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Modi’s Mass Muslim Detention Scheme

Narendra Modi’s hard-right agenda is rolling on, unimpeded by significant opposition in India. His latest attack: on 1.9 million undocumented people, with the intention of displacing Bengali Muslims from northeastern India.

Prime minister of India Narendra Modi addresses the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters on September 27, 2019 in New York City. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

On August 31, the right-wing Hindu Indian government labeled 1.9 million of its residents as stateless.

The official purpose given by the government was to root out undocumented people. But it is widely known that the true motivation was to displace Bengali Muslims from the northeastern Indian state of Assam. This was made obvious in speeches and promises made in the run-up to the recently held national elections that brought the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government back to power for a second consecutive term.

A noxious act in and of itself, the implications of the roundup are likely to be even more consequential for the future of the Indian polity, furthering a project of isolating and punishing Muslims while expanding detentions of undocumented people, Muslims, and others.

Administrative Violence

The instrument stripping 1.9 million people of rights is the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a now-arcane institution that was created in 1951 to identify who belonged to India at the time. It was reincarnated in 2014 and completed its work in Assam this year.

1.9 million people amounts to 6 percent of the total population of Assam and is two times the number of Rohingya refugees in neighboring Bangladesh.

The current incarnation of the NRC’s purpose was to identify undocumented immigrants from neighboring, Muslim-majority Bangladesh. But its reach goes far beyond.

The new NRC forced all of Assam’s residents to submit documentation like passports, land records, or birth certificates to show they had been in the country or were descended from people who were in the country on or before midnight of March 24, 1971, the day when Bangladesh went to war for independence from Pakistan, with India’s eventual armed support.

Given the paucity of paper documentation in India and the cumbersome nature of its bureaucratic machinery, an unsurprisingly large number of people have been adversely affected. 1.9 million people, including those as old as sixty-five, are now legally forced to go to tribunals and the courts to prove that the only country they have ever lived in should not detain them.

In the absence of a repatriation treaty with Bangladesh, it is unclear what will eventually happen to those who are held in detention for ostensibly being undocumented migrants from Bangladesh; there is currently no legal avenue for deportation.

Concurrently, the government has ordered states to build detention centers across the country in places as far flung as Assam in the northeast, Karnataka in the south, and Maharashtra in the west (all states that have BJP majority governments, incidentally). It has indicated that its inclination is to round up Bangladeshi undocumented migrants across the country.

A Wrench in the Machinery

Because this Kafkaesque effort was overseen by the Supreme Court, the project has retained a level of statistical integrity, actually identifying more Hindus than Muslims to be stripped of their rights.

By September 9, it had become clear that the vast majority of those left out of the NRC were Bengali Hindus who form the traditional voter base for the BJP in Assam and part of its vision for a Hindu nation.

Home minister Amit Shah then announced that the government would be reintroducing the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which would allow for asylum-seeker status for only the non-Muslims excluded from the NRC.

Thus, the BJP’s true agenda behind the project was again revealed; this was never about identifying undocumented people at all for the Hindu right. The targets are the 200 million Muslims living in India.

Nativist and Nationalist Roots

The modern-day NRC’s roots lie in the two projects of Assamese nativism and Hindu nationalism in India. The small northeastern state of Assam has been a hotbed of opposition for more than forty years. The Assam movement from 1979 to 1985 began as an effort to exclude the non-Assamese from the state. In 1985, the Congress-led central government signed the Assam Accord with student groups and the state government committing to the expulsion of alleged foreigners.

It is important to note that Assam’s student movement was not at first focused on undocumented migrants from Bangladesh but on those coming from other parts of India. However, the Hindu right paramilitary organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that forms the social base for the BJP helped shift the focus of the student-led movement from the non-Assamese in general to specifically Bangladeshi undocumented migrants.

As a result, a movement that began as an effort to preserve the northeastern state’s cultural identity from outsiders — whatever one might think of such an enterprise — morphed into something far more noxious under the auspices of the RSS: a project to define Bengali Muslims as “infiltrators,” a fifth column of Muslims who were attempting to undermine the Hindu right’s conception of India.

The Hindu right’s project in Assam is part of a broader effort typified by the desire to cast doubt on the loyalties of Indian Muslims (they also target their animosity toward Christians) and their place in the country. The BJP, RSS, and their associated Hindu right organizations — known collectively as the Sangh Parivar — are seeking to restrict their rights as far as possible and transform India into a Herrenvolk democracy.

As the rabidly xenophobic Shah put it recently, the alleged Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh are “termites” to them. “Every infiltrator,” he said, “will be expelled.”

The true measure of the NRC’s impact has not yet been felt. The BJP intends to expand the NRC to a nationwide initiative. Forebodingly, the rollout of the program in Assam was accompanied by instructions from the central government to states to start building detention centers as part of a nationwide campaign to uproot undocumented immigrants from the country. At least two are known to be in the works in addition to nearly a dozen in Assam, including a megacomplex, and many more are likely to be built.

Political Context

With a second consecutive electoral victory, Hindu nationalists in India are emboldened. They sense an opening for the establishment of some of their most cherished nightmares. Not only are Muslim residents of Assam being uprooted, but India is stripping Muslim-majority Kashmir of statehood and its special autonomous status, leaving it fully occupied, with an unsurprising escalation in reports of human rights violations by the Indian Army.

In schools, the BJP is engaged in the time-honored Indian political tradition of rewriting textbooks, this time with the noxious agenda of Hindutva at its heart.

This has now extended to dictating the syllabus in universities. The attack on universities as spaces for open debate has also escalated with the Sangh’s recent election victory. The student wing of the Hindu right, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), is slowly but surely gaining control of student unions.

At the grassroots level, mobs are assaulting with impunity Muslims and Dalits, the lowest on the caste hierarchy. In some cases, the victims are being forced to recite Hindutva slogans or are being lynched, and in most cases the perpetrators are not charged. In one particularly heinous case, they were feted by a government minister.

Given the relatively deep roots the secular tradition has among sections of the population, one might expect the equivalent of “the Resistance,” if not an effective, organized political force, to fight the dominance of Hindutva.

But if you can imagine Trump instituting his agenda without the organizing work of groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to combat it, or the presence of a strong social-democratic left to oppose it, that’s what India looks like today.

The opposition Congress party, long a dynastic relic that has no real center to its politics, shows little inclination to stand up to Hindutva’s agenda. While it opposed the NRC in Assam, it has supported it in the central state of Haryana. Congress official and the former chief minister of the state B. S. Hooda said that “Foreigners have to leave, it is the responsibility of the government to identify them.”

The mainstream left in India, meanwhile, headed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), is thoroughly disorganized, having lost one of its major bases of power, in West Bengal, in the last election. In its stead rose the BJP in that eastern state for the first time in modern memory.

What’s left are a handful of local figures like West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who admirably stood and won against the implementation of the NRC in the state (for now), but who is widely seen as an opportunist.

Those in India who oppose the right-wing agenda are appalled at what is happening to their country. But with rarely seen organized opposition on a national scale, it may be too late by the time a resistance gets mobilized to stop Modi and his henchmen.