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India’s crackdown on illegal immigration could leave 4 million people stateless

Muslim women stand in line to check whether their names are included in the National Register of Citizens at a draft center in the Indian village of Bur Gaon on Monday. (Anupam Nath/AP)

NEW DELHI — An estimated 4 million people living in a border area of India have been left off a controversial citizenship list designed to stem the illegal flood of immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, the majority of them Muslim.

Indian authorities published the final draft Monday of their National Register of Citizens for Assam, a largely agrarian state of 33 million that shares a border with Muslim-majority Bangladesh and Bhutan and that has wrestled with a tide of illegal immigration for decades. Since 2015, Assam has been undergoing a Supreme Court-monitored update of its citizen rolls.

Officials at the state and national levels stressed Monday that the list is merely a final draft and that residents have time to appeal their citizenship cases. Those whose names do not appear on the list will not be immediately deported or placed in temporary camps, the officials said. Security forces were nonetheless beefed up in case violence breaks out.

“No genuine Indian citizens should have any fear or panic,” Sarbananda Sonowal, the state’s chief minister, said at a news conference. Sonowal founded his political career in a student movement against illegal immigration decades ago.

But the draft does raise the question of where migrants will go after the numbers are finalized; Bangladesh’s government does not acknowledge them as citizens.

Amnesty International India issued a statement of concern that the process could render a “significant number” of people stateless.

“I’m worried about my future,” said Saleha Begum, 40, a Barpeta resident who was born in Assam but was not on the list. “My parents were born here. We have all the documents. Still, my family’s names are not on the list. I’m scared. I don’t know if the police will put us into a detention center or deport us to Bangladesh.”

India’s move to manage illegal immigration comes as countries around the world are cracking down on refugee movements and the United States is waging a major campaign against an influx from Central America, including recent moves to separate migrant children from their parents.

Assam has grappled with its population of migrants for decades, a problem that worsened in 1971, when Bangladesh — then East Pakistan — waged a war of independence from Pakistan, sparking a flood of refugees into India. The state endured six years of violent anti-immigration protests in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Over the years, hostility between migrants and the natives of the state — nearly half of whom speak the regional language of Assamese — has deepened.

The ranks of migrants, who sneak over the country’s marshy borders with relative ease — have grown, as have fears that they are bringing extremism with them.

Assam’s Muslim population grew faster than the national average — from about 31 to 34 percent between 2001 and 2011, compared with 13.4 to 14.2 percent nationally during that period, according to census figures.

Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest and most densely populated countries, denies that its citizens have crossed illegally into India, does not recognize the Muslims in Assam as Bangladeshis and refuses to accept their deportation.

The movement to clarify the status of Assam’s citizens gained momentum when the governing party of India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, took control of the state in 2016. Modi had promised on the campaign trail that all Bangladeshis would have to leave Assam, “bag and baggage.”

Residents have been asked to prove their citizenship by providing documents that show they or their family lived in India before March 24, 1971. Those left off the list have until Sept. 28 to submit objection or correction forms.

A retired junior officer of the Indian army, Mohammed Azmal Haque, also learned Monday that he was excluded from the list despite his lengthy military career.

“I’m extremely hurt. Even after serving the nation, this is what I got?” he said. “If this can happen to me, what will be the plight of the common man?”

Farheen Fatima contributed to this report.

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