As India concludes its noble commitment to publishing a list of officially recognised Indian citizens in Assam, and deporting the rest, the 40% Muslim population in Assam fears its possible stateless future. As of now, the first draft of the list was published on December 31 2017, which recognised only 1.9 crore out of the 3.2 crore total applicants – naturally barring those who did not even apply. The list claimed that to be recognised or registered as a citizen of India, people were required to prove descent on the basis of the following citizenship laws:
1. Every person born in India on or after 26.01.1950 but before 01.07.1987 is an Indian citizen irrespective of the nationality of his/her parents.
2. Every person born in India between 01.07.1987 and 02.12.2004 is a citizen of India given either of his/her parents is a citizen of the country at the time of his/her birth.
3. Every person born in India on or after 3.12.2004 is a citizen of the country given both his/her parents are Indians or at least one parent is a citizen and the other is not an illegal migrant at the time of birth.
On February 8, 899 inmates were declared ‘foreigners’ by the 100 Foreigners’ Tribunal and have been distributed across six detention camps in Assam, where they currently wait to be deported. Amidst the stringent verification of citizenship, several Muslims have committed suicide out of shock when their names did not appear on the list and out of fear of what their futures held. The official decision to accept Aadhar cards as a proof of citizenship was also overturned, requiring more specific documents. Many Muslims were denied citizenship based on small discrepancies in their paperwork, such as misspelled names, while registered parents were unable to legitimise citizenship for their children if they were could not provide a birth certificate, tearing families apart. Locals reported that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) officials skipped many houses in each village, specifically those with Muslim families.
Apprehensions that the exercise would unfairly treat even the legitimate Muslim population and try to revoke their citizenship through legitimate processes seem to have been verified by the NRC’s handling of the list. With the BJP government in power controlling validation of citizenship, despite claims that the list would include all genuine citizens, the Bengali-Muslim population is feeling greatly marginalised. In the February of 1983, more than 2000 Bengali-speaking Muslims, allegedly illegal immigrants, were massacred in central Assam. In recent years, thousands of Bengali-speaking Muslims have been thrown in detention camps in Assam as ‘doubtful voters’ and ‘immigrants’. The community has always struggled with their identity as ‘an infiltrator population’ and the list only exacerbates that problem and furthers the divide in society.
On the other hand, India seems to have no problem with non-Muslim immigrants, with the BJP in 2014 declaring India to be the “natural home for persecuted Indians” by extending long-term visas in various states and providing citizenship to Hindus from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while campaigning in 2014, had made a distinction between Hindu and Muslim refugees from Bangladesh and had argued that the former should be accommodated. “We have a responsibility towards Hindus who are harassed and suffer in other countries. India is the only place for them. We will have to accommodate them here,” Modi had said. With the idea that India should be this natural home for persecuted Hindus becoming a central feature of the 2014 BJP Manifesto, it becomes evident how these policies fall in line with the BJP’s Hindutva ideology. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016 may have been presented as a move to protect the religious minorities in other countries from being persecuted but, the underlying goal was clear: the bill is meant to help make India the pure “Hindu Homeland” by giving refuge to religious minorities in Muslim-dominated countries such as Hindus, Sikhs and even Christians, but intentionally ignoring Muslims. This increases the BJP vote-bank by increasing the pro-Hindu population in the country and significantly reducing minority Muslim groups that may oppose the BJP ideology through a process of revoking citizenship and deportation. The government also seems to have no qualms about blatantly exercising this kind of bias towards or against certain specific communities, which continually threatens India’s secular status.
The identification and deportation of these illegal immigrants also hinders India’s weakening relationship with Bangladesh. After New Delhi and Dhaka were unable to conclude the Teesta water sharing agreement, the deportation of illegal immigrants from India to Bangladesh will not be looked upon favourably by the Bangladeshi Government. “Citizenship issue will be another disappointment after the setback on the sharing of water of the river Teesta. We believe India should think of its friendship with Bangladesh before going ahead with the full implementation of the citizens register in Assam,” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stated. Bangladesh fears that the deportation of a large section of Bengali population could realistically trigger another refugee crisis like Rohingya.
While India’s National Human Rights Commission speaks in favour of Rohingyas, Home Minister Rajnath Singh maintains the view that Rohingyas in India are a security threat and India is only helping Bangladesh tackle the current exodus on humanitarian grounds. He vehemently spoke against illegal immigrants that people often “make the mistake of calling Rohingya refugees,” arguing that India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, therefore cannot be accused of violating international laws.
All these recent developments in citizenship and immigration laws forecast an eerie future for secular India while simultaneously solidifying the BJP ideology of a Hindutva state.