India‘s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has contradicted his closest lieutenant over plans for a nationwide register as he tried to defuse protests against a citizenship law in which at least 25 people have been killed.
Addressing an election rally in capital New Delhi, Modi said that there had been no discussion on creating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) – directly contradicting key ally, Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah.
- ‘People dying’: Malaysia’s Mahathir slams India’s citizenship law
“Since my government has come to power, since 2014 to now, I want to tell [1.3 billion] citizens, there has been no discussion on even the word NRC,” Modi told a crowd of thousands.
Thousands across India protesting against the passage of the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), including Muslim groups and opposition, argue the new law should be seen along with the NRC.
The CAA allows Hindus, Christians and other religious minorities who are in India as undocumented migrants to become citizens if they can show they were persecuted because of their religion in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Pakistan or Afghanistan.
The law has triggered criticisms of violating India’s secular constitution and aiming at marginalising 200 million Muslims, who constitute nearly 14 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion people.
First, there will be a Citizenship Amendment Bill ... after that, there will be an NRC.
What is NRC?
The NRC was originally an exercise exclusive to the ethnically-diverse northeastern state of Assam, where a movement against allowing any undocumented migrant, irrespective of religion, has been on for decades.
Authorities in the state began using the NRC to identify such migrants in 2015 on the orders of the Supreme Court. A final list, published on August 31 this year excluded nearly 1.9 million residents, nearly half of them were Muslims.
Since 2015, there have been calls from officials of the ruling party and its supporters for a nationwide implementation of NRC, which has been promised by Shah in several public statements.
The 2019 manifesto of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said “in future we will implement the NRC in a phased manner in other parts of the country” but did not provide details.
If a nationwide NRC is enacted, activists and opposition politicians expect that residents unable to prove citizenship would be taken to detention centers, as is happening in Assam.
Assam has six detention centres holding more than 1,000 alleged “illegal” migrants, and plans another 11. India’s junior home minister has told Parliament that 28 detainees have died in the camps in recent years.
Shah’s ministry in June issued a “2019 Model Detention Manual” to states, asking them to set up camps in major entry points. Two centres were planned near the cities of Mumbai and Bengaluru.
How Modi contradicted Shah
Modi on Sunday said: “Muslims who are sons of the soil and whose ancestors are the children of mother India need not to worry.”
He added that there had been no discussion yet of a nationwide NRC and denied the existence of a detention centre, accusing the opposition of spreading fear that Indian Muslims would be jailed there.
“There are no detention centres. All these stories about detention centres are lies, lies and lies,” he said, adding that his opponents were “spreading rumours that all Muslims will be sent to detention camps”.
But speaking in parliament last month, Shah told the legislators unequivocally that the government would introduce a nationwide NRC.
In April, he laid out the chronology for the process, telling reporters: “First, there will be a Citizenship Amendment Bill … after that, there will be an NRC.”
In June, after Modi’s party was returned to power with a thumping majority, President Ram Nath Kovind also told parliament that the register would be on the government’s agenda.
Shah was appointed BJP president shortly after Modi’s election win in 2014, a post he still holds. Modi named him to the powerful home ministry after he was re-elected this year.
I want to tell citizens, there has been no discussion on even the word NRC.
“Just who are you calling a LIAR, PM?” wrote The Telegraph newspaper in a front page headline on Monday. Below, it highlighted comments by all three, asking: “Who’s saying the truth?”
The prime minister’s office did not immediately respond to questions on the matter.
Neelanjan Sircar, a professor at Ashoka University near New Delhi, said the ruling party was likely trying to confuse the issue with the electorate to beat back growing opposition.
“Is it credible that Amit Shah and Narendra Modi are not on the same page on something this important, on something that has taken up the headlines and caused protests the way it has? It just seems highly unlikely,” Sircar said.
Deadly protests over NRC fears
Meanwhile, at least 25 people have died in almost two weeks of demonstrations and violence after the government passed the contentious law earlier this month, with most deaths reported from the northern Uttar Pradesh state, home to nearly 204 million people, 20 percent of whom are Muslims
Modi’s BJP governs Uttar Pradesh, whose Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a controversial Hindu monk, had vowed “revenge” against people protesting the new law.
So far, 17 people have been killed and thousands arrested in two weeks of protests in Uttar Pradesh, while unverified videos of police attacking protesters, including children, with batons and raiding homes have been shared widely on social media.
The protests against the law began in Assam, the centre of a decades-old movement against migrants where six people were killed, before spreading to predominantly Muslim universities and then nationwide.
On Monday, the Congress party held a silent protest in the capital against the new law, a day after Modi accused the opposition of pushing the country into a “fear psychosis” over the legislation.
Reporting from New Delhi, Al Jazeera’s Elizabeth Puranam said the Congress and other groups have filed nearly 60 petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the law in the Supreme Court, which has asked the federal government to respond to the pleas by mid-February.
In the southern city of Chennai, more than 100,000 people joined what the police described as a peaceful
march against the law, a spokesman for the DMK regional party said.
Similar protests were also held in other southern cities, including Bengaluru and Kochi.
Modi’s ‘single-most divisive’ move
The backlash over the citizenship law represents the first major roadblock for Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda since his party’s landslide re-election earlier this year.
Authorities have so far taken a hardline approach to quell the protests, evoking a British colonial-era law banning public gatherings.
Internet access has been periodically blocked in some states, and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has asked broadcasters across the country to refrain from using content that could inflame further violence.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, columnist Sadanand Dhume said the law is the “single-most divisive thing that Modi has done” since he first came to power in 2014.
“It has polarised the country not merely in terms of Hindus and Muslims, but I think more importantly between those Indians who, irrespective of their faith, see it as a challenge to India’s secular foundations and BJP supporters who see it as a great humanitarian gesture to religious minorities in three [neighbouring] countries,” said Dhume.
Protests against the law also came amid a continuing crackdown in Muslim-majority Indian-administered Kashmir, the restive Himalayan region stripped of its semi-autonomous status and demoted from a state into a federal territory in August.