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India’s immigrant crackdown leaves nearly 2 million in limbo

Immigration from Bangladesh into India's northeastern state of Assam has long been a contentious issue, often boiling over into violence. Last year the government declared nearly 2 million people there to be non-citizens in an effort that has been widely criticized. Many now fear similar measures across the country. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Alimuddin Sheikh is a 49 year old Muslim man who lives in the town of Bijni in India. He makes a meager living working as a day laborer. Sheikh's life is not easy, but last August, it became much harder when the Indian government told him he was no longer a citizen.

  • Alimuddin Sheikh:

    It's really a shameful matter. Everyone is saying I'm a Bangladeshi.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Last year, the Indian government created a list known as the National Register of Citizens, or NRC to determine how many undocumented immigrants there were among the 33 million residents in the state of Assam. Sheikh was one of 1.9 million people excluded from the list, effectively rendering them stateless.

    Located in Northeast India, Assam is sandwiched between the nations of Bhutan to the north and Bangladesh to the south. Illegal immigration from Bangladesh has been a contentious issue for decades, at times sparking ethnic clashes. The tensions peaked in 1983 when thousands of Muslim Bangladeshis were massacred by angry locals. Since then the government has maintained a heavy military presence, but violence between immigrants and Assamese locals has erupted periodically.

    Some Assamese say they are the ones being persecuted, claiming Bangladeshi immigrants are destroying their land rights and cultural identity.

  • Abhijit Sarma:

    From last 40 years we people of Assam, we are suffering from our political rights, our social rights, economical rights, cultural rights, everything are taken from us, from these illegal immigrants.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Abhijit Sarma is a local businessman who works in Assam's capital of Guwahati and represents a non-profit called Assam Public Works, which advocates against illegal immigration. He's also the motivator behind the new NRC.

    Frustrated with immigration, Sarma filed a petition with the Supreme Court in 2009 asking for action on identifying undocumented immigrants in Assam.

  • Abhijit Sarma:

    To solve this problem, find all illegal immigrants — the Bangladeshis — cut their names from the NRC and make a fresh NRC and a voter list where only Indians can vote Indians.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In 2013 he won. India's Supreme Court ordered the local government of Assam to create a new register of citizens in the state.

    It took four years, more than 50,000 government employees, and cost more than 200 million dollars. Residents of Assam were required to apply with documentation proving they or their family had lived in India before 1971 — the cut off date for immigrants to be considered Indian citizens.

    When the government released the final list of citizens, many were surprised to find their names missing.

    There are plenty of errors in the government database. Take for example the case of Alimuddin Sheikh, now the government has a record of his grandfather who was registered in 1951, the government has a record of his dad who was registered in 1966, he has tax cards, he has a voter ID, his kids have birth certificates here and yet he was still rejected.

    Sheikh says his older brother did make it onto the list.

  • Alimuddin Sheikh:

    I cannot say why it happened. I submitted the same papers that my elder brother did. Same papers were submitted.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Submitting paperwork was expensive for Sheikh, who earns about two dollars a day. He says the efforts to prove his citizenship have cost his family more than a hundred dollars.

  • Aman Wadud:

    The vast majority of the people who have been excluded from the list are poor, unlettered, illiterate, and many of them will not be able to afford lawyers.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Aman Wadud is a lawyer working pro-bono for hundreds who have been left off the NRC. He says in addition to the financial hardships, the process doesn't account for discrepancies in documents like common name changes after a marriage, or even simple typos.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Look, the government side is, as we should know, who is inside our borders, who is a citizen and who is not. And we should protect the rights of the existing minorities that are here. What's so wrong with that idea?

  • Aman Wadud:

    This country is stripping citizenship of its own citizens, declaring its own citizens as foreigners.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Before the NRC, the government of Assam handled unauthorized immigration on a case by case basis. Immigration courts known as Foreigner's Tribunals determined citizenship status, placing undocumented immigrants in detention centers.

    Sixty year old Madhumala Mondal was one of those cases. In 2009 Mondal says she was building a fire to stay warm one night in Bishnupur, an Assamese village, when immigration police came looking for a woman named Madhumala Das. Mondal asked to go get her papers to prove they had the wrong woman.

  • Madhumala Mondal:

    The policewoman didn't let me take the documents. She said, "It is okay if you don't take it. You will be back by evening."

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    At the police station Mondal tried to explain the mix-up in names.

  • Madhumala Mondal:

    After questioning I said, 'No, my surname is Mondal and Mondal is written in my documents as well. I am not Das. I didn't have that surname. My voter document says I am Mondal. All my documents have Mondal. For this you are taking me to jail?' They said, 'No, your surname is Das.'

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Mondal says she was taken to the Kokrajhar Detention Center in Western Assam where the government held her for three years in a cramped room with 60 to 70 women who all shared a single toilet. Mondal says at times authorities withheld food.

    She was finally released after local activists brought publicity to her case but she says she still suffers from the effects of her incarceration.

  • Madhumala Mondal:

    Now I cannot work. I have no strength.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The Indian government is now building new detention centers to hold the influx of those declared non-citizens in the new NRC. Alimuddin Sheikh fears suffering a fate similar to Mondal's.

  • Alimuddin Sheikh:

    I feel angry. Now only one thing, if couldn't make it to NRC, then I will have no choice other than to die.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    O.K., that seems like a drastic leap.

  • Alimuddin Sheikh:

    As I have to go and live in the detention camp, have to live in jail. Instead of staying there it is better to die.

  • Aman Wadud:

    If a person is declared as foreigner, it is worse than a death penalty. You might be deprived of the right to land. You'd be deprived of a right to job. You would be denied the basic rights, like the right to health, right to education. It's a frightening thing to get detained for no fault of yours. And if you ask all these people they know this one country, which is India. They are born here. Their parents are born here. Their grandparents are born here. They don't know any other country apart from India.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What is your solution to somebody who says, 'Listen, I'm as Indian as the next guy. My whole life, my kids lives have all been spent in Assam, why are you telling me I'm not Indian?'

  • Abhijit Sarma:

    He'll go to tribunal and he can prove that his name is, he's an Indian. If you cannot prove it, then you have to go to the detention camp.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    According to a recent Supreme Court ruling, those in detention camps who have completed more than three years may be released on bail. Aman Wadud says even the few who can make bail face an uncertain future.

  • Aman Wadud:

    There is no way that another country will take him. You cannot deport that person, that will lead to statelessness.

  • Abhijit Sarma:

    That is the question mark now, the where to send him. We are not saying that you go away from Assam. We are saying you stay here but you stay like a third class citizen. You have to stay like a stateless.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has expressed concern over the possibility of people becoming stateless in Assam. However, India is not a signatory to the UN conventions related to reducing statelessness, as such there's little that the UN can do to intervene.

    Though close to two million people were declared non-citizens in the NRC, Sarma says he's disappointed there weren't more people left off the list.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So originally you thought seven to eight million Bangladeshis were in the state of Assam and were voting here. But your survey now has found only two million people. So then what happened to the seven million?

  • Abhijit Sarma:

    All their names entered NRC by fake documents.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You think all of these people have fake documents.

  • Abhijit Sarma:

    They have fake documents. They have bribed the officers.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Sarma wants the government to re-verify part of the NRC, alleging that Bangladeshi immigrants have made it onto the list using forged documents.

    Immigration attorney Aman Wadud says the claim of forgeries is false. He says the larger issue is the process unfairly discriminates against those without the means to defend themselves.

  • Aman Wadud:

    Most of the people are poor. And can people really afford to go to the higher courts?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Muslims like Alimuddin Sheikh may be the only ones left off the NRC list who have to wait for their day in court. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis, Jains, and Christians may be able to take advantage of the new Citizenship Amendment Act for a fast track to citizenship.

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