India’s Anti-Muslim Detention Camps

Ideas and Issues
People stand in line to check their names on the first draft of the National Register of Citizens in Assam

New Orleans       In the wake of anti-immigrant nativist policies, shooting massacres, and blatant racism, it is easy to think that it couldn’t be worse.  Certainly, on the immigrant front, we have hit a nadir that the country may not have seen since the days of the “yellow peril” and anti-immigrant policies to restrict Asian in-migration.

Tragically, it can be worse.  We saw this in Myanmar with the brutal suppression and genocide of the Rohingya whose biggest crime seems to have been their Muslim faith.  We are now also seeing this in India, another American ally, allowed to trumpet its claims as the largest democracy on earth, while allowing a communalist, rightwing Hindu-only nationalism become the dominating political program behind the BJP and Prime Minister Modi’s government.  The headlines most recently revolved around withdrawing the special status of Kashmir, one of two majority Muslim states in India.  A lesser known horror is taking place in the state of Assam, bordering Bangladesh.

Since 2016, Assam, also governed by the BJP, has been compiling a dangerous list, called the National Register of Citizens (NRC).  The NRC claimed to be a way to identify illegal intruders migrating from Bangladesh, but instead has become a Kafkaesque, Catch-22 list of four million of the state’s thirty-three million residents who are now forced to prove that they are citizens.  More than 1000 people are currently being held in six detention centers and another ten are being built as the program expands.

The suspected foreigners are required to prove that they or their forebearers have lived in the state since March 1971.  Some 3.7 million have already challenged this designation, but the process involves appearing before a Foreigners Tribunal, where there is no right to appeal or receive any review.  Cases have already emerged where members of the same family were declared both citizens and foreigners.  An Indian war hero was listed.  A young high school graduate, according to The Economist, was listed although no one else in her family was and then was unable to resolve it, because the bureaucracy required her to prove her citizenship through her voting record without reconciling the fact that she was too young to even register to vote yet.

As bad as all of this is, it gets worse.  Anyone can anonymously file an “objection” letter demanding the removal of suspected foreigners.  They never even need appear in court to face their accused.  Groups gained access to the NRC list and filed 220,000 letters before a late spring deadline.

The national government is touting the Assam anti-Muslim efforts as a model and announcing its interest in expanding the program nationally to deal with the 14% of its more than one-billion population who are Muslim.  Lest there be any doubts about the Hindu-chauvinism here, a national law has been drafted that would allow any on the list to recover citizenship or become citizens if they are Hindu, Christian, Zoroastrian, or in fact belonging to any religion other than Islam.

The United States is silent in the face of this outrage of human rights.  Perhaps that is because so many of our policies against migrants, immigrants, and Muslims are trying to travel this same road without being as clear about it as the Modi and the BJP have been?

This detention camp is located inside Assam’s central prison