Developments involving Muslim populations in India have echoes of the fate that’s recently befallen Islamic minorities elsewhere in the region. There are now fears that a new humanitarian crisis could unfold in India, similar to those involving the Uyghurs and the Rohingyas.
Following its return to office last May, the Hindu nationalist BJP government published an updated version of the National Register of Citizens in August. It’s a census that was created in 1951 in the north-eastern state of Assam to track illegal immigrants. And it’s the first time it’s been updated.
The BJP distanced itself from the register, after the 1.9 million mainly Bengali people left off it were found to be not just Muslims. Indeed, a sizable number of those unable to provide documents revealing they’ve been in the country since Bangladeshi independence in 1971 are Hindus.
Some unregistered Assam residents have since been detained in temporary camps set up in the state’s correctional facilities. They have a right to appeal, although it’s an expensive process. And no one knows where those awaiting deportation are meant to be sent, as Bangladesh isn’t taking them.
But, as of mid-December, those non-Muslim people left off the register have been saved, because the government passed new legislation that protects certain illegal immigrants from neighbouring Islamic countries. And it provides them with a fast-tracked path to citizenship.
Solidifying Hindu supremacy
Indian parliament passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 on 9 December. It provides citizenship to illegal immigrants from persecuted religious minorities – Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Parsis, Jains and Sikhs – from neighbouring Muslim nations, such as Bangladesh and Pakistan.
So, immigrants who are followers of those six religions are able to apply for citizenship after they’ve been in the country for six years. And the legislation is stark in that it doesn’t allow Muslims fleeing dangerous situations those same protections.
This is especially so in India, as Muslims not only make up the largest minority in the country, but the Islamic population – which is close to 15 percent of 1.3 billion people – is the second largest Muslim populace on the planet. And it’s estimated to be the biggest by 2060.
The bill is widely criticised for enshrining religious discrimination into law in a secular nation that’s no stranger to sectarian violence erupting between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority. In fact, current PM Narendra Modi was chief minister of Gujarat during that state’s 2002 Muslim pogroms.
And in November last year, Indian home minister Amit Shah announced that the country would undergo a citizenship registry process – similar to that carried out in Assam – so as to weed out undocumented immigrants. And those found to be illegal and Muslim will have no protection.
Mass incarceration in China
Meanwhile, in the far western region of China known as the Xingang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the Chinese Community Party (CCP) has been detaining – without criminal charge or trial – over one million Uyghurs and other central Asian Muslim minorities in political re-education camps.
There’s no dispute as to whether the Uyghur people should be living in the area – that many refer to as East Turkistan – but rather, it’s Indigenous locals, who question whether they should be ruled by Beijing.
And hence, the political indoctrination many are undergoing within the new detention camps.
In 1949, as the CCP took power in China, its troops rolled into Urumqi: the capital of Xinjiang. And from there, Beijing began its tense occupation of the region, which has involved the gradual deconstruction of Uyghur culture, via the passing of laws and the application of brute force.
These tensions spilled over in 2009, when huge Uyghur demonstrations in the capital, turned into civil unrest, which was then followed by a number of violent reprisals perpetrated by Uyghur people, both in the local area and elsewhere in China over 2013 and 2014.
World Uyghur Congress president Dolkun Isa told Sydney Criminal Lawyers in March 2017 that CCP secretary Chen Quanguo had implemented a huge security and surveillance program in the region, after he’d cut his teeth in monitoring Tibetans. And by the next month, the gulags began operating.
As the reports of mass incarceration began to make their way to the outside world, Beijing denied its camps were prisons, stating they were merely training centres. However, leaked documents obtained by the New York Times in November reveal a purposeful indoctrination operation.
A stateless people
And while similarities can be seen between the incarceration of those of Islamic faith in China, with the Muslims who have been detained in northern India, the aim of deporting those undocumented people in Assam is similar to the pushing out of the Rohingya population in Myanmar.
The plight of the Rohingya people came to international attention when an estimated 25,000 fled their homelands in rickety boats in early 2015, which led to a situation where many were left stranded at sea, as various countries turned back the boats.
At that time, in Myanmar’s north-western state of Rakhine, around 140,000 Rohingyas were living in internally displaced persons camps, following 2012 sectarian riots that saw members of the Rakhine Buddhist population violently attack and burn down Muslim villages.
Then in August 2017, Myanmar security forces began a huge crackdown on the Rohingyas – who are denied citizenship – in response to some incidents at police posts. This disproportionate attack involved mass killings and burnings, which led 740,000 locals to flee across the border.
Today, there are around 900,000 Rohingyas living in government-run refugee camps in southern Bangladesh. The largest of their kind in the world, these camps have an air of permanency about them, even though the people long to return to their homelands with their rights installed.
And it’s a situation similar to this, that critics fear may be the outcome of developments taking place in India right now, as people without citizenship documents are pushed into detention camps and told they’re no longer welcome, as they belong somewhere else.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.