More than 7 million people, including 2.9 million married women, asked to prove citizenship as part of massive exercise.
GUWAHATI — Bimala Begum is worried. She is among nearly three million married women in India’s northeastern state of Assam who have been asked to prove their citizenship.
“Since I received the notice, I have gone to two neighbours and asked them what to do. I am really worried,” said Begum, 37, showing the two-page government notice in the local Assamese language.
The state is currently updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) – the first time since 1951 – as part of a government campaign to identify undocumented immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
The 2.9 million women, most of whom are Muslim, and nearly 4.5 million others are part of about 13 million people who were left out from the first draft NRC published on December 31 last year.
The authenticity of documents submitted by more than 7 million people, including 2.9 million married women, are now being verified by authorities to decide whether they are Indian citizens or immigrants.
The first list designated about 19 million people as legal citizens out of the total population of 32 million.
The country’s Supreme Court (SC), which is supervising the entire process, has set June 30 as the deadline to verify the documents.
But activists accuse officials of creating hurdles in the verification process.
“Women who used the panchayat certificate are being subjected to harassment,” said Rejaul Karim Sarkar, president, All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU).
“Though all the communities have to fill up the form for the NRC updating, the verification process has particularly been made very tough for Muslims and Bengali Hindus,” he said.
The state’s indigenous communities are exempted from the rigorous documentation process.
Sarkar fears a large number of genuine Indian citizens might be dropped from the NRC list, which is slated to be published next month.
“If actual foreigners are weeded out, no one will oppose… But if genuine Indian citizen’s names are dropped in such a large number, people will come to the streets and start a movement,” he said.
Activists say the NRC is not going to decide on the fate of more than 300,000 people who have either been declared foreigners or have cases pending against them in special courts called as Foreigners Tribunal (FT).
Abdul Batin Khandakar, an activist based in the capital, Guwahati, pointed out that their family members will also be excluded from the NRC process.
A total of 245,057 cases are pending in FTs, while 90,206 people have been declared foreigners, according to government data.
“An amendment to the Citizenship Act in 2003 said that for a person born in India both the parents must be legal Indian citizens,” Khandakar, executive president of the Brahmaputra Valley Civil Society, said.
Activists and experts fear that tens of thousands who do not find their names in the NRC list will be thrown in detention centres and may be rendered stateless – similar to the Rohingya people in Myanmar.
“We want the process to be judicious and as per guidelines. There is every likelihood of the creation of new humanitarian crisis in this part of India,” Khandakar said.
Like most people in riverine areas, Begum is a farmer and never went to school. In the absence of school certificates or any other government certificates, they obtained domicile certificates from the panchayat (village council).
But initially, the authorities refused to admit the panchayat certificate as a legal document, after which the country’s top court had to intervene.