India strips four million people of citizenship

Bengali Muslims targeted by nationalist ruling party, critics claim

Anti-Bengali Indian demonstrators hold placards during a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in 2016
(Image credit: Biju Boro/AFP/Getty Images)

India has effectively stripped four million people of their citizenship after authorities in the northeastern state of Assam declared predominantly Muslim residents of Bangladeshi origin to be foreigners.

Assam’s newly published National Register of Citizens listed people deemed to have entered the country illegally after 1971, when millions fled Bangladesh's war of independence from Pakistan.

The brutal military crackdown led to tens of thousands of refugees fleeing across the border to India. Over the years, “this resulted in a demographic change in tea and oil-rich Assam, with many of its 32 districts becoming Muslim-majority areas”, The Daily Telegraph reports.

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This has led to “longstanding social and communal tensions” in the state, says The Guardian. Locals accuse the refugees of taking their jobs and cornering resources, leading to growing resentment between Hindus and Muslims.

The publication of the register, which raises the prospect that millions could be sent to detention centres or deported to a country they have never been to, has been labelled a political ploy by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to target Muslims hostile to his BJP nationalist party ahead of elections next year.

Those who cannot prove that they came to Assam before 24 March 1971, the day before Bangladesh declared independence, will be deleted from electoral rolls and expelled.

In a bid to quell growing unrest, state officials insisted no-one would face immediate deportation to Bangladesh and that anyone deemed a foreigner had the right to appeal, even as authorities placed the Indian Army on standby and deployed more than 40,000 state police and paramilitary personnel across the state.

“The latest move to make millions of people stateless overnight has sparked fears of violence in what is already a tinderbox state” says the BBC’s Soutik Biswas.

The question now is whether Modi will follow through with deportations.

“Chances are India will end up creating the newest cohort of stateless people,” says Biswas, “raising the spectre of a homegrown crisis that will echo the Rohingya people who fled Myanmar for Bangladesh.”

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