Jeffrey Gettleman and Hari Kumar
four million people in India, mostly Muslims, are at risk of being declared
foreign migrants as the government pushes a hard-line Hindu nationalist agenda
that has challenged the country’s pluralist traditions and aims to redefine
what it means to be Indian.
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.
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
governing party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not backing down.
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 program fuelled
by Mr. Modi’s sweeping re-election victory in May and his stratospheric
India’s Muslim minority are 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 — coincides with another setback for Muslims,
this one transpiring more than a thousand miles away.
two weeks ago, Mr. Modi unilaterally wiped out the statehood of India’s only
Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, removing its special autonomy and
turning it into a federal territory without any consultation with local leaders
— many of whom have since been arrested.
Modi’s critics, events in Assam and Kashmir are Exhibits A and B in their
conviction that the prime minister 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 Mr. Modi will take
this nation of 1.3 billion people in the coming years.
purpose of the citizenship dragnet in Assam is to find undocumented immigrants
from Bangladesh — a predominantly Muslim country to its south. Amit Shah,
India’s powerful home minister, has repeatedly referred to those immigrants as
All of the
33 million residents of Assam have had to prove, with documentary evidence,
that they or their ancestors were Indian citizens before early 1971, when
Bangladesh was established after breaking away from Pakistan. 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.
this, Mr. 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.
critics say he is playing a dangerous game and pulling apart the diverse,
delicate social fabric that has existed in India for centuries.
minister’s political roots lie in a Hindu nationalist movement that emphasizes
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
been hit by its own troubles and ethnic bloodshed. But the violence being
reported now is self-inflicted.
who lived in a small hamlet in a flood-soaked district, spiralled 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.
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
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.
Muslims in Kashmir are despondent as well. After Mr. 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
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.
Indian government has eased some of the communication restrictions in the past
few days, hundreds of Kashmiri intellectuals are still under arrest and
Pakistan is seething.
with Pakistan tends to lift Mr. 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
India’s Hindu majority don’t object to Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist policies or
even seem to think too much about them. They praise what they see as the
strides he has made in fighting poverty and projecting a more muscular image of
India on the world stage.
say his Hindu nationalist beliefs are central to who he is and intentionally
divisive, engineered to win votes from the Hindu majority. India is about 80
percent Hindu and 14 percent Muslim. (Christians, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists
make up most of the rest of the population.)
A small but
vocal minority of left-leaning intellectuals, Muslim leaders and opposition
politicians has tried to turn public opinion against Mr. Modi’s policies
without much success.
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.
are the enemy,” he said. “It’s a war on the Indian Constitution.”
Varshney, the head of Brown University’s South Asia program, said that India
“in all probability and unless checked is headed toward a Hindu nationalist,
political opposition in total disarray and all government agencies — especially
the bureaucracy and the security apparatus — firmly in Mr. Modi’s hands, Mr. Varshney
said the only hope for India’s secular democracy is in the courts.
cautioned, “The judiciary might well surrender.”
streak of alarming headlines in recent weeks, including big job losses in the
auto sector, deadly flooding across the country and a new outbreak of violence
by Hindu mobs against Muslims, hasn’t dented Mr. Modi’s popularity.
may wonder how any political movement in India could question Muslims’
contribution to society. India is a thoroughly multicultural place, and Muslims
have contributed for centuries, even ruling the country at times. Muslim
emperors built some of India’s brightest cultural treasures, including the Taj
Mr. 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
and allies in his Bharatiya Janata Party, known as the B.J.P., have denied any
anti-Muslim bias and rejected criticism that the way they have handled the mass
citizenship check in Assam has been harsh or discriminatory. 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.
Goswami, a spokesman for the state B.J.P. party, said the registry “is only a
process of documentation.”
of India, Assam has reflected a tapestry of different ethnic groups and
religions for as long as anyone can remember. Its beautiful tea estates have
attracted flocks of migrant workers.
indigenous Assamese, who are mostly Hindu, have resented immigrants from
Bangladesh, saying that the ethnic Bengalis were coming into their state and
taking away their jobs and their land. In 1983, this locals-versus-outsider
enmity blew up.
villagers slaughtered more than 1,000 ethnic Bengalis, many of them Muslim —
scholars say that most ethnic Bengalis in Assam are Muslim. In 2012, another
smaller wave of violence erupted.
year, India’s Supreme Court set in motion a process for a large-scale
registration of citizens to be updated in Assam. This would determine who was
an Indian and who was not. The deadline for residents to provide documentary proof
that they or their ancestors have a legacy as Indian citizens, going back to
March 1971 or earlier, has been extended several times.
issue predates Mr. Modi’s taking India’s reins in 2014, the B.J.P. has
aggressively backed the process, with Mr. Shah vowing to clear out all the
preliminary Assam citizenship list was published in 2018, leaving off four
million people, scholars said the majority were Muslim but large numbers of
Bengali-speaking Hindus were also excluded.
then had to regroup. Its response was to push a new citizenship bill that said
migrants from neighbouring 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.
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.
sailed through the lower house of Parliament but stalled after many Assamese
politicians said they didn’t like the religious dimension the B.J.P. was
injecting — or the possibility that the large number of Hindu Bengalis would be
given an exception. Some B.J.P. politicians say they want to revive it.
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.
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.
doesn’t want to stop at Assam.
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.
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.
is not waiting. The state government, which is controlled by an arm of the
B.J.P., is planning to build 10 new detention camps with the capacity to hold
thousands of people.
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.
what is happening in both Assam and Kashmir (the state has a population of
about 14 million) is an attempt to change the demographics in favour 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.
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. Mr. Modi has
argued that the new arrangement will bring outside investment, better
governance and a “new dawn.”
Indian states have similar protections for local residents and Mr. Modi’s party
is not trying to change those.
the difference is obvious: Those states are not Muslim.
Raj contributed reporting from New Delhi, and Shajid Khan from Rowmari Chapari,
New York Times