As many as four million people in India, mostly Muslims of Bangladeshi origin, await a Rohingya-like possible persecution, having been stripped of their citizenship at a time when majoritarian discourse in politics continues to grow sharper in the South Asian nation.
Although the apex court has guaranteed the right to appeal the case, the physical safety of newly labeled “foreigners” has become a matter of concern, with incidents of mob lynching of minorities taking place at an alarming rate across India. The government is also building a detention center to house “illegal immigrants,” a move that has attracted widespread condemnation from rights bodies who fear India’s civic virtues are under assault.
The fate of nearly four million people in the Indian state of Assam came into question on July 30, when the National Register of Citizens, a government-maintained list of citizens in the state, was updated.
The register lists people who have valid documents to prove that they had entered India by March 24, 1971, a day before neighboring Bangladesh declared independence, a phenomenon preceded by a massive number of Bangladeshis fleeing for life and taking shelter in safe havens in India.
Anyone who sought refuge after that cut-off date is not entitled to Indian citizenship. During the turbulent days of 1971, the Indian forces were understood to have supported the liberation of Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan, from its parent country Pakistan.
The Union government of India, led by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which also rules in Assam, has claimed that the information exercise is aimed at identifying illegal entrants to India from neighboring Bangladesh.
But rights groups allege that this is nothing but a witch-hunt against Muslim minorities in the state, done with the malevolent intention of widening the ongoing communal discourse in the country and reaping the dividends in next year’s general election, which the BJP is no longer expected to win comfortably.
“With the BJP government at helm in New Delhi, the marginalized sections – especially Muslims, Christians, and Dalits – are feeling vulnerable, for the BJP has traditionally cashed on divisive agendas and polarisation with the aim to gain electoral dividend,” Gowhar Geelani, an Indian political commentator, told The Globe Post.
In the past five years, Indian bureaucrats scrutinized 65 million documents to ascertain 32.9 million people’s claim to citizenship. At the end of this labyrinth assignment, which incurred an expense of $178 million, four million people’s name were edited out from the National Register of Citizens, effectively ending their claim for being Indian citizens.
However, Geelani pointed out widespread discrepancies in the updated list.
“Newspapers galore with reports that raise suspicion on the credibility of the updated NRC. We have cases where a six-year-old is left out of the register but his twin has made it there,” he said.
“We have the case of a 72-year-old woman who is the only one in her family to be left out. We again have a 13-year-old boy whose parents and sisters are on the list but his name has been omitted out, and so on,” he added.
The National Register of Citizens was set up in 1951, but it became prominent around the time of the Bangladesh liberation war. The issue of illegal immigration since then has assumed political significance and has often provided the template for vitriolic election campaign for the right-wing political parties.
The updating of the register was mandated by the Supreme Court of India in 2014, after it heard a petition filed by an NGO that had claimed that 4.1 million people in Assam were falsely registered as Indian voters.
But, taking note of the controversies surrounding the updated NRC, the Supreme Court of India on July 31 ordered that, unless a fair chance was allowed to people to appeal against their ouster as Indian citizens, the government should refrain from initiating any action aimed at deporting them.
However, questions loom large on Indian courts’ resources to fairly and adequately scrutinize each case of appeal. It is expected to be a long drawn process, and given the increasing communal pitch, it is feared that these people may become the target of concerted attacks by elements of the extreme right.
Senior journalist Aroonim Bhuyan, who covers India’s north-eastern states, said the government’s actions match the sentiment on the ground.
“People in Assam have been facing a very genuine issue of illegal immigration. The opposition parties are trying to give it a Hindu-Muslim color, but the government is duty bound, as per the Assam Accord, to flush out those who are illegally living in the state,” he told The Globe Post.
“When you talk to locals, you will find that the majority community does not have any communal hatred towards the minorities in general, but only genuine grievances against illegal occupants,” he added.
Bhuyan noted that if the government fails to identify and deport illegal immigrants, it would be a violation of the Assam accord of 1985, signed between the Government of India and leaders of the Assam movement.
“Some elements are trying to sensationalize the issue. The exercise is court-monitored and a fair chance is being provided to people to defend their claim to Indian citizenship,” he said.
But many others allege that the government has done precious little to pacify the deepening anger against this vulnerable constituency of people. Several leaders from the ruling BJP have only raised the pitch of majoritarian politics off late, they allege.
In a development that questions the human rights situation in the country, about 1,000 people identified as illegal immigrants have been lodged in six overcrowded jails. Indian authorities have green flagged the setting up of a bigger detention center.
Geelani said such a move is extremely worrying because the worst kinds of human rights abuses have been reported in detention centers in Kashmir, which include Papa II, Cargo and Hari Niwas.
“Without police reforms and in the absence of access given to foreign journalists and the UN teams to visit Indian jails and interrogation centers, this development raises serious concerns regarding human rights,” he said.
The NRC controversy brings together years of hostility between the Assamese Hindu majority and the Bengali-speaking Muslims, and the general atmosphere of hate against Muslims living in India.
BJP President Amit Shah has been heard on several occasions linking the NRC exercise to national security and integrity, which also gels with the BJP’s overall nationalism driven politics, which many believe is an attempt to create a Muslim “other.”
With four million people identified as “illegal immigrants,” India’s “Rohingya moment” may explode any day.