India‘s Home Minister Amit Shah has announced that his Hindu nationalist government will implement a nationwide count of citizens, amid concerns the exercise could be used to target the country’s Muslim minority.
“The NRC process will be carried out across the country,” the powerful home minister announced on Wednesday in Parliament, months after a citizens’ list, called the National Register of Citizens (NRC), published in the northeastern state of Assam excluded nearly two million Bengali-origin people.
Shah added that the NRC will be carried out in Assam again along with the rest of the country, which means that people in the state will have to go through the exercise for the second time.
“If NRC is implemented across India, it will have catastrophic consequences. It will have disastrous impact on the social harmony of India,” said Harsh Mander, an activist based in the capital, New Delhi.
“What we are witnessing in Assam, where this exercise was carried out earlier, is how people are being forced to produce complex documents dating several decades back,” he told Al Jazeera.
He said the NRC process has taken “an enormous toll on people” of Assam. “Children have been separated from parents while some people have been sent to detention centres.”
“NRC is a communal act which clearly means that only Muslims will have to prove their citizenship in this country. This will destroy the secular, democratic and republic structure of India,” Mander said.
Shah, a close confidant of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, assured that “no one from any religion should be worried”.
If NRC is implemented across India, it will have disastrous impact on the social harmony of India.
He plans to change the law to grant citizenship to the refugees from neighbouring countries, but Muslims will be excluded. The plan has led to accusations of discrimination against Muslims in the officially secular nation.
Muslims, who form nearly 15 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people, have increasingly been marginalised and pushed to the margins of the democratic process since the Modi government came to power in 2014. Their political representation has plunged to the lowest levels in decades.
Dozens of Muslims have been lynched by cow vigilantes over rumours of beef eating and alleged slaughter of cows, which are considered sacred by many Hindus.
Modi has dismissed the fear among Muslims as “imaginary” but since coming back to power in May, his government has stripped Muslim-majority Kashmir’s limited autonomy, imposed a crippling lockdown there, and has also passed a law that criminalised the practice of instant triple talaq (divorce) among Muslims.
On November 9, the country’s Supreme Court handed over a disputed land – where once a mosque stood – to Hindus to build a temple in Ayodhya town. The 16th-century Babri mosque was demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992.
Sudhanshu Mittal of the ruling BJP defended the government’s move, saying it was necessary to identify those who are “illegally living in the country”.
“If Shah wants to identify illegal citizens, what is wrong in that? This exercise is not to identify Muslims but those who are non-citizens. Giving NRC an anti-Muslim twist is perversion.”
But Jaiveer Shergil, from the main opposition Indian National Congress party, said the NRC process should be approached as a security issue as he accused the BJP of trying to create “political hysteria”.
“Shah’s statement is clouded by short-term political targets than long-term security issues,” he said.
Additional reporting by Akash Bisht from New Delhi