Bengali Muslim Mainal Mollah considers himself lucky. Although a foreigners tribunal in India's northeastern Assam state declared him an illegal immigrant, he managed to walk out of a detention camp last month, after languishing there for three years.
“A foreigners tribunal declared that I was a foreigner and sent me to a detention camp from where I was to be pushed back to Bangladesh. This happened very strangely in my case after another tribunal had declared that my parents were Indian citizens,” Mollah said.
“Some rights activists took my case to the big court [Supreme Court in Delhi] and finally I came out of the camp. I am lucky that I did not die in the camp, where in horrible condition many perished before me, and that I didn’t have to go through a traumatizing situation of being pushed back to Bangladesh.”
Despite several documents showing his family had lived in Assam for generations, Mollah landed in the detention camp to be sent to Bangladesh, said Aman Wadud, with the civil rights group MY-FACTS.
“There are documents showing that Moinal Mollah’s grandfather had held land in Assam in 1938. The names of Moinal’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather figured in the National Register for Citizens of 1951. After a tribunal had declared him a foreigner, Moinal produced all the related documents before the Honorable Gauhati High Court, while filing writ petitions,” Wadud, a human rights lawyer, told VOA.
“But, the Honorable High Court upheld the tribunal’s verdict and ordered his deportation to Bangladesh.”
Indian citizens victimized
After the Supreme Court in July ordered a retrial for Mollah's case, MY-FACTS managed to get him out of the detention camp on bail. Wadud said he was hopeful that Mollah will be declared an Indian citizen soon.
For more than a century, Hindus and Muslims have moved from the region that is now Bangladesh to Assam to earn their living. But India regards any Bengali-speaking people who settled in Assam after March 1971 to be illegal immigrants.
The Assam Border Police identify suspected Bangladeshis and send their cases to the foreigners tribunal if they fail to produce citizenship documents. Last month, the police reported that in 25 years the tribunals had declared about 53,000 people to be foreigners.
Rights activists say, however, many of those people often are Indian citizens who get caught in miserable situations.
“The Border Police are supposed to conduct investigations before forwarding the Reference Cases to the tribunals. But, rarely do they investigate the cases at this point. They often file the cases against people despite [the fact] they have all valid Indian citizenship documents, because of a communal bias and also when they fail to extort the demanded bribes from the poorer victims,” Wadud said.
“So, it’s easy to figure out why over 95 percent of the people, who were identified as suspected citizens by border police in the past few years, have been declared Indian citizens by the tribunals. ... That the Muslims are becoming victims of a bias is clear from the fact that over 80 percent of the Reference Cases involved Muslims,” Wadud added.
Residency for non-Muslims
Assam Muslim community leader Hafiz Ahmed told VOA that since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formed the Assam government in May, an increasing number of Indian Muslims are being targeted.
“Previously they identified only the Bengali-speaking people as suspected Bangladeshis. But since BJP took charge of Assam, even the indigenous Assamese Muslims, who do not speak Bengali and had their forefathers living here for over several centuries, are being suspected as illegal Bangladeshis,” Ahmed, who leads the All India Secular Forum in Assam, said.
A BJP spokesperson in Assam, Jayanta Malla Baruah, said the state government has never taken any action that shows that it is biased against Muslims.
“The previous Congress [Party]-led government was lax in action against the illegal immigrants. But our new government in Assam is acting properly, following the orders from the foreigners tribunals. It’s incorrect if someone finds anything anti-Muslim in these actions,” Baruah said.
Nationwide, the BJP-led Indian government announced in June that it was working toward granting citizenship to non-Muslims who, after facing religious persecution in Pakistan and Bangladesh, came to India and settled here by 2014.
Prasenjit Biswas, a professor at North Eastern Hill University in Shillong, India, noted that government promises of residency rights for non-Muslims has widened the contrast in how a suspected Bangladeshi Hindu compared to a suspected Bangladeshi Muslim is treated in Assam.
“Although rule of law in India does not allow any such discrimination in the name of religious identities, yet in the name of religious persecution, Hindus are being given a right to residence, while denying the same to Muslims on the basis of their religion. This has created a lot of fear and has cast a shadow of insecurity in the social psyche of the Muslims,” Biswas said.