New Delhi: A federal US commission on international religious freedom has observed that the Bharatiya Janata Party government and politicians have indicated support for bringing in excluded Bengali Hindus in the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC), but have made no such overtures to Muslims.
An issue brief by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said that the NRC as “a tool target religious minorities and, in particular, to render Indian Muslims stateless has become one more example of the downward trend in religious freedom conditions within India”.
On August 31, the office of the Registrar General of India published the updated NRC as per the order of the Supreme Court. While 3.11 crore persons were included in the list, over 19 lakh persons were excluded.
The issue brief stated that the following the release of the NRC in August, the BJP government “has taken steps that reflect an anti-Muslim bias – core to its staunch support of the NRC update in Assam”.
The paper pointed out that the final list excluded a large number of Bengali Hindus, along with Bengali Muslims. “On the one hand, this is not surprising, as local Assamese view ethnic Bengalis, regardless of their religious identity, as foreigners,” it said.
However, the USCIRF document observed that BJP politicians called the NRC exercise ‘error-prone’ and pushed for a review by the Supreme Court “when they learned that Bengali Hindus were excluded as well”.
The Commission pointed out that Mohan Bhagwat, national chief of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), BJP’s ideological parent had said, “No Hindu will be expelled even if [that individual’s] name is missing from [the] NRC.”
“To address the exclusion of Bengali Hindus, BJP officials at both the state and national levels have argued for the need to pass the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. This bill would amend the Citizenship Act of 1955 (“Citizenship Act”) to allow non-Muslim immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to gain Indian citizenship,” it added.
The “illegal immigrant” label, and the potential statelessness that comes with it, will be reserved for Muslims, the Commission said.
The Bill was passed by Lok Sabha in January this year, but was withdrawn from the Rajya Sabha after protests in Northeastern states.
The USCIRF issue brief noted that the president of BJP’s West Bengal unit, Dilip Ghosh, had announced that “passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in the Lok Sabha, in conjunction with a push for an NRC in the state, will be the main issue in its campaign ahead of State Assembly elections scheduled for 2021”.
It also listed home minister Amit Shah’s statement that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill would be introduced again in the next Lok Sabha session, which begins on November 18, “to mitigate the impact of the NRC on Bengali Hindus”.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs had issued a statement after the August 31 deadline that the NRC process was “non-discriminatory” and driven by the Supreme Court.
There has been heightened international scrutiny of the NRC process, with US lawmakers raising questions about how the appeal process may “disadvantage poor and illiterate populations who lack documentation”.
The USCIRF issue brief also notes that there is a lack of clarity on the next steps, which raises concerns that excluded persons could become stateless. Noting that India and Bangladesh handle repatriation cases on an ad hoc basis, the commission observed the Dhaka has been capping the number of deportations over the years. “Moreover, the number of Bangladeshi nationals deported by India and accepted by Bangladesh has been steadily declining in recent years, falling from 5,234 in 2013 to only 51 in 2017,” it stated.