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“They make foreigners”: how India deprives Muslims of their civil rights

Less than a thousand people are now detained in Assam. However, it is not clear what will happen to those who have not yet been imprisoned – a majority of those declared stateless. Hiren Gohain, who is perhaps Assam’s best-known progressive intellectual and a staunch critic of the Hindu right-wing as well as India’s counterinsurgency practices, sees the NRC completed in August 2019 as the best solution to an inherently complex situation. He said he understood the frustrations of the Miya poets over the way chauvinist sections of the Assamese were targeting Bengali Muslims. Nonetheless, he said, if there was to be any hope of reconciliation – a way to balance the competing claims of different groups in Assam, including land-poor tribes and impoverished Assamese – Bengali Muslims should be patient. “In the end, only 1.9 million were left out,” he said when I met him in Guwahati. Of these, Gohain continued, one million would escape punitive measures because they claimed Indian ancestors like West Bengal and Bihar, who had not responded to Assam’s requests for documentation. “There are only 900,000 left,” he said. “It does not mean a terrible injustice.”

Gohain believes that people unable to prove their citizenship should be allowed to go about their daily business until they can be relocated, but should not be allowed to vote. “There are resident aliens in all other parts of the world,” he said. “People who enjoy certain rights, but not the political right to vote. Other proposals that have been circulated include denying declared foreigners access to government services, issuing guest worker permits, or redistributing the population to Bengali-majority states in India, such as West Bengal and Tripura. Although presented as humane alternatives to indefinite – not to say impractical – incarceration, these “solutions” are more oblivious than ever to those whose lives have been shattered.

The BJP leaders I saw campaigning on a bright February morning in Bordowa, a picturesque village in Upper Assam, certainly seemed determined to increase the number of stateless people. Bordowa is the hometown of Sankardev, a religious figure of the Ahom era who gave Assam his distinct version of Hinduism, and it is part of a multi-million dollar project by the BJP government to develop the ” religious and cultural tourism ”. As an Indian Air Force helicopter carrying Shah, now Home Secretary, landed, unmasked crowds marched on foot through emerald green rice paddies towards the central stage. Much of Assam’s multiethnic population seemed represented in the carnival atmosphere; the only people left out were the Bengali Muslim villagers I passed earlier, walking in the opposite direction and avoiding eye contact with the crowd.

Sonowal, then Chief Minister of Assam, opened the discussions. But it was a cabinet minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who spoke next, who, in a gesture intended to signal the BJP’s confidence in its uncompromising Hindu nationalist position in Assam, would be appointed chief minister after the victory. of the BJP in May. . At the rally, Sonowal’s soft voice quickly gave way to Sarma’s testosterone fueled speech, in which he worked in a denunciation of strangers on every occasion, pumping out the crowd by telling them that those attempting to occupy “sacred Indian soil” like Bordowa’s would never be forgiven by the people of Assam.

Finally, it was Shah’s turn. Speaking in Hindi, he reminded the audience that his home state of Gujarat, across the subcontinent and over 1,200 miles from Assam, was linked by Hinduism to “sacred land. By Sankardev. When the attention of the crowd seemed to wander, Shah worked in his dog whistles. “The work of liberation of Assam from ghuspetiyas was started by the BJP government under Narendra Modi, ”he reminded the audience. Next to me, a lonely Bengali Muslim shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

The coming months were marked by many such reminders: billboards depicting barbed wire fences as a BJP achievement, with Sarma saying he didn’t need the Miya vote. The election manifesto released by the BJP made promises to all ethnic groups in Assam except Bengali Muslims. Absent by name, they were the obvious targets of the section entitled “Strengthening Civilization in Assam”. This would be achieved by tackling the threat of “Love Jihad” and “Land Jihad,” the manifesto said, using slogans from the Hindu right for the supposed threat posed by Muslim men marrying Hindu women and by Muslims occupying land – acts intended, according to the Hindu right, to effect demographic change. Added to this was the promise to “ensure correction and reconciliation” of the NRC and a strengthening of the border police system and foreigners’ courts.

With the BJP’s victory in Assam this spring, the symbiosis of Assamese nationalism and Hindu nationalism seemed complete. Sarma, after becoming chief minister, promised a “re-verification” of the list, especially in the border areas of Bangladesh; the names on the list would come under scrutiny again. Assamese NRC official Hitesh Dev Sarma asked the Supreme Court for permission to completely review the list, saying it contained “glaring anomalies of a serious nature.” (He declined to comment further on this article.)

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