The BJP’s illegal migrant campaign backfires


“They are like termites, eating the grain that should go to the poor”. Thus did Amit Shah, home minister in Narendra Modi’s new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government describe illegal immigrants in India. In the run-up to the spring election, the BJP was loud in denouncing Muslims who had fled the 1971 independence struggle in Bangladesh and settled in the northeastern Indian state of Assam.

Now the results of a new National Register of Citizens (NCR) in Assam have effectively taken away the civic and residential rights of some 1.9 million people. These unfortunates were unable to produce documentation to prove that they or their forebears had been living in Assam before 1971. Assam is one of India’s poorest states, with low literacy levels in both the Muslim and Hindu communities. In the last half-century, many of the documents key to proving people’s right to be in the country have been lost, decayed or even eaten by termites.

Moreover, India’s love of bureaucracy does not extend to a love of accuracy. Officials regularly fill out forms, including such crucially important documents as birth certificates, with the wrong details, not least the wrong names. It is not yet possible to know how many of these almost two million people have been branded illegal immigrants simply because of the slapdash work of some lazy official years ago. And, of course, those to whom they handed these papers were never able to read what was on them.

But before the election, the BJP with its now barely concealed Islamophobic agenda was all for steam-rolling the Assam NCR process. Now that the final lists have been published, they are not quite so enthusiastic. Among those left off the lists and thus deemed not to be Indian citizens with automatic rights of residence are some 900,000 Hindus. This is not the outcome the BJP was expecting. Shah had been promising to extend this illegal immigrant drive to the rest of the country. He is almost certainly thinking again. Even in major cities, efficient record-keeping is not a given and with officialdom’s love of multiple forms, the chances of errors which could one day be catastrophic for a family are sharply increased.

Just as with Modi’s crass and bungled currency reform, the NCR in Assam simply was not thought through. By scrapping high denomination 500 and 1000 rupee notes, Modi thought he was going to catch tax cheats. He did not. But he came close to wrecking the country’s economy and drove many small businesses to the wall. By setting high documentary standards for people to prove they are not illegal immigrants, he has also swept up hundreds of thousands of Hindus, only a small proportion of whom are likely to have fled Bangladesh in 1971.

Outside commentators regularly buy into the BJP’s presentation of itself as a “nationalist” party. In fact, of course, it is no such thing. It is indeed the very opposite of “nationalist”. It is racist. It is dominated by a fanatical Hindu clique. These people have no sense of history, no respect for the magnificent historical achievements of Mughal rule and zero appreciation of the brilliant communal tapestry that makes India such a fascinating country with stunning economic potential. Wisdom and tolerance will build a stronger India. Hatred and bigotry could destroy it.