NEW DELHI: In India, more than four million individuals, mostly Muslims, are at danger of being declared overseas migrants as the government is pushing a hard-line Hindu nationalist agenda that has questioned the pluralistic traditions of the country and seeks to redefine what it means to be Indian, the New York Times reported on Saturday.
The hunt for migrants is unfolding in Assam, a poor, hilly state near the borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh. Many of the people whose citizenship is now being questioned were born in India and have enjoyed all the rights of citizens, such as voting in elections.
State authorities are rapidly expanding foreigner tribunals and planning to build huge new detention camps. Hundreds of people have been arrested on suspicion of being a foreign migrant — including a Muslim veteran of the Indian Army.
Local activists and lawyers say the pain of being left off a preliminary list of citizens and the prospect of being thrown into jail have driven dozens to suicide. But the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not backing down.
Instead, it is vowing to bring this campaign to force people to prove they are citizens to other parts of India, part of a far-reaching Hindu nationalist programme fueled by Modi’s sweeping re-election victory in May and his stratospheric popularity.
India’s Muslim minority is growing more fearful by the day. Assam’s anxiously watched documentation of citizenship — a drive that began years ago and is scheduled to wrap up on Aug. 31. Prime Minister Modi is using the early months of his second term to push the most forceful and divisive Hindu nationalist agenda ever attempted in India and to fundamentally reconfigure the concept of Indian identity to be synonymous with being Hindu. Many Indians, on both sides of the political divide, see Assam and Kashmir as harbingers of the direction Modi will take this nation of 1.3 billion people in the coming years.
The stated purpose of the citizenship dragnet in Assam is to find undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh as Amit Shah, India’s powerful home minister, has repeatedly referred to those immigrants as “termites.’’
All of the 33 million residents of Assam have had to prove, with documentary evidence, that they or their ancestors were Indian citizens before 1971, when Bangladesh was established. That is not easy. Many families are racing to get their hands on a decades-old property deed or fraying birth certificate with an ancestor’s name on it.
Beyond this, Modi’s government has tried to pass a bill in Parliament that carves out exemptions for Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and people from other religions — but leaves out Muslims. Modi’s critics say he is playing a dangerous game and pulling apart the diverse, delicate social fabric that has existed in India for centuries.
The prime minister’s political roots lie in a Hindu nationalist movement that emphasises the religion’s supremacy. This worldview has a long history of sowing division between the country’s Hindu majority and Muslim minority, at times exploding in violence.
Noor Begum, who lived in a small hamlet in a flood-soaked district, spiraled into depression after finding out that she and her mother had been excluded from the citizenship lists. Her father and seven siblings had made it.
It didn’t make any sense to the family: Why, if they all lived together and were born in the same place, would some be considered Indian while others illegal foreigners? “Of course she was Indian,” said her father, Abdul Kalam, a retired laborer. “She used to sing Indian national songs at school. She felt very Indian.” On a bright morning in June, Noor hanged herself from a rafter. She was 14.
Many Muslims in Kashmir are despondent as well. After Modi’s government erased Kashmir’s autonomy, thousands of outraged Kashmiris took to the streets, only to be locked down by a heavy deployment of security forces and a smothering communications blackout.
Kashmir has long been a flash point. Both India and Pakistan control different parts of it and several times, the tensions have driven the two nuclear armed rivals to war or dangerously close to it. Hundreds of Kashmiri intellectuals are still under arrest and Pakistan is seething. The tension with Pakistan tends to lift Modi’s political fortunes. His forceful stand against India’s No. 1 enemy just adds to his image as an unswerving patriot and one of the most decisive and powerful prime ministers India has produced in decades.
India is about 80 percent Hindu and 14 percent Muslim. (Christians, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists make up most of the rest of the population.)
What is happening in Assam and Kashmir “is an assault on the very imagination of India, of the freedom struggle, of the Constitution, of the idea of a country in which everyone belongs equally,” said Harsh Mander, a former civil servant turned human rights activist. “Muslims are the enemy,” he said. “It’s a war on the Indian Constitution.”
Ashutosh Varshney, the head of Brown University’s South Asia programme, said that India “in all probability and unless checked is headed toward a Hindu nationalist, majoritarian state.” With the political opposition in total disarray and all government agencies — especially the bureaucracy and the security apparatus — firmly in Modi’s hands, Varshney said the only hope for India’s secular democracy is in the courts.
But, he cautioned, “The judiciary might well surrender.”
Since Modi took office in 2014, government bodies have rewritten history books, lopping out sections on Muslim rulers, and changed official place names to Hindu from Muslim. Hindu mobs have lynched dozens of Muslims; participants are rarely punished.
State level officials in Assam said this was purely an administrative exercise to ferret out people who have no legal right to stay in India. The Modi’s BJP had pushed a new citizenship bill that said migrants from neighboring countries who were Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsees or Jains would be eligible for Indian citizenship. One of South Asia’s biggest religious groups was conspicuously left off: Muslims. The government said it was trying to help religious minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. To critics, it looked like another anti-Muslim campaign, plain and simple.
The bill sailed through the lower house of Parliament but stalled after many Assamese politicians said they didn’t like the religious dimension the BJP was injecting. Many of the people whose names were left off the list were born in India, lived here all their lives and were considered citizens in every right.
One of them was Mohammed Sanaullah, a retired army captain. In May, he was picked up on suspicion of being an illegal migrant and jailed for nearly two weeks. Sanaullah said he was totally demoralized.
“I am an Indian, my father is an Indian, my grandfather was an Indian, my forefathers were Indian. They were all born in India. We will be Indian forever,” he said.
The Assam state government sends suspected foreign migrants to foreigner tribunals, a growing network of more than 100 small courts where the onus is on the suspects to provide the proof that the government is demanding. Human rights observers have complained that the proceedings often discriminate against Muslims and are the equivalent of sham trials.
The B.J.P. doesn’t want to stop at Assam. BJP chief Amit Shah and other party leaders have promised their supporters that they will bring mass citizenship reviews across the country. Human rights activists fear these could be used to discriminate against minorities and this will be made easier because, under Supreme Court rules, individuals are allowed to legally challenge another’s citizenship.
More than 3.5 million people who have so far been left off the Assam citizenship list have filed challenges to their exclusion, and state-level officials are reviewing these claims.
But Assam is not waiting. The state government, which is controlled by an arm of the BJP, is planning to build 10 new detention camps with the capacity to hold thousands of people.
Bangladesh has not been eager to accept the ethnic Bengalis in Assam as citizens either. That could leave many languishing in a legal no-man’s land without many rights.
Critics say what is happening in both Kashmir and Assam are attempts to change the demographics in these areas in favor of Hindus. Kashmiris fear the government’s real plan in wiping out their autonomy is to pave the way to resettle large numbers of Hindu Indians in Kashmir and end its status as the one Muslim-majority territory in India.
Under the changes, Kashmiris will lose the special land rights they used to hold that made it difficult for non-Kashmiris to buy land in their state. Modi has argued that the new arrangement will bring outside investment, better governance and a “new dawn.” But other Indian states have similar protections for local residents and Modi’s party is not trying to change those. Critics say the difference is obvious: Those states are not Muslim.