India cast millions of Muslims as illegal immigrants. Their legal battles are just beginning.

ASSAM, INDIA: Akram Hussein, ex-president of India’s Hathishola village, counsels a man whose name did not appear on the national register of citizens They are shown in Assam, India. MUST CREDIT: Washiington Post photo by Vidhi Doshi

GUWAHATI, India – The list drew lines through villages, divided families and caused chaos in communities.

The Indian state of Assam last month put out a draft of the National Register of Citizens that excluded 4 million people who claimed to be Indian, part of a wider campaign to “detect-delete-deport” as many as 20 million illegal immigrants from Muslim-majority Bangladesh. Last week, many of those excluded in Assam began submitting applications to find out why they were left off the list – the first step in what could be months of limbo and cumbersome legal battles to prove their nationality.

“I cried,” said Sumiron Nessa, in her early 20s, who found out last month that both she and her mother were not on the list. She has no birth certificate or document to prove she owns land, only school records, which were rejected without explanation.

“I am a student. I am an Indian,” Nessa said. “Why do I have to go through all this to prove it?”

The citizens’ register is part of a multipronged effort to remove foreigners from Assam. The state has a long, porous border and has wrestled with illegal immigration for decades. But critics say the list effectively disenfranchises the millions of people who have been excluded, the majority of them Muslim.

Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh has said that Indian citizens left off the list will have opportunities to prove their nationality, but that has not assuaged the fears of minorities, especially Muslims, who feel targeted by the policy.

Villagers of Hathishola, a verdant paddy-growing village about 40 miles from the state’s capital, raised the issue one recent Thursday morning to Akram Hussein, the ex-president of the village.

About a third of his mostly Muslim village – 4,886 people – is facing scrutiny for having insufficient proof of Indian nationality. Poring over papers, Hussein tried to identify the flaws in their documents: One man had misspelled his father’s name, he pointed out; another had no birth certificate, and so could not prove her connection to her father, raising questions about her ancestry.

Some cases baffled him. A pair of twins who had submitted nearly identical documents were told that one was on the list and the other was not.

Hussein said that the registry was being used to legitimize racist abuse against Bengali-speakers and Muslims, who have become targets of xenophobic abuse.

“We were born in Assam, we practice Assamese culture,” he said. “But they call us Bengali. Many people have started speaking only Assamese outside their home for fear of being mocked.”

Many Indians might lose their rights as citizens because of clerical errors or a lack of documents, said Aman Wadud, a human rights lawyer. It also means that Bangladesh – which is sheltering more than 1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, also known as Burma, on its southern border – could see a new influx of stateless migrants from the north.

India would need Bangladesh’s cooperation to deport migrants, and there have been no formal talks between the two countries on the matter. Speaking to television channel News 18, Bangladeshi Minister of Home Affairs Asaduzzaman Khan said the country would consider taking back migrants if their Bangladeshi citizenship could be proven.

“We share a very good relationship with India, and due to this excellent relationship, we believe that India will not push them to Bangladesh in haste,” he said.

Efforts to deport Bangladeshis have a decades-long history in Assam. In 1985, India’s government signed the Assam Accord, which made all undocumented migrants to the state after 1971 illegal. Over the years, Bengali speakers have faced repeated rounds of xenophobic violence.

“We cannot compromise our identity,” said Samujjal Bhattacharjya, chief adviser to the All Assam Students Union, which has been at the forefront of an anti-immigrant campaign in the state. “We cannot feel like second-class citizens here.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election in 2014 gave new momentum to the movement to remove foreigners from Assam. Amit Shah, president of the governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), labeled the unlisted 4 million “infiltrators.”

Since 2015, more than 62,000 government workers waded through 66 million documents from 33 million applicants who claimed Indian citizenship. But establishing a person’s citizenship is especially difficult in the poorest parts of India, and the list they produced has been repeatedly criticized. Even relatives of India’s former president, according to local media, were unable to show documents to prove ancestry in India.

The government asked for legacy documents that show land ownership, voting records, or residency in India since before 1971.

Those who were born in India after 1971 or who don’t have legacy documents were asked to show links to parents or relatives who passed the test for citizenship – and that’s where many people, especially women, stumble. Many who sought Hussein’s help had proof that their fathers had voted in an election in 1966 but no birth certificates to show that they were their father’s daughters. Women are especially vulnerable because land is usually passed down to male heirs and so they don’t appear on documents proving ownership or inheritance.

Assam has seen waves of migration from present-day Bangladesh for generations, before India or Bangladesh existed as independent nations. Many Muslim Assamese, whose Bengali language resembles Bangladesh’s, claim their ancestors migrated here during World War II under a campaign by British colonial rulers to increase production on farms.

Another wave of migrants was given refuge in India during Bangladesh’s war for independence from Pakistan in 1971, in which the army’s brutal campaigns raised death tolls to more than 300,000, according to some estimates.

Prateek Hajela, the Supreme Court-mandated coordinator of the National Register of Citizens, said the list did not specifically target Muslims and that many Hindus were also among the unlisted.

“Whosoever has got left out has the opportunity to appeal,” he said, adding that the process was not flawed but instead “incomplete.”

“Whatever we have done is for the identification of citizens,” he said. “It is the result of the anti-immigration issues raised by the people of Assam.”



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