As an Indian state registered its citizens, it forgot four million Muslims

IND180810SM001VARANASI, INDIA — Late last month, Indian authorities released the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a document that lists all the actual Indian citizens living in Assam, a remote state in northeastern India that shares a border with Bangladesh and Bhutan.

The list was designed to identify who can work legally, vote and enjoy the rights of citizenship. It was designed to weed out illegals. The problem is, four million names are missing.

Indian army veteran Azmal Haque is one of them.

“I feel humiliated and shamed by the Indian government. I can be a part of Indian army but not of India,” said Haque, 51, who now works as a labor contractor after retiring as from Indian Army as a captain after 30 years.

Haque’s 15-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter are also missing from the list. “I lived my life fighting for the country,” he said. “How can a foreigner go into the armed forces? How can I be termed an illegal migrant?”

Haque and others are worried that they will be deported, though they are not sure where they would be sent.

Most Indians absent from the list are Bengali-speaking Muslims. Many Indians, including lawmakers in in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) wrongfully consider them as illegal Bangladeshi migrants. Critics have said the party pursues nationalist policies that favor India’s majority Hindu religion.

In 2016, for example, Modi introduced a citizenship amendment bill that would grant Indian citizenship to non-Muslims from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who had been living in India for more than six years.

“These Muslims came from Bangladesh and have occupied our land,” said Roshan Pandey, a 26-year-old Bhartiya Janta Party supporter who studies at the Institute of Business Management in Calcutta. “Now they are taking away our jobs, education and employment opportunities. For the native Indians to grow and prosper, the government must deport them back to the country where they originally belong. NRC is the first towards that direction.”

Those sentiments infuriated 30-year-old social worker Shajahan Ali. Nobody in his family of six made it onto the register. India is a secular democracy, he said. His ethnic origins shouldn’t matter.

“Many BJP supporting Hindus’ call me and my family illegal Bangladeshi immigrants every time,” he said. “They tell me to go back to Bangladesh. I have no proof to show that I am Indian, too. Just that this our fourth generation born and living on this land.”

Authorities have given citizens a month to file claims to be placed on the list. But, given India’s cumbersome bureaucracy, many are doubtful that’s enough time.

“Government has done injustice with us. I feel like they have deliberately excluded Muslims from the citizenship list,” said Masuma Begum, 25, a member of the All Assam Minorities Students Union who said she applied to be on the list and provided the relevant documents but was still rejected.

Jiauddin Ali Ahmed, 52, is a farmer in Rangia, a village in Assam, said he lost papers in a flood that proved he was the nephew of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, India’s fifth president from 1974 to 1977.

“We have our voter’s identity card, school and other relevant documents but authorities do not count us as citizens,” he said. “I will visit the NRC office and follow the instructions of the authorities. I do not know what I would do now? I hope they do not make me illegal.”

The Bhartiya Janta Party recently won state government elections in Assam after running a campaign critical of Bangladeshi immigrants, said Abdul Kalam Azad, an independent human rights researcher in Assam.

“They benefit if fewer ethnic Bangladeshis living in India are considered citizens,” he said. “Everyone in the state believe that illegal Bangladeshis should be removed. That is what uniting most of the Hindus across the country.”

But hundreds of thousands of Hindus in Assam are not counted on the list, either. But some say that Modi has suppressed news of their fates.

“The government has managed to convince non-NRC Hindus that they do not have to worry because of the 2016 citizenship bill,” said Joydeep Biswas, an economics professor Assam University. “This government is not going to give citizenship to any Muslims, and this relaxes Hindus.”

Even if some Hindus are not counted as citizens, Modi’s party stands to gain when he faces reelection next year if Muslims are not allowed to vote because they are not on the list.

“If you take away voting rights of the Muslims, this will help,” said Biswas.

Photo: VARANASI, INDIA - Masuma Begum, 25, holds her voter identity card which also serves as proof of Indian citizenship throughout India except Assam. Even though she is a voter in India, the government does not consider her as citizen of the country. Credit: Masuma Begum, 8/9/18

Story/photo publish date: 9/12/18

A version of this story was published by USA Today.
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