New Delhi, India – On August 31, India excluded nearly 2 million people from a citizenship list in the northeastern state of Assam, and the ruling Hindu nationalist government’s plan to replicate it at a national level has left many in the Muslim community worried.
Activists have criticised the Supreme Court-monitored National Register of Citizens process for anomalies and procedural flaws, with many cases where genuine Indian citizens, including former government officials, have been excluded.
Some leaders from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including Home Minister Amit Shah, have demanded that the NRC be implemented across the country to identify and deport undocumented immigrants.
Many Muslims Al Jazeera spoke to believe the BJP has used the citizenship issue to target the community, which forms 14 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population.
Mohammad Yehya, a student at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia University, said due to the growing concerns, Muslim scholars and community leaders have advised the minority community to properly maintain all the documents that support citizenship.
“There is fear among Muslims that BJP might go ahead with its nationwide NRC plan so we have to be cautious and maintain all the certificates and documents so that nobody faces any problems tomorrow,” he told Al Jazeera.
The rhetoric on the immigration issue has added to their fears. On Sunday, Shah reiterated his party’s position saying, “Not a single illegal immigrant will be allowed to stay.”
Shah, considered the right-hand man of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has in the past called Bangladeshi immigrants “termites”, a comment that was defended by a BJP spokesman in an interview with Al Jazeera.
Critics have also accused the BJP of undermining the spirit of India’s secular constitution after the Hindu nationalist party said that it would amend the citizenship law to protect Hindus excluded from the Assam NRC list.
“If BJP wants to carry out NRC throughout the country, let them do it but when its leaders openly say that Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists should not worry, what does that mean? It clearly means the process is aimed to target only the Muslims,” said Arsheel Jamal, 30, who runs a grocery store in Delhi’s Zakir Nagar area.
“The law should be the same for everyone whether the immigrant is a Hindu or Muslim or a Buddhist,” said Jamal.
Activists have accused the ruling right-wing party of a deep-seated bias against the minority community.
Delhi based activist Harsh Mander told Al Jazeera that a nationwide NRC would be a “disaster” as a large section of the rural population would find it very hard to “prove their identity”.
“The motivation of the BJP is to particularly target the Muslim minority as part of their larger ideological scheme and for them the NRC can only work if they also bring an amendment to the Citizenship Act, which they already have introduced but [has been] unsuccessful so far,” said Mander.
The citizenship amendment bill, if passed, will grant citizenship to religious group such as Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists from neighbouring countries – but not to Muslims.
“If the BJP brings the Citizenship Amendment Bill that will be a grave violation of the constitution,” Asaduddin Owaisi, a member of parliament from southern city of Hyderabad, told Al Jazeera.
Owaisi, who has emerged as a leading voice for the Muslim community, said that there was a huge concern among the Muslims. “We will guide the community and if need, we will take a legal recourse also,” said Owaisi, the president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen.
India, a $2.8 trillion economy, attracts economic migrants from Bangladesh who are engaged in low-paying jobs in big cities. But their numbers have been grossly exaggerated by politicians, with even the Supreme Court quoting false data in one of its judgements on NRC.
The ruling party leaders have continued to indulge in xenophobic rhetoric, with at least two BJP-ruled states planning to build detention centres for undocumented immigrants.
Babul Khan, who runs a small shop in south Delhi’s Taimur Nagar, says he arrived in India during the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war and considers India his own country.
“I came to India as a young boy 48 years ago. My parents died in India. I got married here and now I have grandchildren as well,” the 60-year-old Khan told Al Jazeera.
“India is our country. Our three generations have lived in India now and we don’t know anything about Bangladesh. It will be an injustice if government decides to deport us,” he said.
‘India is not a dharamshala’
India hosts tens of thousands of refugees from Tibet and Sri Lanka as well as Bangladesh but since the BJP came to power, xenophobic rhetoric has grown, particularly against Bangladeshi immigrants and Rohingya refugees.
According to the UNHCR data from 2017, India hosted nearly 200,000 refugees and 10,519 as asylum-seekers.
However, the Modi government in 2017 informed the parliament that over 300,000 refugees were registered with various states as of December 31, 2014.
The NRC has caused anxiety among the 1.9 million people excluded from the citizens list, as their fate is uncertain with only 120 days given to appeal in courts.
On Monday, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet appealed to the Indian government to ensure that the 1.9 million people excluded from the citizens list were protected from “statelessness”.
But BJP spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain assured that genuine Indian citizens need not worry about anything.
He insisted that “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh or any other country would be deported. “India is not a dharamshala (charitable hostel) that immigrants from Bangladesh or other places come and reside here,” he said.