Assam State Plans Mass Deportation of 'Non-Indians' in Chilling Echo of Rohingya Crisis

Assam state's citizenship list
People stand in line to check their names on the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) at Gumi village of Kamrup district in the Indian state of Assam on January 1, 2018. Around 13 million people in northeastern India's Assam woke up to uncertainty on January 1 after the release of an official citizenship registry with names of only 19 million of the state's over 32 million residents. The national registry of citizens (NRC) has been in works for years, after strident, decades long demands by many local groups to identify and evict 'illegal foreigners' settling in the state. KULENDU KALITA/AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of people who cannot prove they have roots in the Indian state of Assam will be soon facing deportation and are at risk of becoming stateless, according to reports.

Two years ago, local authorities in Assam, a state bordering Bangladesh and Bhutan, announced they would start preparing a list with names of people who could prove they or their ancestors had been in the state before March 24, 1971. Those whose names would not feature on the list, mainly Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, would be then considered illegal immigrants and expelled.

The cut-off date accounts for those who fled Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, during the 1965 India-Pakistan conflict and excludes those who moved to Assam when Bangladesh was liberated from Pakistan on March 26, 1971.

In January, Assam—which has also built a detention center for those who are awaiting deportation, according to local media—published a preliminary list of names, sparking paranoia and anxiety among those whose names have not been included. The list will update the state's National Registry of Citizens (NRC).

Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal claimed his government will no longer grant "constitutional rights" to people who fail to be recognized as citizens. He added that they will be able to live in India on humanitarian grounds until the detention center decides on their expulsion.

"They will have only one right—human rights as guaranteed by the U.N. that include food, shelter and clothing," Sonowal told the Times of India.

"For almost 40 years, our people have been living in a state of confusion and uncertainty. The NRC [National Register of Citizens] will end this. It is a win-win situation for everybody. Nobody will question anybody's citizenship," he continued.

Although it is not clear where people will be deported to, it is expected that some will be sent to Bangladesh. It is estimated that more than 2 million Muslims with Bengali roots live in Assam, according to Reuters.

India has claimed that thousands of illegal migrants from Bangladesh are present in the state. The issue has, at times, exacerbated tensions between the two countries, which do not have an official repatriation agreement.

Earlier in February, Bangladesh said it might not accept people expelled from Assam on grounds that they will be considered as illegal immigrants.

"There was no border fence between Assam and Bangladesh because the area was inaccessible. So, it is not possible for Bangladeshis to settle in that region in Assam," Bangladesh's information minister Hasanul Haq Inu told Economic Times.

"No question of deportation arises if there is no Bangladeshi settlement in the region," he added.

Some fear the situation could result in those expelled becoming stateless.

"Several concerns exist around the National Register of Citizens, including whether it has sufficient due process protections to prevent arbitrary deprivation of nationality and statelessness," Asmita Basu, Programs Director at Amnesty International India, told Newsweek.

"There have been several reports of the process being cumbersome and confusing, and one reported case of a suicide linked to fears of exclusion from the NRC.

"The Indian government has a duty to uphold the human rights of all people in the country, including stateless people. The Indian government must weigh the consequences of depriving people of their nationality against the interests it is seeking to protect," Basu continued.

Anti-foreigner sentiments

Anti-foreigner sentiments are not new in the country. The All Assam Students' Union (AASU) led an anti-foreigner movement for years in the 1970s and 1980s. When the organization opposed the inclusion of foreigners in the voter list, its agitation quickly gained traction in the state.

The state has been witnessing sectarian violence between the indigenous population and foreigners, mainly Muslims from Bangladesh. In 1983, at least 2,000 Bengali Muslims were killed during violence in the run-up to local elections in what became known as the Nellie massacre.

AASU and the central government eventually signed the Assam Accord in 1985. The deal brought an end to the agitation and aimed to deport illegal migrants from Bangladesh and safeguard indigenous communities in the state. AASU maintains some of the key clauses have not been met yet.

Rohingya Crisis

Rohingya refugees
Rohingya refugees wait for food supply distribution at Balukhali camp, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh January 15, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Assam's decision echoes a series of laws implemented in Myanmar, where recent violence has displaced more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims, most of whom fled to neighboring Bangladesh.

The Rohingya are an ethnic minority group that lives in segregated conditions in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, also known as Burma, mainly in Rakhine state. They are stateless people and are regarded as unwelcome migrants from Muslim-majority Bangladesh. They have become one of the world's most persecuted ethnic minorities.

Some analysts say the persecution of the Rohingya can be traced back to 1974, with the introduction of a new Constitution which rights groups said failed to protect minorities' rights in the country.

Discrimination further increased with the introduction of the 1982 Citizenship Act, according to which citizens need to belong to one of the officially recognized ethnic groups or must provide documents proving their ancestors had settled in the country before 1823.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been accused of committing widespread abuses against its Rohingya Muslim population. The government has rejected the allegations, but human rights groups and the United Nations have repeatedly claimed systematic violence could amount to "ethnic cleansing" against the Rohingya.