New Delhi (AFP) – India’s government sought Thursday to ease concerns about an imminent “citizens’ register” in the state of Assam that has left several million people, mostly Muslims, fearful of becoming stateless.
A draft register last year left off more than four million people living in the north-eastern state, and India’s Hindu nationalist government has indicated it wants to replicate the process nationwide.
“DO NOT BELIEVE RUMOURS ABOUT NRC,” a spokesperson for the Indian home ministry tweeted in capital letters, referring to the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) due to be published on Saturday.
“Non-inclusion of a person’s name in NRC does NOT amount to his/her being declared a foreigner. Every individual left out from final NRC can appeal to Foreigners Tribunals, an increased number of which are being established,” the tweet added.
Assam is an isolated state of 33 million people in the northeast of India, largely cut off from the rest of the country by Bangladesh, which was formed after East Pakistan declared independence from Islamabad in 1971, sparking a brutal war.
Hundreds of thousands of people fled to India during the fighting.
Officials say those appealing against exclusion from the NRC need to be able to prove they or their forebears were in India before 1971 — a huge challenge for people in a state where illiteracy is rife and where many lack the necessary documentation.
The roughly two million people who are expected to be left off the final register being published on Saturday will have 120 days to appeal.
Those rejected can then be declared foreigners and face being stripped of their Indian citizenship and rights, put in a detention camp and even deported.
A majority of those affected are Muslims, and critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) say this reflects its aim to serve only its co-religionists.
In January the lower house passed legislation that stands to grant citizenship to people who moved to India from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan as recently as six years ago — but not if they are Muslim.
Home Minister Amit Shah, Modi’s right-hand-man, has called for the ejection of “termites” from of India and said before the BJP’s election victory in May that it would “run a countrywide campaign to send back the infiltrators”.