More than 1.9 million people living in Assam, a state of about 33 million in northeastern India, effectively became stateless recently. Many have never lived anywhere but in India, and yet late last month, the government, claiming to crack down on illegal immigration, announced that it was removing them from the National Register of Citizens. Many of them are ethnic Bengalis, but there is no evidence that they are Bangladeshi.
The process by which the register has been compiled wasn’t just flawed; it was heavily politicized, as well as rife with prejudice. Since the overwhelming majority of the nearly two million people excluded from the registry are thought to be Muslim, the effort looks far more like an ethnic purge than anything like a census.
The Indian government hardly even pretends otherwise. Last fall, ahead of general elections earlier this year, the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.), Amit Shah, referred to immigrants as “infiltrators” and “termites,” and threatened to “throw them into the Bay of Bengal.” This July, Mr. Shah told Parliament, “Illegal immigrants living on every inch of this country will be deported according to the law.” A first step in implementing that plan is to leave Muslim Bengalis off the register in Assam and try to strip them of their citizenship.
Bengali settlers in Assam go back centuries, and the group was favored by the colonial British rulers. The relative advantage enjoyed by Bengali minorities was understandably resented by indigenous Assamese, but it took an increasingly ugly and nativist turn after the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. There were pogroms in the late 1970s and murderous riots in 1983
The process of compiling the list of Assam’s citizens, which took several years and was finalized this summer, was plagued with major problems, some inevitable. Officials faced the impossible task of having to ask for and verify documents from before 1971, including for periods when official records were kept shoddily or incompletely. A retired officer of the Indian Air Force found himself excluded from the registry; so did relatives of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, a former president of India.
Far worse, however, are the obvious political motivations that drove the effort, and the likely consequences of denying citizenship to so many.
The National Register of Citizens predates the B.J.P.’s coming to power; it was created in 1951. The pledge to update the tally of Assam’s citizens — and expel any foreigners — was the product of a peace deal between the central government and anti-immigrant Assamese protesters in 1985. But successive governments ignored it, perhaps fearing a fallout. Assamese activists pushed on, however, and in 2013 secured a Supreme Court decision calling for the process to be completed. The B.J.P., which won the national general election in 2014 and control of the provincial government in Assam in 2016, took up the task in earnest.
Hindu nationalists have claimed for decades that vast numbers of Bangladeshis have been infiltrating India, and through mere repetition that rallying cry seems to have gained traction with the general population.
Both positions are hard to defend. Plenty of scholarly works, news reports and anecdotal accounts suggest that if anything, there has been a steady trickle of Hindus, not Muslims, moving from Bangladesh to India — a kind of migration that Hindu nationalists usually welcome.
Few Bangladeshi Muslims go to India looking for better economic opportunities, it turns out; India is only marginally more developed than Bangladesh — if even that. Today, Bangladesh outstrips India in rankings for indicators of social development, such as literacy rates, gender parity and life expectancy.
The real problem isn’t that vast numbers of illegal migrants from Bangladesh are coming into India via Assam; it’s the convergence between Assamese nativism against Bengalis and the B.J.P.’s Hindu-nationalist agenda against Muslims.
The register, presented as the beginning of a solution to the problem of illegal immigration, is more likely to create further ethnic division and strife, especially if other states follow Assam’s example.
Officials in neighboring Meghalaya, as well as political leaders in Telangana and Bihar, have also asked that citizens be registered in those states. The B.J.P.’s general secretary, Kailash Vijayvargiya, has called for the exercise to be carried out nationwide to “prevent nefarious designs of illegal immigrants, who pose a threat to India’s internal security.”
But a far greater threat to India’s — and South Asia’s — security is precisely moves such as these, which pave the way for ethnic minorities to become stateless.
And where, exactly, should the nearly two million Bengalis who didn’t make it on Assam’s official registry be moved to? India is planning to build huge detention camps to house thousands of them. An Assamese minister has suggested sending “illegal Bangladeshis residing in Assam” to Bangladesh.
So far, the Bangladeshi government has responded with measured calm, but what India does next could jeopardize what has been, to date, one of the most stable partnerships in the region.
The risks are real. Bangladesh and India have been committed allies in the fight against violent radicalism, for example, and the Islamic State has become active in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in South Asia. Government measures that can be construed as targeting, even persecuting, Muslims only provide fodder for jihadist propaganda.
Yet the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi will stop at nothing, it seems, to target and repress India’s Muslims. It recently locked down the entire state of Kashmir. It has fomented mob violence throughout the country. And now, in Assam, it is trying to strip Muslims of their citizenship. Military force, popular animus, administrative fiat — no measure is too big or too small when it comes to enacting the B.J.P.’s dangerous prejudices.
K. Anis Ahmed is publisher of the Dhaka Tribune.