On August 31st, India released a revised citizenship list for the territory of Assam. The NRC, the National Registry for Citizenship, decided to exclude roughly two million people from this list — many of whom are Muslims who have never lived anywhere but India. This assault on the civil rights of Muslims by the BJP-run NRC has been heavily criticized by opposition parties within India. These attacks on the civil rights of Muslims citizens do not bode well for Indian democracy.
The recent move by the Indian government to make some of its own citizens stateless is extremely worrisome for several reasons. It is in line with other recent actions taken by the Indian government to shore up ethnic and religious tensions and impose a particular vision of India and what it means to be Indian.
Recent examples include the revocation of constitutional article 370 by presidential decree issued on August 5th. This constitutional provision guaranteed special rights to the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir, including the right for Kashmiris to have their own autonomous constitution, allowing them to make laws in most regards except, communications, foreign affairs and defense.
The situation in Assam is dire. The Indian government has already begun to detain thousands of people suspected of being “illegal immigrants”. Such “suspected foreigners” are being held in temporary internment camps which are housed in the state’s prisons and other similar facilities. This move is being advertised as a strong move to curtail illegal immigration into India.
This is a power-play by the BJP-run government to gain more power and to disenfranchise Muslims even further. Disenfranchising the Muslim-minority is the underlying reason for this alleged crackdown on illegal immigration. The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power largely on promises to expel the so-called “illegal foreigners” and protect the rights of indigenous groups of India.
Many activists and members of the opposition have criticized the National Register of Citizens process given frequent abnormalities and procedural flaws. Indian citizens have intentionally been left off the list, including former government officials who have opposed the BJP. Some leaders from the BJP, including Home Minister Amit Shah, have heavily pursued that the NRC be implemented nationally to identify and deport “illegal immigrants” throughout all Indian states.
An example of the cruel implications of this new citizenship list can be found in Ajit Das a thirty-three year old man. He was sent to a detention center near the city of Silchar and during his detention his health deteriorated tremendously. Das lost roughly eleven pounds during his three months stay. His family was forced to spend most of their savings in-order to see him and pay for lawyers in order to combat this label of “illegal immigrant”.
This is a classic populist move because a core claim of populism is that only some people are the “real people” therefore an internal enemy is created within the state (Mueller, 2017:21). According to Mueller in What is Populism populists have three techniques to morally justify their style of governing. Prime Minister Narendra Modi exemplifies the third tactic of “discriminatory legalism”. Essentially, this means only some people, the “real people”, get to enjoy the full protection of the law. Those who are not the people, the minority Muslims in this case, are constantly suspected of undermining the state and therefore they should be punished/treated harshly (Mueller, 2017:46).
The rise of these measures does not bode well for Indian democracy because the revocation of voting rights is a direct attack on core democratic ideals. Modi and the BJP-led Hindu government will continue these attacks on Muslims within India because of his large mandate to govern. These direct attacks on democracy can have long-lasting implications within India.
Ahmed, K. Anis. “Why Is India Making Its Own People Stateless?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 11 Sept. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/09/11/opinion/india-assam-stateless-bengalis-muslim.html.
Al Jazeera. “Kashmir under Lockdown: All the Latest Updates.” India News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 15 Oct. 2019, www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/08/india-revokes-kashmir-special-status-latest-updates-190806134011673.html.
Al Jazeera. “Voices From Assam: India’s Four Million Unwanted.” India | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 7 Sept. 2018, www.aljazeera.com/programmes/talktojazeera/inthefield/2018/09/voices-assam-india-million-unwanted-180904145342852.html.
Al Jazeera. “What’s next for the 4 Million Stripped of Citizenship in India?” India News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 30 July 2018, www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/07/4-millions-stripped-citizenship-india-180730080348753.html.
“Assam NRC: What next for 1.9 Million ‘Stateless’ Indians?” BBC News, BBC, 31 Aug. 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-49520593.
“India Assam: ‘I Won’t Die before I Prove My Indian Citizenship’.” BBC News, BBC, 3 Sept. 2018, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-45192701.
Kuchay, Bilal. “India: Fear among Muslims over Planned Nationwide Citizens List.” News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 10 Sept. 2019, www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/fear-muslims-planned-nationwide-india-citizens-list-190910093358102.html.
Muller, Jan-werner. What Is Populism? Penguin Books Ltd, 2017.