Not Modi’s India any more
A 31-year-old Muslim woman, Bijoli Bano ekes out a living as a domestic worker in the satellite town of Noida in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, while her husband works as a driver.
After 20 difficult years as a stateless person in a no man’s land along the Bangladesh-India border, Bano and her four children became Indian citizens in 2016 after the two countries settled some of their border disputes.
But now her peace of mind is waning. ‘I worry about my children,’ she says, as she chops vegetables for dinner, worry lines crisscrossing her forehead. ‘Being a Muslim has become a crime. And if you are poor as well then you have nothing but fear to look forward to. Will we be sent to camps, is that true?’ she asks.
In July 2018, India’s ultra-nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) amended the rules for registering as a citizen, and updated the National Register of Citizens (or NRC) in the northern state of Assam – which shares a 262-kilometre border with Bangladesh.
This 'update' led to more than 32 million people facing statelessness and the prospect of being interred in detention camps if they could not prove family links in India prior to 24 March 1971, Bangladesh’s independence day. Millions were then excluded from the NRC, and thousands were sent to temporary camps and given 120 days to appeal. At the end of the process, authorities excluded some 1.9 million people from the register, including about 600,000 Muslims.
Modi’s government has repeatedly asserted that the new NRC will be soon implemented across India – their 2019 election manifesto pledged to introduced it in a 'phased manner' throughout the country. If this happens, tens of millions more will likely be affected, including at least 60,000 people like Bano, who lived in enclaves along the Bangladesh-India border and became Indian citizens in 2016, following a revised land boundary agreement between the two countries.
On 11 December 2019, the Modi-led government also passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Although the 42nd amendment of the Indian constitution asserts that the country is secular, the CAA will confer citizenship only to non-Muslim refugees fleeing religious persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and who came to India on or before 31 December 2014.
One criticism of the NRC and CAA is that together, they work in tandem to disenfranchise people in Bano’s situation: if they fail to prove their citizenship under the NRC, they become refugees. But as Muslim refugees, many will be unable to then apply for citizenship under the CAA and risk remaining stateless.
‘Being a Muslim has become a crime,’ says Bano. ‘And if you are poor as well, then you have nothing but fear to look forward to.’
With these two measures, the government was very precise about who to punish and reward. In 2012, when I visited West Bengal’s Coopers Camp, India’s oldest refugee settlement (established in 1950 as a transit camp for the mass migration that took place between India and East and West Pakistan after India’s independence in 1947) I met Sukhen Halder, a second-generation Hindu resident of the camp.
His family was among those who were still waiting for Indian citizenship owing to a lack of documentation, ‘It is like a different world out here [as refugees],’ Halder, told me. At the time Halder’s family had been living in India for three generations. The CAA law would expedite citizenship for refugees like him.
But that same year, I also met Zia Bur Rahman, a 27-year-old Rohingya refugee from Myanmar, in a refugee camp housed in a trough-like piece of land, in Khoda near the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border.
‘There are only two things that people need in this world to live a dignified life – either you have citizenship or you get refugee status and hope for citizenship later,’ Rahman had said. But because he’s Muslim, under the new laws, he will not be able to do so.
How is Rahman’s suffering any less than Halder’s? And how can a country – which has no official religion - discriminate between refugees on the basis of religion?
Since the party came to power in 2014, it has adopted an increasingly hostile line against the secular values enshrined in India’s constitution. By 2018, about one-third of Indian states have implemented anti-conversion and anti-cow slaughter laws. Cow vigilantes ratcheted up attacks on Muslim and Dalit cattle traders – while Modi’s government remained silent.
Several international organizations including Amnesty International India, Human Rights Watch and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have condemned the two measures. The US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) called them ‘a dangerous turn in the wrong direction’, accusing the Indian government of ‘creating a religious test for Indian citizenship that would strip citizenship from millions of Muslims.’
On December 22, following days of protests across the country over NRC and CAA, Modi addressed a rally in New Delhi where he pledged that the law wouldn’t affect Indian Muslims. He had also said there were no plans to implement NRC countrywide. This contravenes the BJP’s 2019 election manifesto pledge, as well as Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, who on December 1, also asserted that that BJP would implement NRC all across the country.
Modi’s cabinet underestimated the backlash from secular India. Though this hasn’t stopped the federal cabinet from recently approving 39.4 billion rupees to update the ‘National Population Register’ (NPR), claiming that there was ‘no link’ between the NPR and the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC).
If Modi’s divisive career history is anything to go by, the rest of his mandate is going to weigh heavy on India. As chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, Modi failed to condemn the Gujarat riots in which Hindu fundamentalists slaughtered over 1,000 Muslims.
Following the riots, his government had extended the scope of a property law that has led to increased ghettoization of the state’s Muslim population. The main argument against the NRC and the CAA – and now the NPR - also stems from a fear that it is aimed at segregating Muslims. And if refugee welfare was the only reason behind CAA, critics argue, then that Modi’s government could have taken quite a few alternative steps.
For one, it failed to sign up to the United Nation’s 1951 refugee convention and the 1967 protocol that lays out guidelines for refugee protection. They could have also moved on the Refugees and Asylum Seekers (Protection) bill that has been under consideration since the 1990s.
Concern for the reactionary laws is shared by Indians across the country, who have been taking to the streets in one of the largest shows of protest against Modi since he took office in 2014.
Demonstrations began after the parliament passed the CAA on 11 December. And on 15 December, the police stormed into two Muslim majority universities – Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi and Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh – and cracked down on protesting students. As videos surfaced of police storming libraries, torching student dorms, opening fire on and beating up students, protests began to escalate.
At least 21 people have died so far, 1,500 have been arrested and around 4,000 detained and then released. The protests turned violent in the BJP-ruled state of Uttar Pradesh – one of India’s largest states with over 200 million population, (and with the largest Muslim population of about 38 million) and a communal tinderbox ever since the destruction of the Babri mosque in the town of Ayodhya by Hindu fundamentalists in 1992. Modi’s government also imposed internet shutdowns to quell protests in 10 districts of Uttar Pradesh, Mangaluru and Dakshina Kannada districts in Karnataka (southern India), Assam and Meghalaya, and in capital Delhi.
As secular India continues to burn over these two religion-based laws, there is no clear answer to Bano’s questions about her future. If Modi’s government doesn’t backtrack on the laws, Bano and her children, like many of India’s 200-million-strong Muslim population, might soon find themselves stripped of their citizenship and detained in a camp, even separated from her children or family, or running from pillar to post trying to prove their citizenship.
The NRC could be particularly damaging to poor and illiterate women like Bano, most of whom do not have birth certificates or bank accounts, own no property, many are married off before they turn the legal marriageable age of 18 and never finish school. As Islamophobia rises across the world, India’s move could provide xenophobic governments with a dangerous legal blueprint to segregate Muslims.
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