Is COVID-19 being 'communalised’ in Assam?
Kamal Kumar Gupta, a member of the Foreigners’ Tribunal in Assam wrote a letter to State Health Minister saying that Muslims from the State who had attended the Tablighi Jammat’s congregation in Delhi in mid-March, are “Jehadis” (meaning “terrorists”), and as such, they should not be given treatment for COVID-19 infection.
The COVID-19 pandemic is being freely, and with increasing impunity, used by a section of the media, politicians and the general public in Assam and India, to spew communal venom and further widen the communal chasm in the country.
This tendency is being encouraged by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is ruling at the Centre as well as the State of Assam.
A letter to the Health Minister offering a donation of more than Rs.60,000 for COVID-19 relief work in Assam bore the names of a dozen members of the state’s Foreigners’ Tribunal including Kamal Kumar Gupta.
In the letter Gupta said that: “Help may not be extended” to Muslims linked to the Tablighi Jamaat congregation. He had labeled Muslims who attended the religious gathering as “jihadis”, a synonym for terrorists.
Subsequently, Gupta said that he had disassociated himself from the letter because it had been widely circulated on social media platforms causing him embarrassment. Human-rights activists, researchers and legal eagles in Assam fighting for the millions of people who had been stripped of their citizenship on suspicion of being illegal foreign migrants, were horror-struck by the letter.
Legal eagles and rights activists in Assam said that prejudiced members of such a crucial institution as the Foreigners’ Tribunal should not be allowed to decide any case of citizenship.
More than 1.9 million people in Assam have been excluded from a list of Indian citizens and their cases will be adjudicated by the Foreigners’ Tribunals.
The Foreigners’ Tribunals should be impartial and not differentiate between people of different religions, said Aman Wadud, a prominent lawyer and a human-rights activist, who provides legal help to thousands of people whose names had been left out of the National Register of Citizenship (NRC).
“Foreigners’ Tribunal members decide cases of citizenship, the most important constitutional right,” Wadud pointed out.
“Withdrawing the letter can’t undo bigotry and his inherent prejudice against the Muslim community” he argued. He felt that Gupta’s prejudice is likely to influence the decision of the cases he will decide. “He should not be allowed to decide any case of citizenship,” Wadud stressed.
In August 2018, after a long and mammoth exercise, monitored by India’s Supreme Court, the Assam government published a list, known as the National Register of Citizens (NRC), aimed at identifying legal residents in Assam, bordering Bangladesh. A total of 31.1 million people were included in the final list, leaving out 1.9 million.
The Hindu nationalist BJP which rules Assam and the Centre argued that the citizenship exercise was in accordance with the Assam Accord which followed a violent anti-immigrant movement in the 1970s.But critics saw the move as part of the BJP’s plot to marginalize or weed out or deport the Muslims.
Millions of Bangladeshi refugees, both Muslim and Hindu, arrived in India following the 1971 war for independence in East Pakistan (which later became Bangladesh). In Assam, the influx triggered violent anti-immigrant movements.
Abdul Kalam Azad, a researcher who has been studying the plight of people housed in detention camps in Assam said: “I see a concerted effort by section of the media, politicians and people to incite hatred. Gupta’s statement is not an isolated incident.”
“What kind of people are these? They are supposed to provide justice and uphold the constitution. Biased people like Gupta are expected to be impartial in the tribunal,” Azad said.
Gupta had also issued to the media, letters which claimed that he had done a “favor” by granting citizenship rights.
“In Assam there are lots of people who are arbitrarily declared as foreigners and who are at the mercy of people like Gupta. The tribunals have lost a lot of credibility. There might be serious consequences. The Centre and the state, and the High Court and the Supreme Court should take suo-moto action on people like Gupta,” Azad told SAM.
“Being a government official, no one should have a mentality like this, said Azirur Rahman, the Chief of the All Assam Muslim Students’ Union (AAMSU).“This is a serious affront and we condemn it. We firmly believe that the government should take action,” Rahman told a local news portal.
“He is a judicial officer, and sadly, one cannot expect justice from such a character. They should remove such people from their positions,” the AAMSU leader added.
Until now the NRC has only been implemented in Assam, However, the BJP-led federal government managed to get a legislation passed in the Indian Parliament in December 2019to make the NRC exercise all-India.
Following the NRC and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) -a law that offers amnesty to non-Muslim illegal immigrants from three neighboring Muslim countries - India witnessed large-scale protests. The controversial CAA law provides citizenship to non-Muslim minorities from Muslim-majority countries Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
Human rights activists fear that people whom the Foreigners’ Tribunal declares as illegal immigrants, will become Stateless and be housed in more than 10 detention camps. At present, there are more than 1,000 people held in Assam’s six detention centres.