‘External narrative’: Muslims in Bihar, India, fear repetition in Assam Islamophobia News

Patna, India – On August 29, a public notice signed by the Superintendent of Police of Siwan district in the northern Indian state of Bihar was issued, asking people to report to the nearest police station “suspected illegal immigrants, especially Bangladeshis”.

Three days after the public notice, the district magistrate of Kisanganj, another district in Bihar, issued a letter to the district public relations officer instructing people to report “illegal” immigrants and create a system to create awareness about the problem. Emergency basis. “

This was done to implement an order of the state high court issued on August 18, which asked the state government whether there were any specific plans to set up a detention center to house “suspected illegal immigrants”.

Patna High Court building in Patna, the capital of Bihar [File: Amrit Jai Kishan/Al Jazeera]

The Patna High Court order has asked the state government to set up a system so that people can report suspected “illegal” immigrants, who can be detained and later deported.

In the same order, the court directed the government to launch a campaign to sensitize the people to this effort, with emphasis on the border areas of the state, to run “vigorously” with the help of local NGOs and the media.

Emphasizing the importance of the issue, a bench of Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice S Kumar remarked that “deportation of illegal immigrants is very important and in the national interest”.

The court order follows an application filed in October last year on behalf of a Bangladeshi woman who, according to the application, was trafficked to India.

When the trial began in December 2020, the court also accepted the case of two women from Bangladesh who were being held in a government remand home in the state capital, Patna. The two women were sent back to Bangladesh in July this year on a court order.

Meanwhile, the application process filed in October continues, with the court pressing for the construction of a detention center in Bihar and the issuance of “illegal immigrants”, although there is no information or evidence to suggest the arrival of migrants from Bangladesh to Bihar.

‘Backdoor NRC’?

The court order and subsequent administrative action to implement it has worried the people of Bihar, especially its 1.17 crore Muslims.

There are concerns that such measures could be a way to implement a “backdoor NRC” or national citizen registration, such as in the northeastern state of Assam where, in 2019, the state released a list of their enlisted citizens, leaving about 1.9 million excluded people virtually stateless.

Assam is on the border of Bangladesh and has a significant population of Bengali-speaking Muslims and Hindus.

Many who were dropped from the list were sent to a detention center in Goalpara district, while 10 more are planned in the state.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a larger majority in the 2011 parliamentary elections than in 2014, when the right-wing party promised a nationwide NRC in its election manifesto.

Towards the end of that year, India’s parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which provides for granting citizenship to “persecuted” minorities from neighboring countries. Muslims were excluded from the list.

Critics say the law violates India’s secular constitution by institutionalizing religious discrimination in granting Indian citizenship.

In conjunction with the ongoing National Population Register (NPR) and the proposed NRC, India’s Muslims, who make up about 15 percent of the country’s 1.355 billion population, fear that measures aimed at marginalizing them.

Concerned Muslims across the country started a demonstration in various cities and towns in late 2019 and early 2020.

Protest against CAA at Bahadurganj in Kisanganj district of Bihar [File: Tanzil Asif/Al Jazeera]

As the coronavirus epidemic has spread, plans for further legislation for the CAA and nationwide NRC have been put on hold.

Aman Wadud, a U.S. lawyer and Fulbright scholar who has provided legal assistance to people excluded from the NRC, agreed with the fear that the Bihar government might be planning a “backdoor NRC”.

“The NRC is about proving your citizenship. If Bihar starts asking citizens to prove their citizenship on the basis of suspicion, an NRC’s goal of harassing and prosecuting citizens under the guise of identifying ‘illegal immigrants’ is being met, ”Wadud told Al Jazeera.

Although the main opposition parties in Bihar have remained largely silent on the issue, two marginal parties সর্ব the All India Muslim Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) or CPI-ML, have opposed the recent events.

Meanwhile, several Indian Muslims have started social media campaigns using hashtags like #BiharRejectNRC against the Bihar government’s plan.

‘Next Flashpoint Boundary’

Like Assam, the NRC’s fears are more pronounced in the border areas of Bihar, north of the West Bengal border. The border, where there is a large Muslim population, is one of the least developed regions of India and prone to annual monsoon floods.

The Patna High Court order referred to the border area as a “border area” where ordinary citizens need “sensitivity” to report “illegal immigrants”.

“The way this region is devastated by floods every year, a large part of the population has to stay away from their belongings, documents, everything. If one day someone starts filing complaints against them, it will become a big problem, ”Tanzil Asif, who runs the border-based news portal, told Al Jazeera.

Annual floods in Bayesi, Purnia district, border areas [File: Tanzil Asif/Al Jazeera]

Adil Hossain, a professor at Azim Premji University in Bangalore, is a resident of North Dinajpur district in West Bengal, bordering Kisanganj in Bihar. He thinks the recent developments in Bihar could further widen the religious divide in the border areas.

The BJP has been trying for the last few decades to create an external narrative of Bengali-speaking Muslims at the border. The CAA-NRC speech has already raised concerns, and efforts are now being made to strengthen the narrative at the border, “Hussein told Al Jazeera.

Hossain recalled the BJP’s election campaign in the 2020 Bihar elections, where Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a saffron-clad monk from the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh, promised to expel “illegal immigrants” if his coalition came to power.

In its August 1 order, the court referred to the “identification and deportation of people suspected of being illegal immigrants,” a sentence that raises serious questions for Wadud.

“It simply came to our notice then. I think this is more dangerous than the current law of the UAPA because it gives the police the power to choose someone on the basis of voluntary suspicion.

Opposition parties in Bihar have staged a protest against the CAA in Bihar’s Kisanganj district [File: Tanzil Asif/Al Jazeera]

Toukir Alam, a local politician from the opposition Congress party, contested the 2015 and 2020 state assembly elections from Pranpur constituency in Katihar district. Alam believes the BJP is inciting religious sentiment in Bihar in what he called “this intimidating propaganda”.

“It’s not just an issue of Bengali speakers, it doesn’t resonate with them (BJP) outside the border. Outside the border, in Bihar, they will try to make it a communal issue that will target Muslims, ”Alam told Al Jazeera.

Last week, Bihar Revenue and Land Reforms Minister Ram Surat Roy claimed that a large number of “illegal immigrants” were settling in the border area, adding that “a community” was facilitating their settlement – a clear reference to Muslims in the region.

A former member of the Bihar assembly from Kochadaman constituency in Kisanganj and state vice-president of the ruling Janata Dal (United) in alliance with the BJP, he told Al Jazeera that he strongly disagreed with the verdict.

“There is no Bangladeshi infiltration here. “Everyone is Indian,” he told Al Jazeera.

“I have heard that Bangladeshis have been infiltrating the border all their lives. If we are all Bangladeshis, isn’t that a question for the Ministry of Home Affairs, the intelligence and the security forces guarding our borders?

Although Mujahid Alam said that the construction of a detention center was an “obligation” at first due to the directions of the Home Ministry and now a High Court order, he reiterated Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s promise not to do any NRC in Bihar.

Asked if the court order could be misused by the government to create a similar process in the state, he said he would confirm the protest.

In recent months, India has witnessed a number of heinous crimes targeting Muslims, where their Hindu hegemonic mobs have asked them to show their identity documents. As a result of recent court orders with government directives, there are fears that they could lead to more public awareness and violence in the poorer states.

“After the political crisis in Kashmir and the targeting of Bengali Muslims in Assam, the border will be the next flashpoint,” Academic Hossain warned.

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