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Assam Accord issue to be taken up

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New Delhi, As the country celebrated Independence Day on Saturday, the historic Assam Accord, signed on this very day 30 years ago to detect and deport illegal immigrants in the northeastern state, has returned into focus.

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Though the accord was signed to end a six-year-long mass movement demanding detection and deportation of illegal immigrants, mostly from Bangladesh, who threatened the culture, identity and economic future of the indigenous people of Assam, successive central and state governments have failed to implement key clauses of the agreement.

The accord was signed between the central and Assam governments on one side and the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the now defunct All Aasam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP), who spearheaded the movement, on the other, in the presence of then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
According to the accord, all foreigners who entered Assam illegally on or after March 25, 1971, would be detected, their names deleted from the electoral rolls and then deported under the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964.

Though the accord was signed on August 15, 1985, seemingly unending illegal immigration continues from Bangladesh till this day. According to official figures released way back in December 2001, there were an estimated five million foreigners in Assam.
year, while campaigning for the BJP ahead of the general elections, Narendra Modi promised that, if brought to power, he would ensure that all clauses of the Assam Accord were implemented and illegal immigrants in the state detected and deported.

Now, with the NDA government completing one year in office, the AASU, in a smart move, organised a national seminar themed “30 Years of Assam Accord: Issues, Challenges and Implementation” in the national capital on August 11 and 12 – just before Independence Day.

The idea was not only to highlight the non-implementation of the accord’s clauses but also the security threat posed to national security by the phenomenon of illegal immigration.So, did it pay dividends? If nothing else, hopes were raised.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that as an immediate step, he would visit the Bangladesh border in Assam within this month accompanied by an AASU delegation to take stock of the situation arising out of the illegal immigration.

“I know about all your genuine demands and I can assure you that only Indians will stay in India. We should know what steps should be taken to protect the rights of the indigenous people without leaving any loopholes,” he said.

The home minister also said discussions would be held with AASU to find out the shortcomings in the Assam Accord that were stopping its full implementation.

The home ministry is the nodal ministry for implementing the accord.
“Since I became the home minister last year, I have visited Assam as many as seven times.

This is the most visits I have made to any state after my home state of Uttar Pradesh,” Rajnath Singh said by way of reassurance.
Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju, who hails from the neighbouring state of Arunachal Pradesh, said that he would take every initiative within his ministry with the support of Rajnath Singh to bring the issue to the prime minister’s notice.Calling Assam his motherland he lamented how the matter had slipped out of hand.

“Assam is the heart of the northeast. Assam has to be protected if the northeast is to be protected.”
He said all stakeholders, including the Assamese society, were responsible for the failure to implement the accord.
“All political parties should take responsibility, be it Congress, BJP or AGP (Asom Gana Parishad),” Rijiju said.

Former chief election commissioner H.S. Brahma, who also hails from Assam, said three key steps needed to be taken: someone should take ownership of the accord and ensure its implementation; a calendar should be prepared and half-yearly and yearly reviews of the work done should be made; and every year, the AASU or a think tank or civil society should present a white paper recording the progress in the accord’s implementation.

According to Rijiju, AASU should take the lead in the process and cooperation should be extended from all sides.
Former home secretary G.K. Pillai, who was also joint secretary for the northeast, was of the view that work permits should be issued as this would help identify the foreigners. However, this did not meet with assent from all sides.
In 2005, 20 years after the signing of the accord, a key impediment to the implementation of its clauses was removed when the Supreme Court struck down the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983. The Act had put the onus on the police to prove whether a person was a foreigner or not.

Following the national seminar, the AASU has come out with a 14-point Delhi Resolution, which, among others, calls for the signing of a repatriation treaty between India and Bangladesh, and complete sealing of the border within a declared deadline.
With the process of updating the National Register of Citizens also going on in Assam under the direct supervision of the Supreme Court – the deadline is August 31 – the historic accord seems to have somehow regained its relevance.

(IANS)

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Here’s How Strict India’s Citizenship Test Can Really Be

To be recognized as Indian citizens, all residents of Assam have had to produce documents proving that they or their families lived in the country before March 24, 1971.

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Indian Citizenship
In India's Citizenship Test, a Spelling Error Can Ruin a Family. VOA

Riyazul Islam says he had to produce family documents going back to 1951 to prove he was of India and not an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant. But a draft list of citizens released in July excluded him and his mother, among a total of about 4 million people left off.

A wiry 33-year-old living in the northeastern state of Assam, Islam says he and his mother have no further documents left to prove they are Indians, although his father and many others in his family have been included in the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

“If my father is an Indian citizen how come I am not?” said Islam in an interview in the small Assam town of Dhubri, close to the border with Muslim-majority Bangladesh. “What more proof do they need?”

Anguish like this is now commonplace in Assam, where the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi accelerated work on the citizen’s list after coming to power in the state two years ago, promising to act against immigrants accused of stealing jobs and resources from locals.

The government has not given details of the four million excluded from the list. But most are believed to be minority Bengali-speaking Muslims living in the state, which has a total population of 33 million, mostly Assamese-speaking Hindus.

Many of those excluded are illiterate and poor, and some are victims of a spelling error in their names or a mistake in their age in documents offered for proof of citizenship, according to a review of their documents by Reuters.

Opposition parties say Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is denying citizenship to Muslims through the Assam list, and demonstrating its Hindu nationalist credentials with an eye on a general election due by May.

The BJP’s Assam spokesman, Bijan Mahajan said there was no religion-based motive behind the citizenship drive.

“(This is) being opposed for political mileage whereas at ground zero there is absolutely no tension,” he said.

However, Arun Jaitley, one of Modi’s senior-most cabinet colleagues, said in a Facebook post this month that the NRC was necessary because the growth in the Hindu population of Assam had been overtaken by that of Muslims.

Ethnic Assamese have been agitating against outsiders in the state for decades. In 1983, about 2,000 people were chased down and killed by machete-armed mobs intent on hounding out Muslim immigrants. It has not been clearly established which group was behind the carnage.

India n Passport
The government has not given details of the four million excluded from the list. Flickr

The Assam NRC draft has excluded many Hindus too, but last weekend BJP chief Amit Shah assured citizenship to all non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan by framing a new law.

It is not clear what will happen to those excluded from the final list of citizens, due to be published by the end of the year. But lawyers say they may end up in detention camps, or at the very least be denied citizenship rights and government subsidies.

They could also be struck off voter rolls, which will be an important factor in at least half a dozen Assam constituencies in a general election.

Spelling Errors

In Dhubri, a farming town on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra River upstream from the Bangladesh border, those who did not make it to the list were fearful of discussing it in public.

But inside their homes, several of those excluded showed a Reuters reporter tattered pieces of paper, including birth, school and marriage certificates dating back years and preserved carefully in plastic envelopes.

Such government-issued documents in the countryside often contain spelling or numerical errors, as the illiterate depend on others to write down details. Getting birth certificates made was also not common until recent years in many parts of the country.

Such mistakes can lead to loss of citizenship, said Aman Wadud, a lawyer who has handled dozens of cases of illegal immigration at Assam’s foreigner tribunals.

“With Muslims, there is a problem of title (surnames),” said Wadud. “Because most of the accused are illiterate they don’t use a constant title. Ali, Ahmed, Hussain are used interchangeably.”

He showed Reuters a tribunal judgment on a resident named Tajab Ali, who submitted a series of voters lists as proof of his citizenship going back to 1966. He said his name had been wrongly recorded as Tajap Ali instead of Tajab Ali in the 1985 voters list, and his father’s name wrongly recorded as Surman Ali Munshi instead of Surman Ali. There were also discrepancies in his age.

The tribunal said Ali submitted an affidavit “declaring various names of himself, his projected father, and mother. But an affidavit being only a self-declaration, it has no evidentiary value.”

Sajida Bibi, Islam’s mother, also fell victim to a wrongly entered name.

One of the documents she submitted to prove citizenship and shown to Reuters by the family, was an affidavit saying her name had been wrongly recorded as “Sabahan Bibi” in the 1951 citizenship registry, the first one drawn up in the state after India’s independence in 1947. The affidavit also said she was named as “Sahajadi Begum” in her school certificate, and that she changed her name to “Sajida Bibi” from “Sajida Begum” after her marriage.

She swore in the affidavit that all three were the same person here. The tribunal did not accept the affidavit.

Reuters reviewed copies of at least two other recent tribunal judgements in which people had been declared foreigners because of name and age-related errors and in which affidavits were not accepted.

“Not Against Muslims”

Much of the over 2,500-mile-long border between India and Bangladesh is porous, through which hundreds of thousands of people fled from Bangladesh during its India-backed war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.

India Citizenship
A man, whose name is left off of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) draft, stands in a line to collect forms to file appeals at an NRC Sewa Kendra (NSK) in Guwahati. VOA

To be recognized as Indian citizens, all residents of Assam have had to produce documents proving that they or their families lived in the country before March 24, 1971.

New Delhi said in 2016 that around 20 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants were living in India. Activists who filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 2009 to expel such immigrants alleged over 4 million of them had been included in Assam’s 2006 voter list.

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“For 38 years, we’ve been fighting to protect the language, culture and identity of our indigenous people in our own motherland,” said Samujjal Bhattacharya, an adviser to the All Assam Students Union (AASU), an organization that has spearheaded the campaign against illegal immigrants.

But Bhattacharya said the NRC was not biased against any community.

“It’s not against Muslims, it is not against Hindus, it is not against Bengalis,” Bhattacharya said. “It’s against illegal Bangladeshis. It is a question of citizens and non-citizens.” (VOA)