India's government is requiring documentation from people to prove they are legal citizens. Some critics of the policy say it discriminates against a local minority Muslim population.
The policy is being carried out in India’s northeastern state of Assam. The Hindu nationalist BJP party of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi won state legislative elections in Assam in 2016.
Modi had promised to take action against illegal immigrants that some people accuse of stealing jobs and resources. The Assam government recently began expanding its work on the National Register of Citizens (NRC). People must be listed on the NRC to be considered legal citizens of India.
About four million people in Assam were left off the NRC list and are being asked to provide documents to prove their citizenship.
One of them is 33-year-old Riyazul Islam, who spoke to Reuters about his situation. He said he and his mother have no documents left to prove they are Indians. But his father and many others in his family are already listed in the NRC.
“If my father is an Indian citizen how come I am not?” Islam said to Reuters. He spoke with the reporters in the town of Dhubri, near the border with Muslim-majority Bangladesh. “What more proof do they need?” he said.
The government has not given details about the four million people living in Assam who are not on the citizenship list. But most are believed to be minority Bengali-speaking Muslims. Most of the state’s 33 million people are Assamese-speaking Hindus.
Many of those left off the list cannot read or write and come from poor families.
Reuters examined documents from several families in Assam state. The news agency found that in some cases, people were denied citizenship because the names listed on documents they provided were spelled incorrectly. In other cases, documents contained mistakes relating to a person’s age.
Several people who spoke with Reuters said officials rejected their explanations of the mistakes.
Opposition parties say Modi’s BJP party aims to deny citizenship to Muslims through the Assam list. They say this could be used to demonstrate the party’s commitment to Hindu nationalism ahead of a planned general election set for next year.
The BJP’s spokesman in Assam rejected claims that religion had played a part in the latest citizenship drive. “(This is) being opposed for political mileage, whereas at ground zero there is absolutely no tension,” the spokesman told Reuters.
But Modi’s finance minister, Arun Jaitley, has spoken out on the citizenship list. He wrote in a Facebook post earlier this month that the NRC was necessary because growth in the Hindu population of Assam had been overtaken by that of Muslims.
It is not clear what will happen to those left off the final list of citizens. Legal experts say they face denial of citizenship rights and government assistance and could even be sent to detention camps. They could also be taken off voter lists, which could affect the outcome of the general election.
The Indian government said in 2016 that about 20 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants were living in India.
Samujjal Bhattacharya is an adviser to the All Assam Students Union, which has led a campaign against illegal immigrants. He told Reuters that for 38 years, the group has been “fighting to protect the language, culture and identity of our indigenous people in our own motherland.”
Bhattacharya denied the group discriminates against any one community. “It’s not against Muslims, it is not against Hindus, it is not against Bengalis,” he said. “It’s against illegal Bangladeshis. It is a question of citizens and non-citizens.”
I’m Bryan Lynn.
Bryan Lynn adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on a report by Reuters. was the editor.
We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments section, and visit our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
commitment – n. a promise to support and work toward something
absolutely – adj. completely; beyond any doubt
indigenous – adj. existing naturally or having always lived in a place