The names of nearly 5 million Bengali-speaking Muslims have been struck off the National Citizenship Register in Assam. — File photo

After decades of battling the ‘outsider’ tag, a large section of the Bengali Muslim community is hoping the National Citizenship Register will provide them with the dignity to live as Indian citizens without any harassment.

Abdul Gani | Caravan Daily

GUWAHATI —  Muslims in the remote northeastern Indian state of Assam remained watchful as the state published the first draft of a citizens list on New Year’s Eve, to detect and deport illegal migrants from neighbouring countries, especially Muslims from Bangladesh.

In the first list, 19 million (1.9 crores) people have been included out of a total of 32.9 million (3.29 crore) who had applied to be included in the National Register of Citizens (NRC), unique to the state of Assam.

The state of Assam has witnessed a prolonged battle against ‘illegal immigration’, with many political and students movements emerging from the struggle.

With 13.9 million (1.39) people left out for now in the draft list published on Sunday, Bengali-speaking Muslims in the state are watchful.

A vetting process of identity documents of all citizens is still ongoing and many are hopeful the final citizens’ registry, which is likely to be published within the next few months, will bring a permanent solution to the illegal migrants’ problem.

After decades of battling the ‘outsider’ tag, a large section of the Bengali Muslim community is hoping the NRC will provide them with the dignity to live as Indian citizens without any harassment.

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The government is updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) after a census carried out for the first time since 1951, done to distinguish Indian citizens from illegal migrants from then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

The latest citizens register will include the names of those people or their descendants whose names appeared in the NRC of 1951 or in any of the electoral rolls up to March 25 of 1971 or in any one of the other admissible documents issued up to midnight of the same period, which would prove their presence in Assam.

“Out of my eight family members, the names of my three sons are yet to appear in the first draft. I am told that these are in the process and will be updated gradually in the next steps. We have submitted all the necessary documents. So, there is no need to worry,” Umar Ali, 60, told Caravan Daily at an NRC Seva Kendra (government authorized centre to check the names of citizens) in state capital Guwahati.

Ali, a vehicle parts’ dealer, tried pacifying his neighbours who were agitated after finding their names missing from the list at the centre. “What we want is an early NRC. This will be a safeguard for the people of the state especially the Muslims who have long been facing harassments,” Ali added.

Ashraful Islam, a student leader of Satra Mukti Sangram Parishad, who found his entire family missing from the list except himself, said the citizens’ list could be advantageous for a beleaguered Muslim community, saving them from future harassment.

“Unfortunately, many Indian citizens have been facing various kinds of harassment at different levels. This was just because of their religion. Poor Muslim men and women, who very often go to different places in search of work away from their homes in char (riverside villages) areas, are tagged as Bangladeshi. This is traumatic. At least from now onwards, once the NRC is completed, these Muslims will not be harassed,” Islam who hails from Dhograndha village in Barpeta told Caravan Daily.

Thirty-two-year-old research scholar and community worker Abdul Kalam Azad who also didn’t find his name on the list said that he is not worried yet.

“Names of my wife, elder brother and two nephews have featured in the list. But my name along with my son and sister-in-law are not on the list. This is not a worry. We have submitted the documents,” Kalam said referring to the proof of ancestry documents mandated to be on the list.

“Even my 60-year old aunt – Shahar Bhanu – feels that this is probably the last opportunity to prove their Indian citizenship and live with dignity,” Kalam added.

Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal has requested the people not to panic if their names are not in the first draft of the list.

In a statement, Sonowal said that no genuine Indian citizen would be left out of the NRC. “If any of their names have been left out, there is a provision to submit claims and objections about the same. The government would also extend all support,” he said.

The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), an influential students’ body of the state who had fronted a series of agitations to send back “illegal migrants” has welcomed the publication of the first draft.

“This is a historic moment for us. We want an illegal-migrants free Assam. We hope to see that, once the NRC update process is completed,” AASU advisor Samujjal Kumar Bhattacharya said.

The project is being monitored by the Supreme Court of India which had set the midnight of December 31 as the deadline for the draft publication, after a series of bipartite and tripartite meetings with the central government, state government and advocacy groups.

Assam has the second highest percentage of Muslims, over 34%, in the country after Jammu and Kashmir.


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