prestige when we go to fairs or social events,” said Lakmi Sikaka, a Dongria woman. The Rayagada district administration has tried to improve the quality of the base fabric and the embroidery threads, and also to get a GI tag for the unique garment.
Assam liquor tragedy: Among the survivors, many have lost their vision 17 dead at the Woka tea estate alone.
In Assam, which faced its worst liquor tragedy in which 160 people died and more than 500 were affected, many of those who survived have lost their eyesight and are dealing with major health complications. Those affected are largely from the tea garden areas of Golaghat and neighbouring Jorhat districts.
The lush green tea gardens of Assam are famous across the world for their strong, black tea. But the the workers at these gardens still live a life of isolation and neglect.
14-year old Manisha Tanti and her two elder sisters, from a tea estate in Golaghat have lost their father. They had lost their mother nearly 13 years ago.
“In the tea gardens, we earn very little. Our everyday life is a saga of struggle. To top it all, the way the country liquor, known as chulai, destroying us. Our students and women have fought against this menace. But most people did not support. Thus, we are seeing this day today,” said Rajen Tanti.
What makes the tea garden worker so vulnerable? Assam has more than 800 tea gardens; the workers are mostly descendants of migrant tribals from central India and are known as Tea tribe in Assam.
They number 60 lakh, make up 17 per cent of Assam’s population and their votes decide the fate of at least four of Assam’s 14 Lok Sabha seats. But the isolated community has no easy access to education.
“During every elections, whether for the Lok Sabha polls or state assembly polls, the leaders try to win votes by giving them free booze. In reality, no political parties wants to improve the condition of the tea garden workers,” said Balinder Ojha, a worker at the Halmira tea estate where at least 47 people have died.
What tea garden workers get for sustenance is a pittance. Rs. 167 rupees a day.
Their demand of a minimum wage of Rs. 350 has not been met. In 2017, the government launched a scheme for financial inclusion. By January 2018, seven lakh tea garden workers did get Rs. 2500 through Direct Benefit Transfer. COMMENT
“After 70 years of Independence, in tea garden, you will hardly find a someone who has high school-level education. We get basic facility from the tea garden management but there are about 800 gardens in Assam. About 80 per cent of them don’t have doctor,” said Jagadish Barai. president of the Golaghat unit of the All Assam Tea Tribe Students’ Association.
Lakhimpur: Lakhimpur district administration on Wednesday carried out a massive eviction drive in Sauldhowa-Thekeraguri area. Around 120 families have been affected by the eviction drive that cleared a few bighas of government land. The BJP led state government came into power with electoral promise to protect people land and home.
The families had lived in the area for years after being displaced by flood and erosion in Lakhimpur, Dhemaji and Majuli. Earlier, the administration had sent notice to the families to evict the government land that belonged to Soil Conservation Department.
“We have been living in the area for years now. Though the government has declared us landless, it has not yet allotted us any houses to live in,” said a local after administration bulldozed her house. “I don’t know where we will go now,” added another local.
On the otherhand on last December BJP illegally took over a prime land belonging to the State Water resource Department to construct its state headquarter at Basistha Chariali, Guwahati.
According to the employees of the State Water resource Department, the land was acquired from farmers in 1967 by paying money by the state water resource department ad the river research office was functioning from a sprawling 80 bigha campus.
The BJP arm twisted the revenue officials following an order from the Kamrup (M) Deputy Commissioner who cited precedent of the AGP, who got prime government land to build their own party office, to justify his own order for the allotment.
Bokakhat : Iillagers living on the fringe areas of forests in Assam are in a state of panic following the Supreme Court (SC) order to evict forest dwellers whose claims over traditional forestlands have been rejected under law.
A three-judge bench, comrising Justice Arun Mishra, Justice Navin Sinha and Justice Indira Banerjee, ordered forced eviction of an estimated 10 lakh Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest-dwelling families from forestlands in the country after the Centre failed to defend their rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.
The affidavit filed by Assam said 22,398 claims out of 74,364 filed by the ST people, were rejected while 5,136 claims of the 19,966 claims made by other traditional forest dwellers (OTFD) were rejected. Altogether 10,128 hectares of land were claimed by ST people and 561.4 hectares by OTFD.
The Kaziranga National Park (KNP) has been extended with six additions since 1984, a year after it was declared a world heritage site.
But the lands have not been cleared till date. In the addition process, 43.79 square km in Burahpahar, 6.47 square km in Kohora, 0.69 square km in Paanbari, 0.89 square km in Kanchanjuri, 1.15 square km in Sildubi and 376.50 square km in riverside areas were added. But only in Burahpahar and Kanchanjuri, the lands were handed over to the KNP authority.
In Kohora, 745 households are residing while the number is 129 in Paanbari and 127 in Sildubi.
The court’s orders came on February 13 in a case filed by Wildlife First and other wildlife groups, questioning the validity of the act. The written order was released on Wednesday.
The court asked the state governments to “ensure that where the rejection orders have been passed, eviction will be carried out on or before the next date of hearing”.
The next date of hearing is set for July 27 – the effective date by when 19 states will have to evict tribals to comply with the court orders.
“In case the eviction is not carried out, as aforesaid, the matter will be viewed seriously by this court,” the order said.
The act, which was passed during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s first tenure in 2006, requires the government to hand back traditional forestlands to indigenous and other forest-dwellers against the laid down criteria.
Two Reuters journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison by a Myanmar judge on Monday.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, have been jailed since December. They were convicted of violating the Official Secrets Act when they obtained confidential documents while reporting about the persecutions of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine, Reuters reported. The reporters said they were given the documents by two police officers at a restaurant in Yangon right before other officers arrested them, according to Reuters.
But Lone and Oo are only two of hundreds of journalists imprisoned around the world.
Reuters journalists Wa Lone (L) and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are based in Myanmar, pose for a picture at the Reuters office in Yangon, Myanmar, on December 11, 2017. The two journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison on Monday for obtaining confidential documents while reporting on the killings of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine
The Committee to Protect Journalists said 262 journalists were behind bars, according to an annual prison census released in December 2017. According to CPJ data, Turkey, China and Egypt remained the top three jailers of reporters worldwide. Reuters journalists Wa Lone (L) and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are based in Myanmar, pose for a picture at the Reuters office in Yangon, Myanmar, on December 11, 2017. The two journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison on Monday for obtaining confidential documents while reporting on the killings of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine.REUTERS/ANTONI SLODKOWSKI/FILE PHOTO
Srinagar: The Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) on Tuesday directed the Senior Superintendent of Police of (SSP) of Budgam to submit the final report in the case against Major Leetul Gogoi, who is facing criminal charges of illegally confining a Kashmiri youth in April last year. The case is related to the “human shield” incident, wherein the army officer had tied a shawl maker, Farooq Ahmad Dar, to a vehicle — allegedly as a shield against stone pelters — and paraded him on different streets during the Srinagar parliamentary bypolls.
The order came even as the police said the video featuring Dar being paraded around in Budgam could have been even morphed. Sub-Divisional Police Officer of Magam, Showkat Ahmad, said the police were waiting for the forensic report to check the authenticity of the clip.
Farooq Ahmad Dar was used as a human shield by Major Leetul Gogoi. Firstpost/Suhail Bhat
“We are waiting for the report from the Forensic Science Laboratory in Chandigarh. We have reminded them to submit the report on priority and have to see whether the video is morphed,” he said.
The commission issued the order on a plea Dar filed in the case through the International Forum for Justice and Human Rights. The bench of the human rights panel, comprising Justice Bilal Nazki and Justice Jang Bahadur, issued the direction, ordering the SSP of Budgam to file the final status report. It also directed the Jammu and Kashmir government to submit its report on action taken in the case within four weeks.
While the police have been asked to file a report on the criminal charges filed against Gogoi, the state government has been directed to apprise the rights body in detail about its reasons for denying the “human shield” victim compensation of Rs 10 lakh for wrongful confinement. The government had earlier told the SHRC that there is no policy to provide such a compensation.
On 10 July last year, two months after Gogoi used Dar as a “human shield” against stone pelters, the rights commission had called his actions illegal and directed the Jammu and Kashmir government to compensate him. It had given the state six weeks to comply with its order.
On 29 April this year, the Jammu and Kashmir SHRC had reserved its verdict in the case. But as the police submitted before the panel that the investigation was still on, the commission asked the investigators to file the final report in the case within four weeks.
The chairman of the International Forum for Justice and Human Rights, Mohammad Ahsan Untoo, said: “The army has not been cooperating in the case. Instead, it gave the Chief of Army Staff’s (COAS) Commendation Card to Major Gogoi. Major Gogoi tied a voter to the front of a vehicle and endangered his life. The COAS commendation should be withdrawn.”
Untoo said it was unbecoming of the army to hail Gogoi’s actions and award him the commendation, when both the human rights commission and the local police had described his methods as illegal.
He also said that the Court of Inquiry report, which held the army officer guilty after he was caught with a local Kashmiri woman at a hotel in Srinagar, should be made public.
On 23 May, Gogoi was detained with a local woman at a hotel near Dal Lake in Srinagar, after which the forum filed a case against him before the court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate. It alleged that the police had exhibited laxity and let the officer off without filing an FIR against him. The magistrate has also reserved the verdict in the case, which was deferred on Tuesday. In the application Untoo filed before the magistrate, he had also noted that Major Gogoi had “intention to carry out an immoral act” with the woman.
Even before the family introduce themselves by name, they produce a thick file with documents that go back 80 years. “Evidence before conversation,” the youngest son says as he arranges chairs outside his village house for the large family and visitors. “We are Indians. We’ll show you proof.”
Shajahan Ali Ahmed, a 29-year-old social worker, part-time journalist and YouTuber, displays the documents out on a plastic table in the middle of his courtyard. Here are the names of the grandfather, father, mother, and brothers on the electoral lists for decades. Here are tattered land deeds from 1934 issued in the sweeping cursive of a British colonial bureaucrat. Here—laminated with pride—is Shajahan’s college certificate. Sisters’ birth certificates. Brothers’ school admission cards. Driving licenses. Paperwork tracing the lifetime of an Indian family.
And yet, nearly every member of Shajahan’s family is on the brink of losing his or her Indian citizenship—along with 4 million other people in the northeastern state of Assam, excluded from a draft list of citizens released by the Indian government on July 30. “I’m not even sure what that would mean,” says Shajahan’s older brother Humayun Islam, a vegetable vendor. “What would it be to not be Indian?”
The diverse state of Assam, one of India’s main tea-growing areas, is the doorway to northeast India. It borders Bangladesh and in this state alone, there is a list called the National Register of Citizens (NRC). First made in 1951, the government began updating it in 2015.
The citizenship drive in Assam is the biggest of its kind in India, and perhaps the world. Nearly 33 million people here have been trying to prove that they, or their ancestors, were in the state before March 24, 1971, one day before the Bangladesh War of Independence began. Conceived of by other parties, but now led by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the update of the citizens list is an attempt to detect undocumented immigrants. Those on the list are deemed genuine Indian citizens, under conditions more stringent than the rest of India.
For three years, millions of people have been submitting dog-eared, yellowing land and identity documents in Assamese, Bengali and English. They logged online to access digitised census back-data that goes back over 60 years. Households have had to trace their ancestors, find paperwork linking them, and submit intricate family trees listing siblings and grandchildren over four generations. NRC officials conducted more than 900,000 hearings with large families to identify, and thus verify, each other as descendants of the same ancestor.
The process was expected to finally settle the issue of migrants from Bangladesh. But in the process, the NRC has brought to the fore some of Assam’s deepest social divides—exacerbated by the religious rhetoric of the current Hindu majoritarian ruling party. The mammoth bureaucratic exercise now risks pushing millions to statelessness.
On July 30, officials released the list of citizens at a press conference and sang the Assamese state anthem along with local journalists, heads held high. Twelve percent of applicants didn’t make the cut. The NRC does not provide a demographic breakdown, but within a week, it was clear that most of those excluded were Bengali-speakers, both Hindus and Muslims. (There are Bengali speaking communities on both sides of the border.) The Indian Minister for Home Affairs said people would be able to appeal their exclusion. No one would be subject to punitive action, detention or deportation, he added — at least not yet.
Other countries’ attempts to redefine what constitutes nationhood have created controversy. When the Dominican Republic in 2013 retroactively stripped 200,000 persons of Haitian descent of their Dominican nationality, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights said it was arbitrary and in violation of international treaties to target persons of a certain descent and make the migratory status of parents a condition for nationality.Meanwhile, the debate around citizenship for DREAMers revolves around how undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children should be treated.
In India, too, this register has polarized debate in Assam state and across the country. But few questions have been asked about the fundamental idea of stripping the nationality of a people half a century after they laid roots in India, and of generations who have spent their entire lives there. Not only does India have no treaty with Bangladesh about returning the millions of “illegals” Assam says it will weed out, but it also has no clear plan to deal with future migration from the porous border, except for strengthening vigilance.
Though monitored by the highest court of India, Assam’s exercise has received criticism. Human rights groups see parallels tonearby Myanmar stripping the Rohingya of nationality, claiming they were migrants from Bangladesh. They fear the NRC sets India on a similar path.“Assam has long sought to preserve its ethnic identity, but rendering millions of people stateless is not the answer,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Officials in Assam vehemently reject such comparisons. But in the state today, the average Assamese will conflate local and immigrant Bengalis, and speak of them“taking over.” They will speak about protecting Assamese identity with an urgency that reveals a history of deep tensions. It’s why Bengali Muslims like Shahjahan grow up with the fear of being seen as a “foreigner”; it’s why his family carefully preserves a shelf-full of paperwork.
Activists of All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) take part in a torch light procession in protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 proposal to provide citizenship or stay rights to minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan in India, in Guwahati on May 14, 2018. Biju Boro—AFP/Getty Images
As borders in this region were drawn and redrawn over a century—creating East Bengal, then East Pakistan, and finally Bangladesh—Assamese and Bengali relations gradually soured. The resentment first began when the British colonialists wooed Bengalis through land and jobs to a region with largely Bodo tribes and Assamese-speakers. Different groups clashed over limited resources, and cultural and linguistic primacy.
Eventually, it became a question of who has the right to Assam, and to India. Riots and state-run anti-immigration programs by various parties, including the Indian National Congress, have often targeted Bengali-speaking Muslims and Hindus who have lived in the region for generations.Violence reached its peak during a six-year anti-outsider agitation in the ‘80s, known as the Nellie Massacre. Machete-wielding Assamese youth killed 2,191 “suspected immigrants”—all descendants of migrated Bengali Muslims—in one February morning.
More recently, there is palpable alarm about the growing Muslim population—rising from 28 to 34 percent of the state population from 1991 to 2011, according to the last census. (Some experts ascribe this to higher birth rates among illiterate and poor Muslims, rather than to illegal migration from Bangladesh.)
Many Indians have praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party for updating the NRC. The federal and state governments budgeted $175 million for the policy, which was a crucial plank leading to the BJP’s victory for the first time in Assam in 2016. Initially, it was widely believed that those left off the list would be immediately deported; in late July, the federal government even approved funds for a detention camp, saying the six temporary ones are getting overcrowded.
But opposition figures across in India have criticized the NRC for bureaucratic gaffes and possible discrimination against Bengali-speaking locals. Four Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations have expressed serious concerns about potential “wrongful exclusion.”Amnesty International asked that families not be “torn apart,” and the rights of those at risk of becoming stateless not be violated. Now, as some BJP politicians demand prompt expulsion and others assure a fair process, it’s unclear what exactly will happen to those who fail to reclaim their citizenship when the process is finally complete.
They may have to face opaque and corrupt Foreigners Tribunals, run by the state’s Home department, before they are thrown in detention camps. In 2013, Ainul Hoque, 40, was declared Indian by a tribunal but two years later, was questioned over his status again by the police—he faces trial again. As a result, he and his children have been excluded from the NRC. “How many times should I prove I’m Indian?” Hoque asks, slapping his forehead with a stack of documents. A rice farmer in Assam’s river islands, Hoque has a birth certificate showing we was born in India. Floods and erosion have displaced his family eight times. “I accept nature’s fury, and god’s wrath,” he says. “But I don’t know what to do when my own country wants to throw me out.”
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. Dibyangshu Sarkar—AFP/Getty Images
The registry seeks to be neutral, but it is saddled with Assam’s identity wars. Village-level officials undertaking the NRC have been accused of acting on their own biases. Hasina Ahmed, a 28-year-old woman from Alipur Char village, said an official rejected the village link certificate she submitted as proof of lineage. “He said it looked fake,” she says. Subsequently, a higher official cleared it as authentic. The NRC village offices allowed Assamese women to submit the same document with no verification. “They’re original inhabitants,” an official in Barpeta explains to TIME, citing a category that no longer officially exists.
The state’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP government is also trying to infuse the local desire to expel foreigners with its own anti-Muslim agenda. In 2016, it tried to amend laws in parliament to relax citizenship requirements for only non-Muslim migrants from neighboring countries including Bangladesh. Assam erupted in protest against it. “We have no religious bias. We don’t want Bengali Hindu immigrants either,” says former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, leader of the Assamese nationalist Asom Gana Parishad, an ally of the BJP government in Assam.
Assamese society largely supports the NRC, but are sharply divided on whether it is fair. Despite the longstanding tensions, most people here criticize the idea of driving out Muslims. At the same time, they believe the changes migration has wrought in the region must be reversed in some way.
Today, as people excluded get ready to appeal to the NRC, Assamese nationalist groups are beginning a new fight. “We have estimated that there are 5 million illegals,” says Palash Changmai, the general secretary of an influential Assamese students union, mentioning an unsubstantiated number popularly quoted in anti-foreigner rhetoric. “The list has excluded only 4 million. Where are the rest? We know where they are.”
Self-appointed border-guards in neighboring Meghalaya and West Bengal are randomly stopping people at state borders, claiming to prevent an influx of the declared foreigners. Undeterred by the NRC’s flaws, some groups of Indian nationalists are demanding such an exercise for the entire country to root out “infiltrators.” This would put millions in India under risk of losing their nationality, like the Rohingya did in Myanmar, or face perpetual harassment in the name of citizenship.
Even with the NRC list, all sides remain anxious. But the stakes are highest for those finally excluded. They face a bleak limbo in detention camps. It could uproot tens of thousands, and split up families. Anita Barman, a 49-year-old Bengali Hindu teacher who did not make the list, has little hope for the appeals process. “What will they do with us in the end?” she asks in frustration. “Drown us in the sea? Send us to a country I have not even seen in my imagination? Leave us at the border with nothing?”