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‘They Are Manufacturing Foreigners’: How India Disenfranchises Muslims

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Fewer than a thousand people now remain in detention in Assam. It is nevertheless unclear what will happen to those who have not yet been incarcerated — 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 as well as of India’s counterinsurgency practices, sees the N.R.C. completed in August 2019 as the best solution to an inherently complex situation. He said he understood the frustrations of the Miya poets over how chauvinist sections of the Assamese were targeting Bengali Muslims. Nevertheless, he said, if there was to be any hope of reconciliation — a way to balance the competing claims of the various groups in Assam, including land-poor tribes and impoverished Assamese — Bengali Muslims had to have patience. “Ultimately, only 1.9 million were left out,” he said when I met with him in Guwahati. Of those, Gohain went on, one million would escape punitive measures because they claimed ancestry from Indian states like West Bengal and Bihar, which had not responded to requests for documentation from Assam. “That leaves only 900,000,” he said. “This does not mean a terrible injustice.”

Gohain believes that those unable to prove citizenship should be allowed to go about daily life until they can be resettled but that they should not be allowed to vote. “There are resident aliens in every other part of the world,” he said. “People who enjoy certain rights, but not the political right to vote.” Other proposals that have been aired include denying declared foreigners access to government services, issuing them guest-worker permits or redistributing the population to Bengali-majority states in India, like West Bengal and Tripura. Although put forward as humane alternatives to indefinite — not to say impractical — incarceration, these “solutions” are as oblivious as ever as to those whose lives have been shattered.

The B.J.P. leaders I saw campaigning one bright February morning in Bordowa, a picturesque village in Upper Assam, certainly seemed intent on increasing the number of stateless. Bordowa is the hometown of Sankardev, an Ahom-era religious figure who gave Assam its distinct version of Hinduism, and it is part of a multimillion-dollar project by the B.J.P. government to develop “religious and cultural tourism.” As an Indian Air Force helicopter carrying Shah, now the home affairs minister, touched down, unmasked crowds made their way on foot across emerald-green paddy fields toward 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, Assam’s chief minister at the time, opened the proceedings. But it was a minister in his cabinet, Himanta Biswa Sarma, speaking next, who, in a move meant to signal the B.J.P.’s confidence in its hard-line Hindu nationalist position in Assam, would be made chief minister after the B.J.P.’s victory there in May. At the rally, Sonowal’s soft voice soon gave way to Sarma’s testosterone-fueled speech, in which he worked in a denunciation of outsiders at every opportunity, pumping up the crowd by telling them that those attempting to occupy “sacred Indian soil” like that of Bordowa 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, on the other side of the subcontinent and over 1,200 miles from Assam, was connected by Hinduism to the “sacred land” of Sankardev. When the crowd’s attention seemed to wander, Shah worked in his dog whistles. “The work of freeing Assam of ghuspetiyas was begun by the B.J.P. government under Narendra Modi,” he reminded the audience. A solitary Bengali Muslim man near me shifted uneasily in his seat.

The coming months featured plenty such reminders: billboards depicting barbed-wire border fencing as a B.J.P. achievement, Sarma declaring that he did not need the Miya vote. The election manifesto released by the B.J.P. made promises to every ethnic group in Assam except Bengali Muslims. Absent by name, they were the obvious targets of the section titled “Strengthening Civilization in Assam.” This would be achieved by tackling the threat of “Love Jihad” and “Land Jihad,” the manifesto stated, using the Hindu right’s catchphrases for the supposed menace posed by Muslim men marrying Hindu women and by Muslims occupying land — acts intended, according to the Hindu right, to engineer a demographic shift. Along with this came the promise to “ensure the correction and reconciliation” of the N.R.C. and a reinforcement of the system of border police and foreigners’ tribunals.

With the B.J.P.’s victory in Assam this spring, the symbiosis of Assamese nationalism and Hindu nationalism seemed complete. Sarma, after becoming chief minister, promised a “reverification” of the list, particularly in areas bordering Bangladesh; names on the list would be subject to scrutiny yet again. The Assamese official in charge of the N.R.C., Hitesh Dev Sarma, petitioned the Supreme Court for permission to fully review the list, claiming it contained “glaring anomalies of a serious nature.” (He declined to comment further for this article.)

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