India has mobilised around 60,000 police and paramilitary troops in a sensitive border state ahead of the publication of a list of citizens it says will be used to detect and deport illegal immigrants – mainly Muslims – from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party took power in the eastern state of Assam for the first time last year, vowing to act against illegal Muslim residents who take away jobs from local Hindus.
On Sunday the state government will release a draft National Register of Citizens after a census carried out for the first time since 1951.
The exercise could lead to communal tensions in Assam, which has the second highest percentage of Muslims of any Indian state. Muslims leaders have called the NRC a tool to make them stateless, likening themselves to Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority.
‘The NRC is being done to identify illegal Bangladeshis residing in Assam,’ Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam’s finance minister who is also in charge of the citizenship register, said. ‘All those whose names do not figure in the NRC will have to be deported. We’re taking no chances and hence all security measures have been taken.’
Sarma said Hindu Bangladeshis who faced persecution there would be given shelter in India, in line with federal policy.
A spokesman for the ministry of home affairs in New Delhi had no immediate comment.
Bangladesh’s home minister Asaduzzaman Khan said Dhaka had no knowledge of any plans to deport people. ‘We didn’t receive any information from the Indian government, neither formally nor informally,’ he said.
It is estimated that there are more than 2 million Muslims in Assam who trace their roots to Bangladesh.
To be recognised as Indian citizens, they must be able to produce documents proving that they or their family lived in the country before March 24, 1971.
‘My grandparents and my parents were all born in India but today we are finding it difficult to provide documents to support our claims that we are Indians,’ said Asiful Rahman, a teacher at an Islamic seminary in a Muslim-majority district of Assam.
‘Our parents and grandparents were illiterate and did not keep any legal documents, and for that we are facing the test of proving our Indian nationality now.’
Tens of thousands of people fled to India from Bangladesh during its war of independence from Pakistan in the early 1970s. Most of them settled in Assam, in India’s north-east, and the neighbouring state of West Bengal, where there are similar demands to send back illegal Muslim immigrants.
When Modi’s BJP swept to power nationally in 2014, the election was marred by sectarian violence in Assam that killed more than 40 people. During that campaign, Modi told illegal immigrants in states bordering Bangladesh to have their ‘bags packed’ ready to be sent home should he win.
Since taking office, meanwhile, the government has been making it easier for Hindus, Buddhists and Christians from Bangladesh and Pakistan to gain citizenship in India.
Proposed changes to the law would mean no Hindu or other minority from those countries who arrived in India before the end of 2016 would be considered illegal immigrants.
Modi’s administration also plans to nearly halve the number of years Hindus and other minorities from the neighbouring countries need for naturalisation to six years, in line with a long-held belief on the religious right that India is the home for all Hindus.
A pilot project to update the NRC in Assam in 2010, under the previous Congress government, had to be stopped due to what the government called ‘law and order problems’. The current process is being monitored by the Supreme Court and it could be months or years before the list is finalised.
The Assam government has stepped up security after a senior Muslim leader told a news conference last month that any registration of citizens on the basis of religion would be ‘devastating’ for the country and there could be ‘unrest’.
‘One needs a number of documents to prove the family lineage and nationality,’ said Rafiqul Ali, a college student in the Muslim-dominated Barpeta district of Assam. ‘I know many of my friends and relatives who were unable to submit all the documents required to get names enlisted in the NRC.’
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