Harsh Mander had barely arrived in the remote northeastern Indian state of Assam when he was drawn into a humanitarian horror story years in the making. It was about to get exponentially worse.
“The people of Assam are sitting atop a smoldering volcano, one that threatens to erupt into catastrophic suffering and injustice,” he wrote after a trip to the state in January as the Indian National Human Rights Commission’s special monitor for minorities. Mander is one of India’s premier human-rights experts, widely recognized internationally for his research, writings and advocacy.
The commission has little authority in India and chose to ignore — or not to act on — his subsequent report. Mander resigned from the monitoring assignment and released his findings himself this summer.
What he saw was mass incarceration rife with contraventions of international humanitarian law: the targeting of ethnic and religious minorities, brutal separation of families and jailing of thousands of men, women and children in criminal prisons, without access to justice. Looming over many thousands of mostly poor people with virtually no exercisable legal rights was — and is — the greatest fear of all: deportation to a country that does not want them.
Their crime? They are Bengali-speaking Muslims who must provide proof of Indian citizenship obtained half a century ago or “go back” to Bangladesh, a country most of them have never known. For the most part, they are descendants of an influx of migrants that arrived after the catastrophic civil war that led in 1971 to the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan, with decisive Indian army involvement.
Bengali-speaking Hindus, however, have an automatic right to citizenship under a 2016 law, enacted two years after a Hindu nationalist government under the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Mander quotes a local party official as saying that this law is in conformity “with the BJP ideology.”
On July 30, Muslims’ worst fears became reality. After a review of the National Register of Citizens as it applies to Assam, the government produced a list of more than four million people it considered non-citizens of India and thus subject to potential deportation.
Expecting trouble, according to local media reports, Indian army soldiers were put on alert in Assam, and tens of thousands of paramilitaries and police were deployed. Outbreaks of ethnic, religious and political violence are not new to Assam, a state with a population of more than 30 million, which the last Indian census in 2011 described as 61 percent Hindu, about 34 percent Muslim and a Christian minority of under 4 percent.
“There has been worldwide condemnation this past month of the United States government’s policy to separate the children of illegal immigrants from their parents at the border,” Mander wrote in his report. “But this has been standard practice for detainees deemed to be foreigners in Assam for nearly a decade, without comment or censure by the larger human rights community.” Children, he added, were at particular risk.
“Is Ethnic Cleansing Coming to India?” is the question that Shashi Tharoor, a former United Nations under secretary-general for communications and now a member of the opposition Congress party in the Indian Parliament, asked in an article on Aug. 10 for Project Syndicate.
Apart from the ethical and humanitarian concerns that the Assam situation raises, Tharoor wrote, there are legal and practical issues as well as hidden political strategies to consider as the threats of deportations hover.
“There is no bilateral deportation agreement in place, and Bangladesh has made clear that it assumes no responsibility for people who are not on its territory,” he wrote. “The last thing India needs is to create a migration crisis or, worse, try to force deportations to Bangladesh — one of the few neighbors with which the BJP government has managed to maintain good relations.”
The BJP may intend to remove Muslim voters from the electorate in Assam, Tharoor suggests.
The Indian decision on Muslims in Assam is eerily similar to the Burmese military-backed, Buddhist-nationalist campaign in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim residents have been attacked over the last year and driven, or forced to flee, to Bangladesh or around Southeast Asia because they have been denied Burmese citizenship.
Ethnic cleansing, now an international crime, is hardly a new phenomenon. In modern times, the world has witnessed the expulsion of tens of thousands of Asian Indians from Uganda by the dictator Idi Amin in 1972 and the killings of Bosniak Muslim men and the horrific sexual abuse of Muslim women in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s. Thirty years ago, the Buddhist-majority Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan began expelling ethnic Nepalis who could not prove Bhutanese citizenship.
Most recently there have been — apart from the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies — calls in Europe for large-scale expulsions, detention or barring of immigrants, as also reflected in the new US border-control policies.
Asian countries have often been the most reluctant to accept immigrants from other cultures, placing a high priority on ethnic, religious and language criteria. In Thailand, the newspaper Khaosod reported in mid-July that when a provincial governor proposed giving citizenship to three stateless boys among the 12 young soccer players rescued from a cave, along with their coach, there was some pushback against their preferential treatment.
The Khaosod article, using UN data, said that as of 2016 there were more than 400,000 other stateless people in the country awaiting action on their status.
For a global view of changes in immigration policies and migrant movements, a relatively new source of detailed expert information has been collected on the Migration Data Portal, a multisource project. Its latest information, for now, is from 2010, before the current wave of nativism and xenophobia gripped numerous countries, but data and graphics are still informative.
For example, ranking countries by the proportion of immigrants in their populations, the United States in the pre-Trump era ranks highest at 15 percent. Near the other end of the scale is India, at 0.4 percent.
In India, Harsh Mander wrote in his report, he and two Indian legal experts visited two of six detention centers for Muslims carved out of jails. They spoke with detainees.
“We were probably the first non-official human rights workers to gain access to these detention centers in the 10-odd years since they have been established,” Mander wrote. “We found that these detention centers lie on the dark side of both legality and humanitarian principles.
“My first finding was that the majority of persons deemed to be foreigners and detained in the camps had lacked even elementary legal representation,” he wrote, adding that detainees told him they had never received the notices that officials said were sent to them, and had not been afforded hearings by “foreigners’ tribunals.”
“For those who did get the notices, we learned that typically, a huge panic set in and many sold their meagre properties and took large loans to hire lawyers to steer them through this process,” Mander said. “Many of the lawyers were poorly qualified or deliberately let them down.”
There were no appeals. “While listening to the detainees,” he wrote, “it became clear that for many of them, their cases had been decided ex-parte or they had not got a fair chance to prove their Indian nationality.
“As a humane democracy, we provide legal aid even to people accused of heinous crimes like rape and murder, but in this case, without even committing any crime, these people are languishing in detention centers. . . . We encountered grave and extensive human distress and suffering.
“Here, the detainees are held for several years, in a twilight zone of legality, without work and recreation, with no contact with their families save for rare visits from relatives, and with no prospect of release. In a jail, inmates are at least permitted to walk, work and rest in open courtyards. But the detainees are not allowed out of their barracks even in the day, because they should not be allowed to mix with the ‘citizen’ prisoners.
“Parole is not allowed even in the event of sickness and death of family members,” Mander was told. “In their understanding, parole is a right only of convicted prisoners, because they are Indian citizens.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.