By Pariesa Young and Tristan Werkmeister
In India last week, mobs targeted Muslims in the streets. Death tolls are still on the rise as factions come to blows, leaving shops, cars and Muslim shrines aflame. The death toll is at least 44, with many of those killed and injured lower- and working-class Muslims caught in the crossfire.
Protests have been ongoing in India since December, when the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed. The CAA allows for an expedited naturalization process for foreign-born religious minorities who entered India illegally before December 2014. The law allows Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists (but not Muslims) from three nearby countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, all Muslim-majority countries – to become naturalized Indian citizens. Previously, there was no path to citizenship for unauthorized migrants.
During national elections last year, the Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, campaigned on other measures to quash illegal migration and revoke rights for non-citizens, many of them Muslims fleeing violence who are not covered under the CAA. These proposed measures included a National Register of Citizens the party initially wanted to roll out next year, but has since decided to hold off on the initiative.
The violence against Muslims began when a local BJP politician called for police to clear anti-CAA protesters from the streets in three days, or else he and his supporters would do it themselves. At a political rally, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath called women peacefully protesting the CAA “terrorists” and they should be fed with “bullets not biryani.” After a striking defeat in Delhi’s Feb. 8 local elections, the BJP’s supporters were emboldened to take to the streets in opposition. The violence that followed has been called a pogrom and anti-Muslim brutality.
Since 2014, the BJP has campaigned on a platform of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment. They routinely refer to opponents to their doctrine as “anti-nationals” and traitors. They have gained support for an extreme Hindu nationalist standpoint which contends that Muslim influence is growing in India.
Today, 200 million Muslims – 11% of the world’s Muslim population – reside in India. The majority of India’s Muslims live in the contested Kashmir region, which borders Pakistan, and Assam region, which borders Bangladesh.
Modern-day Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan until 1971 when violence broke out, causing the Indian army to intervene and Bangladesh to begin fighting for its independence. This catalyzed a wave of refugee movement into India. Muslim-majority Bangladesh remains a source of unauthorized migration into Assam.
In Assam, anti-immigrant sentiments are a widespread source of conflict and violence. In 2015, the Supreme Court ordered the reinstatement of the National Register of Citizens in the Assam region, in order to verify the citizenship of its residents. The 33 million people who live in the region were required to provide documentation proving their Indian status prior to March 24, 1971, the beginning of the Bangladeshi War of Independence.
A Vice News investigation found that a majority of NRC trials of suspected “foreigners” targeted Muslims and were carried out with “bias, inconsistency, and error.” The NRC has also raised the question of what constitutes adequate proof of citizenship – an Indian voter ID, driver’s license, birth certificate, tax return, or bank statement each do not in themselves constitute proof of citizenship. In a country where many are without birth certificates or formal documents dating back decades, the demands of the NRC process is a threat even to those who have lived legally in the country for generations. A man who served in the Indian army for three decades was declared a foreigner and sent to a detention camp. Another woman, who claimed to be born in India, submitted 15 documents – including her father’s name on the NRC of 1951, her parent’s voter registrations, her bank documents and rations card – to the Foreigner’s Tribunal and was still rejected after failing to provide documents that connect her to her parents. Those who fail to prove their citizenship are immediately determined to be suspect citizens, with little opportunity for legal recourse.
In August 2019, the results of the NRC were published. More than 1.9 million people were left off this register, leaving them stateless and fated to be confined in detention centers. While 700,000 of these people were Muslims, another large chunk were Hindus of Bengali origin. The remainder were local or indigenous people who simply failed to provide documentation that adequately proved their citizenship status.
Here’s a timeline of the events that led up to the current wave of Hindu-Muslim tensions.
Anti-CAA protests erupted in India as soon as the bill was cleared by the Union Council of Ministers for introduction to the parliament. These protests were largely peaceful, but faced dispersion tactics from police and the state, including tear gas, police brutality and widespread internet shutdowns.
Escalated violence began when the BJP lost the state election in Delhi on Feb. 8. US President Donald Trump’s visit to India in late February further incited uprisings as the world’s attention was on India. Modi called for calm on Feb. 26 while his party has been minimizing the protests since January, saying they are orchestrated by opponents. As of Feb. 27, 42 people have died during riots, potentially the worst India has seen in decades. Police, who report directly to Home Minister Amit Shah – a BJP leader who has been accused of provoking violence in his statements – stood by as mobs set fire in the streets and beat and shot Muslims.
Modi is being heavily criticized for looking away and ignoring the demands of anti-CAA protesters. His majority is accused of further inciting hatred. The Delhi Police has started peace meetings to stabilize the situation in the capital. Civil society has stepped up to provide relief and support amidst news that relief materials are being looted and the government has failed to provide necessary support in violence-hit areas.