After her husband disappeared the previous evening and she anxiously awaited his return home throughout the night, Ruksha Khan got a message from a neighbor in the morning of New Year’s Day that someone had committed suicide.
Ruksha rushed to the spot to discover it was the body of her husband, Hanif Khan, hanging from a tree.
She said her husband committed suicide fearing police action after he found his name missing from the state’s just-published National Register of Citizens. Ruksha said her husband, an ethnic Bangladeshi, was born in India and that he was an Indian citizen because his father’s name had appeared in the Indian citizen’s voter list published in 1971.
“For the past two or three months, he was so anxious about his name being missed by the NRC that he stopped eating and sleeping properly," Ruksha told VOA. "He often said to me that he would be arrested [as an illegal immigrant], kept in detention centers, and tortured.”
Bengali-speaking people from the territory of what is now Bangladesh began migrating to Assam in Northeast India centuries ago. After Pakistan launched a 1971 military crackdown in East Pakistan, which is present day Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of Hindus and Muslims crossed over into Assam, seeking refuge in the Indian state.
In early the 1980s, Assamese indigenous people agitated for the deportation of all illegal immigrants from the northeastern state, saying they threatened the livelihood of the local people by taking away jobs and other resources.
In 1985, the Indian government signed a Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) called the Assam Accord, pledging to identify all illegal immigrants in Assam and deport them. Those who crossed over to Assam from Bangladesh after March 24, 1971, would be identified as illegal immigrants, according to that MoS.
Although that agreement counted all Hindus and Muslims as illegal if they crossed over after that date, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP government has made it easier for non-Muslim immigrants to gain citizenship in India since they swept to power nationally in 2014.
The BJP-led government has been in the process of amending a law so that no non-Muslim, if he can prove that he was in India before the end of 2014, will be considered an illegal immigrant.
After the first draft of the NRC of Assam was released Jan. 1 with the names of only 19 million people, many — mostly Muslims — in the state have been gripped by confusion and anxiety after they found their names missing from the register.
Several government officials, including Assam’s chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, announced it was only a partial draft of the NRC and people should wait until the final draft was released later this year.
But weeks before the release of the draft, the government said the verification of documents for 23.8 million applicants had been completed.
“In this situation” the government’s publication of 19 million names in the first draft of the NRC sends out a message that applications from at least 4.8 million people might have been rejected, said Maulana Joynal Abedin, a Muslim cleric from Menipur village of Cachar district in Assam.
“I am very concerned not to find my name in the first draft of the NRC. Many Muslims in my village are caught in the same situation. Strangely, even a Muslim neighbor who retired after being in an Indian government service for several decades has found the names of his entire family missing from the draft,” Abedin said.
“According to [the] Indian constitution, India is secular. But, the ruling party and the government seem biased against Muslims in this issue,” he said.
Defending the list
BJP leaders in Assam say they support the government’s decision to offer citizenship to non-Muslim, mostly Hindu, immigrants who arrived India by 2014.
“In Pakistan and Bangladesh, Hindus and other religious minorities like Christians, Sikhs are being persecuted. In the same way the minorities are being persecuted in Bangladesh. These people have no other place to go. So, the Indian government will amend the law and will offer citizenship to the Hindu and other (non-Muslim) minority immigrants,” Assam BJP spokesperson Ramkrishna Ghosh told VOA.
But North Eastern Hill University professor Prasenjit Biswas, said the government’s effort to accommodate only non-Muslim immigrants, saying that they were victims of persecution in their home countries, is unfair.
“Muslims, who came to Assam as refugees during Bangladesh’s liberation war and afterward during the military rule, were also equally persecuted by the state. There are such politically and religiously persecuted Muslims as refugees in many parts of India just as there are refugees from many other countries who have taken political asylum as well as ordinary shelter in India,” Biswas said.
Bangladeshi political analyst and rights activist Farhad Mazhar said in the name of updating the NRC, the Modi-led Indian government is “seeking materialization of building a Hindu nation.”
"The ghost of the two-nation theory, ‘India is for the Hindus, not Muslims’, is the basis of this Hindutvabadee ideology of BJP," said Mazhar. "So, Hindu nationalist party-led India welcomes Hindus from the neighboring countries, but bans the entry of Muslim refugees.”