A few months ago, when India completed its seven-year effort to find illegal immigrants in the northeastern state of Assam, the results were hard to digest for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The Hindu nationalist-backed party has made the rooting out and deportation of foreigners, through the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), one of its central pillars since its inception in 1980.
Party leaders claimed millions of Bangladeshi nationals had infiltrated the region, making Hindus a minority in various districts. But the exercise conducted under the supervision of the Supreme Court declared 1.9 million people doubtful citizens, for want of documents, out of a population of 39.9 million in Assam. To add salt to the wound, out of 1.9 million people, 1.1 million were Hindus and just 800,000 Muslims.
To reverse the embarrassment, the BJP-government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, brought amendments to the Citizenship Act to grant citizenship to non-Muslim refugees, namely Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Parsis from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh who arrived in India until 2014. The law was recently passed by India’s parliament.
The immediate effect of the new law was that 1.1 million Hindus previously declared doubtful citizens in Assam automatically became citizens.
This happened while 800,000 Muslims, left off the NRC list for want of documents or error in their names, continue to contest and appeal the NRC in the judiciary. If the high court also declares them doubtful citizens, they will be rendered stateless and a process for their deportation would begin. Nobody, however, so far knows, where they will be deported. Bangladesh has already declared it will not accept anyone.
Muslim leaders say that they had no issue with the law that grants citizenship to persecuted minorities from neighboring countries. But their worry stems from the fact that the new citizenship law is linked with the nationwide exercise of the NRC. The central government has already approved the nationwide National Population Register (NPR) at the cost of 83 billion rupees ($1.16 billion). After massive protests, even though Modi assured there would not be any nationwide NRC, the NPR document said it will be followed by an exercise of updating the register of citizens.
Prominent Muslim leader Asaduddin Owaisi claimed that low-level officers going door-to-door to conduct a census have been authorized to declare anyone a doubtful citizen if he or she is unable to produce documentary proof of citizenship.
“In a country as vast as India, full of so many illiterate and landless people, this exercise is a recipe for a disaster,” he warned
A cumbersome, expensive exercise
According to the 2011 census, there are 172.2 million Muslims, or 14.2% of the population, in India. “If a Hindu is unable to produce documents, he will be covered under the new law. But a Muslim will become a stateless citizen,” he said.
When the exercise failed to achieve its objective in Assam, BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma said the NRC could not find many foreigners in Assam because a large number of Bangladeshis migrated to other parts of the country. In other words, it was now necessary to hunt them around the rest of India.
He felt a countrywide NRC has become imperative for rooting out “infiltrators.”
In Assam, neither passports, national identity cards, driver’s licenses, nor voter identity cards were accepted as documents proving citizenship. A person had to first prove the citizenship of their grandparents by submitting revenue records or documents proving ownership of land and then prove a relationship.
“It was a cumbersome exercise,” said Abdul Bari Masoud, a prominent journalist who covered the exercise in Assam. He mentioned instances where people were declared doubtful citizens and confined to detention centers just because two documents have different spellings of their names. He recalls one person in jail because school and revenue officials entered his name Mohammad with two different spellings, one with a U and one with an O.
Even the family of India’s former President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was left out of the draft of the NRC. Retired army officer Mohammad Sanaullah was not only declared a doubtful citizen but was detained on charges of being an illegal immigrant.
In the NPR exercise, people were asked to present passports for verification. The government claims only 5% of the population in India has been issued passports and just 50% have birth certificates.
Further, the NRC exercise in Assam cost around 16 billion rupees ($224 million) over seven years and employed 52,000 people. According to chartered accountant Rahul Pandey, 500 billion rupees ($7 billion) will be required to meet just the administrative expenses to cover a population of 1.3 billion. He said he believed other expenses will be much higher.
Revenge against Muslims
Taslem Rahmani, a member of 30 civil society organizations who is leading protests against the new citizenship law, believes Hindu nationalists were taking revenge against Indian Muslims, who were a major stumbling block on their way to claiming power over the past 70 years.
Out of a total of 543 parliamentary seats in India, in 125 seats Muslims make up 15% or more of the voters, enough to tilt the electoral balance in many elections.
In Assam, the Muslim population makes up 33.4% of the total, the largest after Jammu and Kashmir. In nine districts in this state, Muslims are in the majority.
“For a long time, Hindu nationalists have been campaigning against them and urging that this population be disenfranchised. The Muslim population played a large role in keeping Hindu nationalists out of power until 2014,”
he said, referring to the first time that Modi’s charismatic leadership led to a consolidation of Hindu votes.
With the economy in tatters and other factors leading to the disillusionment of a section of Hindu voters against the BJP, its leaders devised a plan to declare a large section of the Muslim population stateless to prevent alignment with secular Hindus to unseat them from power.
In three assembly elections in the past few months, namely in Maharashtra, Haryana and recently Jharkhand, the BJP fared poorly, even though it secured a thumping majority in parliamentary elections just seven months ago.
Even implementing its controversial poll planks like the revocation of autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, dividing the Muslim majority state into two centrally administered units, and paving the way for the construction of the grand Ram temple at the site of the demolished Babri Mosque has evidently failed to impress voters.
Minorities in Sri Lanka, Nepal left out
Presenting the new law in parliament, Home Minister Amit Shah mentioned the persecution of minorities in neighboring Muslim-majority countries as a prime reason for the law.
Particularly, mentioning Pakistan, he said at the time of the partition in 1947, the population of minorities in Pakistan was 23%, but now has fallen to a mere 3.7%. He said either this population has been forcibly converted to Islam or has been eliminated.
But according to Pakistani census documents, the population of minorities in Pakistan was never 23%, contrary to the home minister’s claims.
According to the 1961 census, the non-Muslim population was recorded at 2.83%. A decade later, in 1972, the census recorded a non-Muslim population at 3.25% of the total population.
That means it actually rose 0.42%. In the 1981 census, the non-Muslim population was 3.3%. In the next census carried out in 1998, it was recorded as 3.7% of the total population. Pakistan Hindu Council leader Raja Manglani believes that Hindus make up 4% of the 210 million population.
While the BJP brought the citizenship law forward largely to keep Muslims out of the voting pool, it is being severely opposed in seven northeastern states.
Leaders in these states bordering Bangladesh believe it is a violation of the Assam Accord. The accord was a Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) signed between then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and leaders of the Assam Movement in 1985. Under the accord, foreigners who settled in Assam before 1971 were granted Indian citizenship. But the new law set another cutoff date of 2014, which protesters say is unacceptable.
In the run-up to the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, a large number of people settled in Assam, fearing repression. India opened its borders during the period.
There is also criticism that the new law has not included Hindu Tamil minorities of Sri Lanka, who were at the receiving end for leading a separatist movement in the country.
Similarly, it overlooked the Indian-origin Madhesis Hindu population of Nepal inhabiting the southern region, who often complain about prejudice.
The writer is chief correspondent at the English Desk of Anadolu Agency, expert on South Asian affairs.
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