India strips 4 million of citizenship in Assam

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Villagers getting their documents verified by officials at the National Register of Citizens (NRC) centre at Mayong Village in Morigaon district, Assam on July 8, 2018.​ Reuters

GUWAHATI (Reuters) – India has stripped four million people of citizenship in the northeastern state of Assam, under a controversial draft citizenship list that has sparked fears of deportation of largely Bengali-speaking Muslims who could not produce valid document.

“It’s a historic day for Assam and India as a whole. We have achieved a milestone of publishing the first complete draft NRC (National Register of Citizens),” Shailesh, the registrar general of India who uses one name, said at a press conference.

Security has been tightened across the state, which borders Bangladesh, as thousands of Bengali-speaking Muslims worry about being sent to detention centres or deported.

The tea-rich state of Assam has long been the center of social and communal tensions with locals campaigning against illegal immigrants, a fight that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government has championed.

In 1983, scores of people were chased down and killed by machete-armed mobs intent on hounding out Muslim immigrants.

The government said the draft was not meant to drive people out and those struck out of the list would have a chance to re-apply.

“Based on this draft, there is no question of anyone being taken to detention centres or foreigners’ tribunal,” Mr Sailesh said.

Hundreds of thousands of people fled to India from Bangladesh during Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan in the early 1970s. Most of them settled in Assam, which has a near-270 kilometre border with Bangladesh.

More than 30 million people had applied and 4,007,707 had been excluded from the list, Mr Sailesh said.

To be recognised as Indian citizens, all residents of Assam had to produce documents proving that they or their families lived in the country before March 24, 1971.

Critics see the citizenship test as another measure supported by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) aimed at minority Muslims. The BJP denies any bias but says it opposes a policy of appeasement of any community.

Authorities in the state have previously said the citizenship test was crucial to protect ethnic Assamese, many of whom have demanded removal of outsiders they accuse of taking jobs and cornering resources in the state of 33 million.

The first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), released on December 31, confirmed the citizenship of 19 million people, leading to jubilation for some and heartbreak among others.

The NRC, however, told the Supreme Court this month that 150,000 people from the first list, a third of them married women, would be dropped from the next one, mainly because they provided false information or gave inadmissible documents.

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