Assam’s leaders, whether of the Hindutva variety or the Assamese nationalistic variety, are livid with Jamait Ulema-e-Hind leader Maulana Arshad Madani for equating the case of the immigrant Muslims from East Bengal living in Assam with the plight of the Rohingyas of Myanmar, writes P.K. Balachandran in South Asian Monitor.
Madani had warned that the on-going revision of the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) could lead to a mass expulsion of Bengali Muslims from the State in a manner reminiscent of the Rohingya Muslims’s plight in Myanmar.
Madani has actively taken up the cause of 48 lakh married Bengali Muslim women, who are in danger of losing their right to Indian citizenship if officials revising the NRC do not accept Certificates of Residence given by Village Panchayat Secretaries.
He, along with others, has appealed to the Indian Supreme Court against the Guwahati High Court’s order declaring the Village Panchayat Secretary’s certificates as “unconstitutional” and “a threat to national security.”
The Supreme Court has asked officials revising the NRC to leave out the 48 lakh cases in question till it decides on them, but finish the revision by December 31 this year.
The apex court’s order is keenly awaited by the Assamese leaders who have a vested interest in limiting the number of Bengali Muslims from East Bengal (or Bangladesh). But Bengali Muslims are awaiting the result with trepidation.
As Madani said if lakhs of women are declared illegal immigrants and ordered to be deported, lakhs of families will be broken up, leading to horrific social consequences.
But Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who belongs to the Hindutvite Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and leaders of nationalist parties in the state have dubbed Madani’s assertionsas “disruptive, communal and anti-national.”
Sonowal has stated that anyone opposing the revision of the NRC is an “anti-national”. He warned Muslims that Assam is a land of the brave and listed a number of leaders of the past who had fought for the Assamese fearlessly. Agriculture Minister Atul Bora went a step further and warned that disruptors would be dealt with sternly.
Assamese leaders trooped to New Delhi to put pressure on the BJP government at the Center not to yield to the Muslims’ demand for leniency in the matter of qualifying for citizenship.
The reason for this acute anxiety on the part of the Assamese Hindusis the fear of being “over run” by Bengali Muslim “illegal” immigrants from Bangladesh. It is believed that the Muslims multiply faster than the Hindus, partly because of illegal immigration. Any reduction of the Hindus’ numerical dominance sets off alarm bells because Assam is a medley of various ethnic groups fiercely competing for communal rights in the political and economic spheres.
The movement to expel illegal immigrants from Assam goes back to the 1970s. The 1970s’ violent movement ended in 1985 following an Accord between Rajiv Gandhi’s government in New Delhi and the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU).
As per the “Assam Accord”, only those Bengali Muslims whose families had been living in Assam prior to March 24, 1971, could be deemed to be indigenous to Assam and entitled to citizenship. Others would be “foreigners” who would have to leave the country.
The Bengali Muslims, on the other hand, are traumatized by the prospect of being stripped off their right to stay in India where they might have been living for generations.The rise of the BJP at the Center and Assam, and the re-start of the process of identification of “foreigners” to draw up a fresh register of citizens, have raised the specter of expulsion again.
With the NRC revision taking place against the backdrop of the massive and violent displacement of 600,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar from August 25 till now, on the issue of citizenship, and given India’s attitude towards the Rohingyas and its determination to identify and expel 40,000 of them on national security grounds, the scenario is grim if not scary.
Above all, there is an overarching threat from Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. In a speech at Serampur in West Bengal in the run up to the 2014 parliamentary elections, he thundered: “You can write it down. After May 16, these Bangladeshis better be prepared with their bags packed.”
Despite the Assam Accord, migration of Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh into Assam has been on, triggered by lack of opportunities in an over-populated, politically unstable, and violence-prone Bangladesh.
However, the recent partial barbed wire fencing of the Indo-Bangladesh border and the “shoot at sight” orders given to the Border Security Force (BSF), have reduced infiltration to a great extent.
Nevertheless, the issue of weeding out “illegal” Bengali Muslim immigrants has come up off and on, gathering momentum in the last three or four years with the ascendency of the aggressively Hindu BJP both at the Center and the State as the ruling party.
In Assam, the BJP has been feeding the Assamese Hindu majority with a potent mixture of Hindu nationalism and Assamese pride, which has revived the bogey of being overrun by Bengali Muslims from across the border. The scare created has worked in as much as for the first time the BJP has been able to win the Assam State Assembly elections.
Revision of the NRC has already led to blatant injustice. In October, Mohd. Azmal Haque, a retired Bengali Muslim Indian Army Junior Commissioned Officer, with 30 years’ service in the force was notified as a “foreigner” and asked to prove his Indian citizenship. The move shocked him and also the rest of the Bengali Muslim community which apprehends that more such cases could come up as work on the NRC proceeds apace.
Add to this the Guwahati High Court’s nullification of the Panchayat Secretary’s certificates and the result is panic. The fact of the matter is that lakhs of married Bengali Muslim women have no other document to prove their residence in India.
Being poor and illiterate, these women do not have documents identified by the authorities as “valid”.
“List A” includes documents which were issued before midnight on March 24, 1971 and have the name of the applicant or his/her ancestor to prove residence in Assam. The valid documents are: The 1951 NRC; 1971 Electoral Rolls; Land and tenancy records; Citizenship certificate;Permanent residential certificate; Refugee registration certificate; Passport; LIC; Any government issued licence/certificate; Government service/employment certificate; Bank/post office accounts; or Birth certificate.
If only the name of the ancestor appears in the document submitted as per “List A”, then the applicant will have to submit documents as per “List B” to establish his/her relationship with such ancestor/parents.
“List B” includes the following documents: Birth certificate; Land document; Board/university certificate; Bank/LIC/Post office records; Circle officer/gram panchayat secretary certificate in case of married women; Electoral roll; Ration card; Any other legally acceptable document.
However, the ration card and Panchayat Secretary’s Certificate mentioned above are no longer acceptable. But as stated earlier, these are the only documents the poor would have. From 2010 to the recent Guwahati High Court judgment, the Panchayat Secretary’s certificate had been deemed valid, because it had the approval of the State cabinet.
It is the upsetting of the apple cart which made Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind President Arshad Madani approacht he Supreme Court along with others.
Discriminatory Citizenship Ordinance and Bill
Bengali Muslims’ fears of discrimination is further heightened by the BJP government’s open preference for Hindu immigrants in the matter of granting citizenship.
In 2015, more than 4,000 Hindus from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh were granted Indian citizenship on the grounds that they had been persecuted in these Muslim majority countries.
There is in addition, the Citizenship Act Amendment Bill of 2016, which seeks to give effect to the 2014 election promise to give citizenship to persecuted Hindus from other countries. The bill envisages granting citizenship to illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Significantly, Muslims are left out.
But the Bill could be challenged in court on the grounds that it discriminates on the basis of religion, violating Art 14 of the constitution which guarantees equality in the eyes of the law.
(The featured picture at the top shows the controversial Maulana Arshad Madani ,President of Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind)