On December 22, 2019 Mohammed Sanaullah, a retired army officer settled down in front of his television in his ancestral home in Kalahikash village, 60 kilometres from Guwahati, the capital of the state of Assam in north-eastern India.
The family had tuned in to watch the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, address an election rally in Delhi, speaking for the first time since protests had broken out across the country against a contentious law that promises Indian citizenship to asylum seekers from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, unless they are Muslims. In his speech Modi said, “the citizenship law or the NRC [National Register of Citizens, another contentious exercise] have nothing to do with Indian Muslims. They have nothing to worry.” The Prime Minister added that his political opponents were spreading rumours that Muslims would be sent to detention centres.
“Neither is anybody sending the country’s Muslims to detention centres nor are there any detention centres in India… The Muslims of India don’t need to worry at all,” said Modi.
Sanaullah had just experienced a different reality from the one the Prime Minister described.
The 53-year-old war veteran was declared a ‘foreigner’ after his name did not figure in the NRC list. On May 27, 2019, when he went to a Foreigners’ Tribunal set up to deal with cases like his, Sanaullah was placed under arrest and sent to a detention camp in Goalpara in Assam.
“Where was I sent if that was not a detention centre? He is denying buildings that physically exist. I will never forget the 11 excruciating days I spent in the detention camp,” Sanaullah said when I met him in his village in late January. He has appealed against the order in the Guwahati High Court, and is currently out on bail.
Just the beginning
Assam’s NRC list published in 2019 has left 1.9 million people out of those ‘deemed’ Indians. They now have to approach foreigners’ tribunals to ‘prove’ they are Indian citizens. A large proportion of those excluded are women. An appeal to a tribunal would cost a minimum of INR 50,000 (USD 680) per case. If even a million of those excluded appeal – and it is likely that most will – this will be a minimum cost of INR 50 billion (USD 680 million) borne by the poorest of the poor.
Meanwhile, the authorities have already set up six detention centres in old jail facilities and are building new ones.
No one has thought of the effect all this will have on the ecosystem in river- and forest-rich Assam. At least one detention centre – the one in Goalpara – is coming up in a floodplain. And putting residents of river islands – especially women – in detention centres has long-term adverse effects on the islands themselves.
Parallels with the Rohingya refugee crisis
The NRC exercise carried out in Assam has effectively created a stateless population twice the size of the Rohingya refugees. After the exercise, the Indian Parliament passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. This is frighteningly similar to what occurred with the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar who, in 1982, were denied citizenship after a new law did not recognise the ethnic minority as one of Myanmar’s national races.
Myanmar’s citizenship law classified only those people as citizens who could provide evidence that their ancestors settled in Myanmar before 1823, the beginning of British occupation of present-day Rakhine, the province where most Rohingyas live. The ferocity and scale of the violence against the Rohingya Muslims were based on longstanding denial of the Rohingyas’ right to belong in Myanmar, after facing decades of being called illegal Bengali immigrants, just as it is currently playing out in Assam.
The events leading to the massive Rohingya crisis and the fleeing of over a million people were prefaced by government-led projects in Rakhine. Most of the Rohingya were unaware that the land that they were fleeing was seen as valuable real estate by the government in Myanmar, with projects backed by neighbouring giants India and China.
The paths through which the Rohingyas fled were then mined by Myanmar’s military, cutting off elephant corridors in the process. Landing in Bangladesh, the destitute refugees found themselves scrounging off the land, and despite help from international aid organisations and Bangladesh, the Cox’s Bazar area was stripped of greenery, leading to conflicts with both locals and wildlife.
In Assam, the pressure from economic destitution may have a direct impact on how poor people deal with the ecosystem, which may be the only source of revenue. The state is already the hub of both human and animal trafficking.
Bangladesh caught in the middle
Another distressing parallel is the impact on regional cooperation. The Rohingya crisis has effectively destroyed any prospect of deep engagement between Bangladesh and Myanmar, and Bangladesh is deeply afraid of a repeat with India. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was scheduled to visit Dhaka on March 17 to participate in the centenary celebrations of Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Opposing his visit, protests broke out. The state visit was cancelled, though the cause was seemingly due to reported cases of the coronavirus in Bangladesh.
Before this, on January 26, 2020 Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan informed the Bangladeshi Parliament that the government was observing Indian’s internal situation, and added, “Bangladesh considers the NRC issue as India’s internal affair. The highest authority of Indian government has given assurance to the Bangladesh government that the NRC issue would not put any unwanted impact on Bangladesh.” He also said that Bangladesh’s border guard force was on “highest alert” to prevent border crossing by panicked villagers who did not find their names in the NRC list.
The Indian government has taken pains to emphasise that the issue will not impact Bangladesh, but Tariq Karim, who served as the High Commissioner of Bangladesh to India between 2009 and 2014, stated that the Bangladeshi government was facing a great deal of internal pressure due to the situation in Assam. He added, “No regional project will take off if the sub-regional India-Bangladesh cooperation falls apart.” Bangladesh and India have been key partners in every sub-regional institution of cooperation, and Dhaka a key ally in New Delhi’s ‘Act East Policy’. Since the final NRC list came out, a number of trips by Bangladeshi government officials and ministers have been cancelled, including a recently planned trip by the Speaker of the Parliament.
Bangladesh is deeply dependent, as a downstream riparian country, on cooperation with India. It has 54 transboundary rivers, and an agreement with India on only one major one – the Ganga, and even this is scheduled to come up for renewal in 2026. Despite pressure from Bangladesh, no treaty on the Teesta has been signed. In her last visit to India, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had focussed on cooperation on smaller rivers. This had an unintended consequence when a Bangladeshi student was murdered for criticising the water-sharing agreements arrived at during that visit, showing just how fraught the relationship, and cooperation on rivers is becoming.
With additional inputs by Omair Ahmad and Joydeep Gupta