Patna, India – On August 29, a public notice surfaced, signed by the Superintendent of Police of Siwan, a district in India’s northern state of Bihar, asking people to report “suspected illegal migrants, especially Bangladeshis” to the nearest police stations.
Three days after the public notice, the District Magistrate of Kishanganj, another district of Bihar, issued a letter to the District Public Relations Officer, ordering the development of a mechanism for people to report “illegal” migrants and create awareness around the issue on “an urgent basis”.
This was done to implement an order by the state’s high court issued on August 18, which asked the state government whether it had a concrete plan to build a detention centre to house “suspected illegal migrants”.
The Patna High Court order also asked the state government to put a mechanism in place to allow people to report suspected “illegal” migrants, who can be detained and later deported.
In the same order, the court directed the government to run campaigns to sensitise people to this effort, with a keen emphasis on the state’s border areas, to be carried “vigorously” with help of the local NGOs and media.
Stressing on the importance of the matter, the bench of Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice S Kumar remarked that “deportation of illegal migrants is of paramount importance and in the national interest”.
The court order followed a petition filed in October last year on behalf of a Bangladeshi woman, who, according to the petition, was trafficked to India.
When hearings on the case started in December 2020, the court also took up the matter of two women from Bangladesh kept in a government remand home in the state capital, Patna. In July this year, the two women were deported back to Bangladesh on the court’s intervention.
Meanwhile, the proceedings in the petition filed in October continued, with the court pressing for the construction of a detention centre and the issue of “illegal migrants” in Bihar, an apparent reference to Bangladeshis, in spite of the fact that no data or evidence suggest an influx of migrants from Bangladesh to Bihar.
The court order and the subsequent administrative actions on its implementation have worried the residents of Bihar, especially its 17 million Muslims.
There are concerns that such steps could be a way of implementing a “backdoor NRC” or National Register of Citizens, like the one in the northeastern state of Assam where, in 2019, the state published a list of people it considered to be citizens, rendering some 1.9 million excluded people virtually stateless.
Assam borders Bangladesh and has a sizeable population of Bengali-speaking Muslims and Hindus.
Many of those excluded from the list were sent to a detention centre in the Goalpara district, while more than 10 other such centres have been planned in the state.
In the 2019 parliamentary elections, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won by a bigger majority than in 2014, the right-wing party promised a nationwide NRC in its election manifesto.
Later that year, India’s parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which lays out provisions for granting citizenship to people from “persecuted” minorities from neighbouring countries. Muslims were excluded from the list.
Critics said the law violates India’s secular constitution by institutionalising religious discrimination for granting Indian citizenship.
Coupled with an ongoing National Population Register (NPR) and a proposed NRC, India’s Muslims, who form nearly 15 percent of the country’s 1.35 billion population, fear the steps are aimed at marginalising them.
Worried Muslims across the country launched a series of protests in various cities and towns in late 2019 and early 2020.
Since the coronavirus pandemic erupted, a further framing of rules for the CAA and plans of a nationwide NRC have been put on hold.
Aman Wadud, lawyer and a Fulbright scholar in the US who has provided legal aid to people excluded from the NRC, agreed with the fears that the Bihar government may be planning a “backdoor NRC”.
“NRC is about proving your citizenship. If Bihar starts asking citizens to prove their citizenship on suspicion, the goal of an NRC is served, to harass and prosecute citizens in the garb of detecting ‘illegal migrants’,” Wadud told Al Jazeera.
While the main opposition parties in Bihar have largely remained silent on the issue, two marginal parties – the All India Muslim Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) or CPI-ML have opposed the recent developments.
Meanwhile, several Indian Muslims began a social media campaign against the Bihar government’s plans, using hashtags such as #BiharRejectNRC.
‘Seemanchal the next flashpoint’
The fears of an Assam-like NRC are more palpable in Bihar’s Seemanchal region in the north, bordering West Bengal. Seemanchal, which has a large Muslim population, is one of India’s least-developed areas and prone to annual monsoon flooding.
The Patna High Court order mentions Seemanchal as “border areas” which require “sensitisation” on the part of common citizens on reporting “illegal migrants”.
“The way this area gets ravaged by floods annually, a major section of the population here has to do away with their belongings, documents, everything. If someday someone starts filing complaints against them, it will turn into a big problem,” Tanzil Asif, a journalist running a Seemanchal-based news portal, told Al Jazeera.
Adil Hossain, a professor at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, hails from Uttar Dinajpur district in West Bengal, which borders Bihar’s Kishanganj. He thinks the recent developments in Bihar could further escalate the religious faultlines in Seemanchal.
“There has been attempts by the BJP in the last few decades to create an outsider narrative in Seemanchal about the Bengali-speaking Muslims. The CAA-NRC discourse has already added to the fears, now there is an attempt to strengthen this narrative in Seemanchal,” Hossain told Al Jazeera.
Hossain recalled the BJP’s election campaign in the 2020 Bihar polls, where Yogi Adityanath, a saffron-robed monk chief minister of neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state, promised to expel “illegal migrants” if their alliance came to power.
In its August 18 order, the court referred to the “identification and deportation of the persons suspected to be illegal migrants”, a sentence that raises grave questions for Wadud.
“It suggests a lack of trial and deportation based on mere suspicion. I think this is even more dangerous than the present laws of UAPA as it gives arbitrary powers to the police to pick any person merely on suspicion.”
Local politician from the opposition Congress party, Tauquir Alam, contested the 2015 and 2020 state assembly polls from the Pranpur constituency in Katihar district. Alam believes the BJP is stoking religious passions in Bihar through what he called “these scare campaigns”.
“This is not just an issue of Bengali speakers, it doesn’t resonate for them (BJP) outside Seemanchal. Outside Seemanchal, in Bihar, they will try to make this a communal issue which will lead to the targeting of Muslims,” Alam told Al Jazeera.
Last week, Ram Surat Rai, Minister of Revenue and Land Reforms in Bihar, claimed a large number of “illegal immigrants” are settling in Seemanchal, adding that “one community” was facilitating their settlement – a clear reference to the Muslims of the region.
Mujahid Alam, former member of Bihar’s legislative assembly from Kochadaman constituency in Kishanganj and state vice president of Janata Dal (United), the party in power in the state in alliance with the BJP, told Al Jazeera he strongly disagreed with Rai.
“There is no Bangladeshi infiltration here. All are Indians,” he told Al Jazeera.
“I have been hearing that there is Bangladeshi infiltration in Seemanchal all my life. If all of us are Bangladeshis, isn’t this a question for the home ministry, intelligence and the security forces who guard our border?”
While Mujahid Alam said the construction of a detention centre was a “compulsion” due to first the home ministry’s directions and now the high court order, he reiterated the promise made by Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to not conduct any NRC in Bihar.
When asked if the court order could be misused by the government to create a similar process in the state, he said he will make sure to protest that.
In recent months, India has seen several hate crimes targeting Muslims, where they were asked by Hindu supremacist mobs to show their identity documents. With the recent court order along with the government’s directions, there are fears that they may push towards more mob vigilantism and violence in the impoverished state.
“After the political crisis in Kashmir and targeting of Bengali Muslims in Assam, Seemanchal will be the next flashpoint,” academic Hossain warned.