India pressured Assam citizenship tribunal to declare Muslims non-citizens, reveals NYT report

12:02 PM | 5 Apr, 2020
India pressured Assam citizenship tribunal to declare Muslims non-citizens, reveals NYT report
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NEW YORK - Members of official tribunals, set up in Assam to decide who was an Indian citizen and who was not, have said they felt pressured to declare Muslims non-citizens as the government seeks to expel illegal migrants, according to a dispatch published in The New York Times Saturday.

The newspaper said it interviewed one current and five former members of the Assam tribunals that review suspected foreigners. The five former members said they had felt pressured by the government to declare Muslims to be non-citizens, with three of them saying that they were fired because they did not do so.

“I was punished,” Mamoni Rajkumari, a 54-year-old lawyer who spent nearly two years on the tribunal and was among the dismissed members, was quoted as saying by the Times.

In addition to the tribunals, which Assam has operated for decades, the state has also recently completed a broader, separate review of every resident’s paperwork to determine if they were citizens.

That review found that nearly two million of Assam’s 33 million residents, many of them desperately poor, were possibly foreigners. Now this group — which is disproportionately Muslim — is potentially stateless, the dispatch said.

“What’s happening in Assam is a preview of what may be coming to India as a whole as Prime Minister Narendra Modi tries to pull the country away from its foundation as a secular, multicultural nation and turn it into a more overtly Hindu state,” The times correspondents — Karan Deep Singh and Suhasini Raj — wrote in their joint dispatch.

Assam state and central government officials declined to comment, according to the report.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has its roots in a Hindu nationalist worldview, and during last year’s national elections, party leaders vowed to apply the same type of citizenship checks used in Assam to the rest of India, the Times said, while noting Modi’s recent denial.

In December, the Indian government passed a sweeping new immigration law that gives a fast track to citizenship for undocumented migrants from nearby countries as long as they are Hindu or one of five other religions — only Muslims were excluded.

“The upshot is that any Hindus left off Assam’s citizenship lists after its broad review, or declared by tribunals to be foreigners, will likely be affirmed as citizens because of the new immigration law. Muslims may not,” the dispatch said.

Even before the citizenship review, an indigenous rights movement in Assam, in northeast India on the border of Bangladesh, had been agitating for the government to expel foreigners, it was pointed out.

The police — sometimes acting on reports from private citizens — had referred more than 433,000 residents as “suspected foreigners,” according to parliamentary documents, and sent them to tribunals like the one Ms. Rajkumari sat on to produce documents or witnesses to prove they are truly Indian, according to the dispatch.

Now, the citizenship review has produced 1.9 million new “suspected foreigners” and Assam is adding more foreigner tribunals to adjudicate their cases, it said, adding the whole tribunal process has troubled Ms. Rajkumari and some others who have served as tribunal members.

Many poor Indians, the dispatch said, lack the required paperwork to prove citizenship, like parents’ voting records and land ownership documents that have been certified by authorities as authentic.

What’s more, the choice of who is labeled a suspected foreigner seems to have a religious bias to it, with a much higher percentage of Muslims sent to the tribunals than Hindus, according to Ms. Rajkumari and the tribunal members interviewed.

Although not technically courts, the tribunal function as if they were and if they find someone cannot prove his or her citizenship, that person can be sent to detention, often within a jail.

Kartik Roy, a lawyer and another former tribunal member, was quoted as saying “most of the references” that police officers made to his tribunal to investigate suspected foreigners “were against Muslims.”

He said the pressure was clear: “You have to declare ‘foreigners’ means you have to declare the Muslims,” he said.

Ms. Rajkumari agreed, saying state officials “think Muslims are foreigners.”

Some of the tribunal members interviewed by the Times said they felt pressure in general to find more “foreigners,” with a monthly requirement to report how many cases they had heard and of those, how many people had been declared foreigners.

Two other former members said officials in Assam’s Home and Political Department, which from 2016 has been controlled by Modi’s political party, had complained that they were not declaring enough people noncitizens.

Tribunal members who declared more people foreigners had their performance rated as “good,” which increased their chances of keeping their jobs, according to court documents viewed by The Times. The performance of those who didn’t declare enough people foreigners was marked as “not satisfactory.”

That is exactly what happened, it said as the terms of Ms. Rajkumari and Mr. Roy were not renewed in 2017.

They both said that because the bulk of people in front of the tribunals were Muslims, the expectation was that they would declare Muslims as foreigners, paving the way to deport them, incarcerate them or take away fundamental rights.

The director general of police in Assam and other state officials declined to comment, according to the Times.

Most of the migrants in Assam came from Bangladesh, at one time or another. Many have lived in Assam for generations, the descendants of economic migrants from decades ago, it was pointed out.

And many are illiterate and poor, often with no idea how to read the papers vital to proving a citizenship claim, and keeping them out of jail.

Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim country, and one of the poorest and most densely populated nations in the world, has expressed zero enthusiasm in taking migrants back, the dispatch said.

The passage of the national citizenship law sparked protests in Assam and across the country, and they continued to flare up until Modi imposed a coronavirus lockdown across India in late March.

Dozens of people in Assam whose citizenship has been questioned have killed themselves, according to Indian media reports. Countless others fear being expelled from India or thrown in jail.

Meanwhile, the government is expanding its capacity to incarcerate foreigners; an enormous detention facility is under construction in the Goalpara district of Assam, where up to 3,000 people are likely to be held.

The compound, set to open in a few months, has thick, high walls on the periphery, watchtowers in every corner, separate sections for men and women, and an infirmary, the Times said.