In a growing India, some struggle to prove they are Indians

Of note:

Krishna Biswas is scared. Unable to prove his Indian citizenship, he is at risk of being sent to a detention center, far away from his modest hut built of bamboo wood that looks down on fields lush with corn.

Biswas says he was born in India’s northeastern Assam state. So was his father, almost 65 years ago. But the government says that to prove he is an Indian, he should furnish documents that date back to 1971.

For the 37-year-old vegetable seller, that means searching for a decades-old property deed or a birth certificate with an ancestor’s name on it.

Biswas has none, and he is not alone. There are nearly 2 million people like him — over 5% of Assam’s population — staring at a future where they could be stripped of their citizenship if they are unable to prove they are Indian.

Questions over who is an Indian have long lingered over Assam, which many believe is overrun with immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

At a time when India is about to overtake China as the most populous country, these concerns are expected to heighten as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government seeks to use illegal immigration and fears of demographic shift for electoral gains in a nation where nationalist sentiments run deep.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has promised to roll out a similar citizenship verification program nationwide even though the process in Assam has been put on hold after a federal audit found it flawed and full of errors.

Nonetheless, hundreds of suspected immigrants with voting rights in Assam have been arrested and sent to detention centers the government calls “transit camps.” Fearing arrest, thousands have fled to other Indian states. Some have died of suicide.

Millions of people like Biswas, whose citizenship status is unclear, were born in India to parents who immigrated many decades ago. Many of them have voting cards and other identification, but the state’s citizenship registry counts only those who can prove, with documentary evidence, that they or their ancestors were Indian citizens before 1971, the year Bangladesh was born.

Modi’s party, which also rules Assam, argues the registry is essential to identify people who entered the country illegally in a state where ethnic passions run deep and anti-immigrant protests in the 1980s culminated in the massacre of more than 2,000 immigrant Muslims.

“My father and his brother were born here. We were born here. Our kids were also born here. We will die here but not leave this place,” Biswas, said on a recent afternoon at his home in Assam’s Murkata village, near the banks of the Brahmaputra River.

The Biswas family has 11 members, of whom the citizenship of nine is in dispute. His wife and mother have been declared Indian by a foreigners’ tribunal that decides on citizenship claims. Others, including his three children, his father and his brother’s family, have been declared “foreigners.”

It makes no sense to Biswas, who wonders why would some be considered to have settled in the country illegally and others not, even though they all were born in the same place.

The family, like many others, has not pleaded their case before the tribunal or higher courts due to a lack of money and the arduous paperwork required in the process.

“If we cannot be Indian then just kill us. Let them (the government) kill my whole family,” he said.

Source: In a growing India, some struggle to prove they are Indians

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: