Video of citizenship list protest in 2017 falsely shared as 'Muslim separatist rally'

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Footage of police beating protesters with sticks has been viewed more than 100,000 times in Facebook posts that claim it shows Muslim separatists rallying in the restive Indian state of Assam. However, the video shows demonstrators marching against a controversial citizenship list in Assam in 2017.

"Assam Muslims took to the streets to demand a separate country but look what they received in return," reads a Hindi-language Facebook post shared on April 29.

Assam is a remote state in northeast India with a large Muslim and immigrant population. The region has seen decades of unrest among ethnic and separatist groups.

The footage, which has more than 130,000 views, shows police officers confronting demonstrators before beating them with sticks.

The post says that Assam's Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma is "two steps ahead" of Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand Hindu monk known for his inflammatory rhetoric against Muslims.

Both men are members of India's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which critics accuse of seeking to marginalise the country's 200-million-strong Muslim minority.

A screenshot of the misleading post, captured on May 10, 2022

Hindi text superimposed in blue over the footage reads "We want freedom from India", while text that appears later in the video reads "Now they will start getting beaten up" and "Everybody ran away".

The video was shared in similar Facebook posts here, here and here.

However, the video does not show a Muslim separatist protest in Assam.

Citizenship list protest

A keyword search on Google found a screenshot from the video in a report from July 2, 2017 about a rally in Assam against a controversial citizenship list.

The article by NewsClick reported a Muslim man was killed when police opened fire on demonstrators marching against the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

The register was finalised in 2019 in Assam and left off 1.9 million people unable to prove they were Indian, many of them Muslims.

Only people who can prove they or their forebears were in India before 1971 -- when there was a large influx during neighbouring Bangladesh's war of independence -- can be included in the list. Those left off face losing their citizenship, being put indefinitely into camps or deported.

This presented a huge challenge for many people in Assam, where illiteracy is rife and many lack documentation.

The move sparked violent protests across India in which dozens were killed.

Many fear the BJP wants to roll out the list nationwide, although the government said in November 2021 it had "not taken any decision" to do so.

Below is a comparison of the video shared in misleading Facebook posts (left) and the screenshot from NewsClick's article (right).

Video shared in misleading Facebook posts (L) and the screenshot from NewsClick's article (R)

The NewsClick article linked to a report by The Wire, which quotes a man called Hussain Ahmed Madani who said he witnessed the shooting.

He said protesters were "demanding inclusion of genuine citizens in the NRC". 

The Wire's report also features a higher-quality version of the video shared in misleading posts that Madani uploaded to Facebook on June 30, 2017.

The Facebook posts says in Bengali: "Serious situation in Goalpara's Kharbuja. One person killed and others injured after clashes between protesters and the police."

The Wire also quoted Goalpara police superintendent Amitabh Sinha, who said officers opened fire after demonstrators attacked them.

"The police had dispersed the crowd by cane-charge," he said. "However, the agitators re-grouped and began pelting stones at the vehicles passing by the national highway which led police to open fire at them. It led to the killing of the youth."

Meanwhile, the banner carried by demonstrators reads in Assamese: "Strike on National highway number 37, Kharbuja" followed by the date June 30, 2017.

AFP could not find any recent reports of demonstrations by Muslim separatists in Assam, as of May 10, 2022.