Sunday, August 12, 2018

It's Time We Listened To The Plight Of Assam's 'Foreigners'...

India's north-eastern Assam state was thrown into turmoil on July 30, after approximately four million people living there were not included in a draft list of citizens published by authorities.
The Registrar General of India (RGI), which published the draft list called the National Register of Citizens (NRC), said out of the 32.9 million people living in the border state, only 28.9 million managed to submit the necessary documents proving their citizenship.
Some human rights activists deemed the list the "biggest exercise for disenfranchisement in human history" while others said those not included into the list are in legal limbo and may eventually be left stateless.  
Now the fate of millions - most of them among the most vulnerable in India - is uncertain. 
But why did Indian authorities feel the need to compose such a list? Who is being targeted? And most importantly, what's next?

A colonial legacy

The NRC is being composed as part of a decades old campaign to identify undocumented immigrants in the state. The roots of this issue, however, goes even further back to colonial times, when tracts of forest land in Assam were designated to be cleared in an attempt to expand food production and establish tea plantations.
These projects attracted a steady flow of land-hungry and industrious migrants from neighbouring East Bengal, which at that time was part of the same vast country. These migrants helped convert forest land into paddy fields and eventually settled in the state.
But the influx of Bengali migrants into Assam did not stop with the completion of these projects. In 1947, when British India was partitioned into two independent dominions amid a cataclysm of religious violence, Assam remained a part of India while large tracts of Bengal, that have a majority Muslim population, became East Pakistan. In 1971, the people of Bengal found themselves in an even more brutal liberation struggle, this time against Pakistan. At the end of this bloody liberation war, which claimed millions of lives, Bangladesh was born. Throughout these struggles immigration from East Bengal into Assam continued steadily.

Calls for 'detention, disenfranchisement and deportation' of all foreigners

Over the years, Bengali migrants made significant contributions to the economy and culture of Assam, with their toil and sweat as well as their lyrical music and poetry. However, their mounting numbers stirred anxieties among the indigenous Assamese people about the preservation of their distinct culture and ownership of land. As a result, between 1979 to 1985, an "anti-foreigner" agitation targeting the Bengali immigrants erupted in the state.
The agitation - known as the Assam Movement - was mostly led by student groups, who were demanding immediate "detention, disenfranchisement and deportation" of all foreigners. The agitation reached its bloody climax on February 18, 1983, when more than 2000 Bengali Muslim men, women and children were massacred in villages across Assam's central Nellie district. This was one of the most gruesome atrocities committed in the history of modern India, known widely as the Nellie Massacre. To this day, not a single person has been tried, let alone punished, for these killings.
Two years later, in August 1985, representatives of the government of India and the Assam Movement signed the Assam Accord in New Delhi, bringing an end to this most violent chapter in the state's history. The accord also paved the way for the leaders of the agitation to form a political party and form a government in the state of Assam soon after.
The Assam accord contained a commitment by the government to systematically identify, disfranchise and deport those persons who entered Assam from Bangladesh after 1971, the year of its tempestuous liberation. After the signing of the accord, successive governments continued the process of identifying "foreigners" but the numbers were always limited to thousands.
In 2005, the Supreme Court of India hastened the controversial process of identification of foreigners in the state by officially shifting the burden to prove the legality of a citizenship claim from the state to the individual. It also set strict timelines for the completion of the NRC.
This was the start of a problematic and painful era for the Bengali community in Assam.

The rise of majoritarian discourse and anti-Muslim sentiments

Last week's NRC draft that excluded nearly four million Assam residents did not come as a shock to people who have been observing the political climate in India, and in Assam, closely for the last four years. 
Since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took control of the central government and the government of Assam, the anti-foreigner discourse in the state became more prominent and eventually evolved into an anti-Muslim one.
Even at the height of the agitation, the leaders of the Assam Movement had refrained from making a clear distinction between Hindu and Muslim Bengali immigrants. The BJP, however, has made it amply clear that it is opposed to only Muslim Bengali immigrants, and would welcome Hindu Bengalis into Assam. It even proposed a law that would fundamentally alter India's citizenship laws and allow Hindus from any neighbouring country - including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh - to acquire Indian citizenship. The draft law also proposed to extend this privilege to persons of other religions that were founded in India - Buddhist, Jain, Sikh - and even Christianity. It is unambiguous that the only unwelcome religious identity in BJP controlled India, and Assam, is of the Muslims.
Prior to becoming India's prime minister in 2014, Narendra Modi used his campaign speeches to demonstrate his commitment to kicking Muslim Bengalis out of Assam. He even alleged that the threatened Assamese rhinoceros were being killed to make way for the Bangladeshis. Other BJP leaders, including party President Amit Shah, have long been using the emotive and pejorative term "infiltrator" to describe undocumented Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, dubbing them a threat to India's security. In contrast, the very same leaders describe Hindu immigrants as legitimate refugees escaping persecution in countries where they are minorities.
In other words, the majoritarian and anti-Muslim discourse the BJP used to get elected and consolidate its power contributed to the decades-old "anti-foreigner" sentiments in Assam and paved the way for the creation of the NRC draft that devastated millions.

An impossible route to legal citizenship

To be included in the NRC, Assam residents are required to produce official documents such as land ownership records, birth certificates, high school records or voter lists that would demonstrate that they - or one of their blood ancestors - had been a citizen of India on or before 1971.
On the face of it, this may seem like a reasonable and fair request. However, it is impossible for many Assam residents to meet this demand. In a country which has a long history of widespread illiteracy, poorly maintained land records and corrupt local administrations, obtaining these documents is not easy. Furthermore, many families do not register their children's births or send them to school.
As the Chief Minister of the neighbouring state of Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, pointed out, in a country in which the majority of people don't even know the date of their parents' birth, how can people be expected to produce these documents? Banerjee said even she would not be able to obtain documents that categorically prove that she or her parents were Indian citizens in 1971.
This process is even more skewed against women. Women from the Bengali community in Assam typically don't have birth certificates (like many men), and rarely stay in school long enough to get an official certificate. They are typically married off before they are 18 years old, and therefore their names don't appear alongside their fathers' on the voting lists. They may obtain voter lists in which their names appear next to their husbands', but that is not accepted as proof of their citizenship.

What next?

Faced with criticism from the opposition, Indian government recently announced that it will give those excluded from the NRC extra time to file their documents. While it is highly unlikely that these people will miraculously find the necessary documents, even if they did, government does not seem to be serious about giving them a second chance. The time that the government has set aside for extra document submission is less than one month. As there are approximately four million people left out of the register, the government can hypothetically receive over 100,000 applications a day during this period. Moreover, according to the schedule, the government has set aside three months to process all the new documentation and publish the final register. This means that it plans to process tens of thousands of claims every single day until the end of this year!
The government is also silent about what will happen to the Assam residents who would eventually fail to establish their citizenship. So far, authorities only said that those excluded from the final NRC would have the opportunity to present their case before the Foreigners Tribunal.
There are 100 Foreigners Tribunals in Assam and two-thirds of these courts were established by the BJP government. These tribunals are run not by independent judicial officers but by lawyers appointed on short contracts by the state government. Moreover, most of these lawyers belong to indigenous Assamese communities. As a result, it seems highly unlikely that these tribunals will do much to help those who are excluded from the NCR.
The Assam government has established six detention centres over the past nine years for people deemed to be foreigners. As a representative of India's statutory National Human Rights' Commission, I was one of the few non-officials who was allowed to enter these detention centres earlier this year. What I witnessed there was in comprehensive defiance of international law, India's constitutional guarantees and elementary humanism.
International law lays down that people of contested citizenship should not be placed in prisons, families should not be separated, and their detention should not be indefinite. All these norms are being flouted in Assam. Women are housed in one jail, their husbands in another, and children older than six years are left outside the prison.
When the Trump administration started separating children from their undocumented migrant parents at the US-Mexico border, he immediately -and rightfully- faced global outrage. In Assam, this has been the routine fate of held immigrants for the last nine years, and there is no outrage within India or outside about their desperate plight. They are not given a single day's parole, are not allowed to speak with or meet their families in other detention centres, have no work or recreation all day, and have no legal aid to appeal against their indefinite detention.
And the July 30 NRC draft proved that millions more may find themselves in the same hellish situation in the coming days. 
The protracted process to deem who are "foreigners" in Assam, although conducted under the watchful eye of India's Supreme Court, could lead to more suffering and polarisation. If compassion is not placed at the centre of all efforts, the final NRC may set the stage for another round of blood-letting, akin to the one we witnessed in the 1980s and yet another harvest of electoral victories built ultimately on the further suffering of these impoverished communities.
Harsh Mander

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Resist, My People, Resist Them...

Resist, my people, resist them.
In Jerusalem, I dressed my wounds and breathed my sorrows
And carried the soul in my palm
For an Arab Palestine.
I will not succumb to the “peaceful solution,”
Never lower my flags
Until I evict them from my land.
I cast them aside for a coming time.
Resist, my people, resist them.
Resist the settler’s robbery
And follow the caravan of martyrs.
Shred the disgraceful constitution
Which imposed degradation and humiliation
And deterred us from restoring justice.
They burned blameless children;
As for Hadil, they sniped her in public,
Killed her in broad daylight.
Resist, my people, resist them.
Resist the colonialist’s onslaught.
Pay no mind to his agents among us
Who chain us with the peaceful illusion.
Do not fear doubtful tongues;
The truth in your heart is stronger,
As long as you resist in a land
That has lived through raids and victory.
So Ali called from his grave:
Resist, my rebellious people.
Write me as prose on the agarwood;
My remains have you as a response.
Resist, my people, resist them.
Resist, my people, resist them.
Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour was convicted for posting her poem on social media. (

Saturday, July 7, 2018


They did not recognize me in the shadows
That suck away my color in this Passport
And to them my wound was an exhibit
For a tourist Who loves to collect photographs
They did not recognize me,
Ah... Don't leave 
The palm of my hand without the sun
Because the trees recognize me
Don't leave me pale like the moon! 

All the birds that followed my palm
To the door of the distant airport
All the wheatfields
All the prisons
All the white tombstones
All the barbed Boundaries
All the waving handkerchiefs
All the eyes
were with me,
But they dropped them from my passport

Stripped of my name and identity? 
On soil I nourished with my own hands? 
Today Job cried out
Filling the sky:
Don't make and example of me again! 
Oh, gentlemen, Prophets,
Don't ask the trees for their names
Don't ask the valleys who their mother is
>From my forehead bursts the sward of light
And from my hand springs the water of the river
All the hearts of the people are my identity
So take away my passport! 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Ramadan Kareem !

Kashmiri Muslim women pray as a girl looks on inside the Jamia Masjid, or Grand Mosque, on the first Friday of Ramadan in Srinagar, India, Friday, Sept. 5, 2008. Muslims all over the world are observing the holy month of Ramadan, abstaining from consuming food and drinks from dawn to dusk. AP / Dar Yasin

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Sri Lanka Struggles to Contain Its Violent Buddhist Extremists...

Attacks on minority Muslims in Sri Lanka by Buddhist nationalists, which began earlier this week and have continued in the ensuing days, have prompted officials to declare the first nationwide state of emergency since 2009, when a 26-year civil war fought against the island’s Tamil minority ended. Observers have expressed mounting concern that the intercommunal violence in the central district of Kandy may spread and have pointed to parallels between this crisis and others throughout the Buddhist world, where tensions between Buddhist majority countries and their Muslim minorities have been growing.
The new cycle of violence began on March 3 after a Sinhala Buddhist man was reportedly attacked in central hill town of Teldeniya by four Muslims, all of whom were taken into police custody, after he refused to let them overtake him on the motorway. The man later died of his injuries. Local Buddhists responded with limited violence the day after his death, including setting fire to a Muslim shop, which lead to the arrests of 24 people connected to the arsonBuddhist ultra-nationalists were quick to seize on the incident to foment generalized anti-Muslim sentiment; radical Buddhist groups converged on the town with hundreds of their supporters from other districts, demanding the release of the men and later attacking mosques and Muslim businesses and homes.
This recent outbreak of violence began just days after a mosque and Muslim businesses were attacked in the southeastern town of Ampara, where Buddhist agitators had claimed a local Muslim restaurant was mixing sterilization pills into the food to limit Buddhist reproduction.
The violence since Monday has claimed at least two lives, including that of a Muslim man who was apparently killed when his home was set on fire. According to Sri Lanka’s Hiru News, the Terrorism Investigation Division of the government has arrested 10 suspects, and 71 people who had engaged in vandalism have also been detained by the police.
As a nation that endured a brutal war we are all aware of the values of peace, respect, unity & freedom,” tweeted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Monday after the violence began.  “The Govt condemns the racist & violent acts that have taken place over the last few days. A state of emergency has been declared & we will not hesitate to take further action.”
According to the Hindustan Times, Lakshman Kiriella, Member of Parliament for the Kandy District where the most of the recent violence has taken place, claimed this week that Buddhist and Muslim religious leaders in the area had agreed to settle the matter amicably, with businessmen from both communities agreeing to pay compensation to victimized families, but militant outsiders had provoked the people to violence.  “I am ashamed as a Buddhist, and we must apologize to the Muslims,” Kiriella said in Parliament Monday.
Some have claimed, in line with Kiriella’s comments, that the anti-Muslim violence is the result of a concerted nationwide effort of Buddhist ultra-nationalists. The current violence appears to mark the resurgence of militant Buddhist groups that grew in popularity between 2012 and 2014 with the covert support, now widely acknowledged, of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government. Having ceased during the first two years of the current coalition government, attacks on Muslims resumed in April, May, and November 2017, with militants apparently emboldened by the government’s failure to prosecute those responsible for violence and hate speech under the Rajapaksa government.
“The present Sri Lankan government won elections in 2015 on the promise of ending ethnic strife, ensuring accountability for conflict-related crimes, and taking steps towards reconciliation,” Meenakshi Ganguly of the international nonprofit Human Rights Watch told Tricycle. “Unfortunately, all these pledges are stalled, perhaps allowing militant Buddhist groups to believe that they will not be held to account for any abuses.”
Fear and resentment toward Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, who make up around 10% of the population, have been growing in recent years. Gehan Gunatilleke, Research Director at Verité Research in Colombo, Sri Lanka, recently told Al-Jazeera that this is a symptom of the “entitlement complex” of Sinhala Buddhists.
“The Sinhala majority is signaling that their dominance is not to be messed around with,” he said. “The moment a minority demonstrates economic success—as with the Muslim community—or struggles for autonomy like the Tamil community, or is accused of conversion like the Christian community, the moment there is some kind of threat to that dominant status, there is a tendency for violence to be used to re-assert that dominance.”
The increase in Buddhist majoritarian fear and resentment toward Sri Lankan Muslims follows a pattern that has also been seen elsewhere in the Buddhist world in recent years. Majority Buddhist Myanmar has been carrying out atrocities and repression with “the hallmarks of a genocide” toward its Rohingya Muslim minority, following years of systematically limiting access to healthcare, marriage, freedom of movement, education and food with a brutal campaign of violence that has caused nearly 800,000 to flee into neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017. In southern Thailand, a crisis between the Thai Buddhist and ethnic Malay Muslim minority has led to over 6,000 deaths in both communities and allegationsof continued human rights abuses by the Thai government in managing the crisis.
“Unfortunately, too many populist leaders around the world are exploiting the fear of terrorist attacks or of immigrants by engaging in hate-mongering against Muslims,” said Meenakshi Gungaly of Human Rights Watch. Buddhist radicals in Sri Lanka regularly accuse the Muslim community of forced conversions or vandalism of Buddhist holy sites. Gungaly said she is not aware of any evidence of such attacks having actually taken place.
Some Buddhist monks, such as those who founded the far-right nationalist organization Bodu Bala Sena, which has been linked to anti-Muslim incitement, have had a role to play in the increase of Islamophobia. Although the Sinhalese sangha appears to be generally opposed to violence, some say it has not yet done enough to address the situation.
“Buddhist monks often see themselves as the guardians of the Sinhalese Buddhist ethnoreligious identity and the legitimators of the Sinhalese Buddhist claim to a privileged position in the island’s affairs,” Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, renowned scholar-monk and founder of Buddhist Global Relief, who lived in Sri Lanka for 24 years, told Tricycle. “While I would hope the great majority of monks condemn the violence against minority groups, there are factors that prevent them from playing an effective role. One is that, even when they condemn violence, they still adhere to the premise that Sri Lanka as a modern nation essentially belongs to the Sinhalese Buddhists, while the other residents of the island have perpetual guest status. A second is that they don’t condemn the violence often and forcefully enough to drive home the message that violence should be avoided. And a third is that they don’t put sufficient stress, in their sermons, on the need for inter-communal harmony and respect for other religions.
“There are also small but vocal groups of monks who whip up the antagonism of the lay Buddhists toward other communities and even incite them to act violently. This is driven by the imagined fear that other communities are out to take control of the country and push the Sinhalese Buddhists into a marginal position.”
Thus far Sri Lankan civil society has acted with some effectiveness to push back against the violent nationalism in its midst, as shown by the election of the current governing coalition, which this week also blocked social media to prevent the spread of anti-Muslim posts believed to be stoking the violence. After Buddhist hardliners agitated for the deportation of Rohingya refugeesfleeing Myanmar last year, says Gungaly, “Sri Lanka’s civil society and political leadership acted immediately to criticize the campaign and ensure refugee protections.”
Time will tell whether Sri Lanka will respond effectively to the new surge of violent Buddhist nationalism or slide back into a state of conflict from which it was once so happy to escape.