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India Proposes Controversial Bill Making Religion A Criteria for Refugee Citizenship


This past week, we've been bringing you a series of stories from India about what some people call Hindu pride and others call Hindu nationalism. It's central to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's vision for his country as he runs for re-election. His government has proposed new rules to redefine who is or who can become an Indian citizen. The criteria include religion for the first time. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Tobiron Nessa washes dishes under an outdoor pump between rice paddies, a stone's throw from where she was born in northeast India. She married a local man and had five children. At 45, she's about to become a grandmother.

TOBIRON NESSA: (Speaking Assamese).

FRAYER: But Nessa is now the only one in her family whom the Indian government recognizes as a citizen. Her husband and five children have all been left off of the National Register of Citizens, or NRC. It's like a census, but only for this one part of India called Assam, which borders Bangladesh and has always had lots of immigrants from there. Authorities are trying to figure out who's been here for generations and who might be an undocumented migrant.

For decades, families have submitted paperwork. But then the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power and issued a preliminary list of citizens. Four million people who thought they were Indian are not on it, including Nessa's family.

NESSA: (Speaking Assamese).

FRAYER: She's worried they'll lose their government food rations or get detained and eventually deported. But to where? They have Indian birth certificates, she says, proper documents.

AKRAM HUSSAIN: They have proper documents. Still, they have been declared foreigners and thrown to the detention camp.

FRAYER: Detention camp?

HUSSAIN: Yeah, detention camp.

FRAYER: Akram Hussain is an activist who visits detainees. Hundreds of people are being held in camps here. He helps them file appeals. The majority of them are Muslim. Like the U.S.-Mexico border, tribunals and detention centers have been set up here. And like the Trump administration, India's ruling party says Islamist terrorists are trying to infiltrate these borders.


AMIT SHAH: (Speaking Assamese).

FRAYER: At an election rally this month, the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, Amit Shah, warned against migrants crossing into India from Muslim majority Bangladesh.


SHAH: (Through interpreter) These infiltrators are eating away at our country like termites. The NRC is our means of removing them.

FRAYER: Until now, the NRC, the National Register of Citizens, has only been carried out in the northeast state of Assam, where there are a lot of immigrants. But Shah says he wants to extend it to the entire nation, make every Indian citizen prove her origin.

In this part of Assam, up to a third of residents have been struck from the citizenship register. In a municipal office, workers stamp reams upon reams of appeals. It's difficult for people like Nessa, who is poor and illiterate, to sort through decades-old family documents. Officials acknowledge there are errors, and they do allow time for appeals. All of this is happening in a corner of India that's actually been celebrated for its diversity.


FRAYER: It's a tangle of bicycle rickshaws and vegetable sellers here in Guwahati, one of the biggest cities in the northeast of India. In the marketplace, the language you mostly hear is Assamese. But you hear it spoken in a lot of different accents.

PRAFULLA KUMAR MAHANTA: Assam is like a mini India.

FRAYER: A mini India is how former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta describes his state of Assam, with all of its ethnic and religious diversity. More than 1 in 3 people here is Muslim. Two neighboring states are more than 80 percent Christian. There are Buddhists, Sikhs and tribal people. Many outsiders have learned the local language. But this diversity may pose a challenge to Modi's vision for a distinctly Hindu country.


PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: In a recent visit to Assam, Modi talked about Mother India being a homeland for Hindus everywhere. He's proposed a Citizenship Amendment Bill, which would grant Indian nationality to anyone who's persecuted in a neighboring country - except if they're Muslim. He went on to explain why.


MODI: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: When India got its independence from Britain in 1947, it was partitioned into Muslim Pakistan, and later Bangladesh, and secular India. Muslims have homelands. Other faiths need India to make room for them.

But here's how it looks to many in India's northeast. Local Muslims are losing their citizenship. And at the same time, the government wants to give passports to lots of non-Muslims who may never have set foot in India. Both of those things cut the number of Indian Muslims, says Milan Vaishnav at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, D.C.

MILAN VAISHNAV: I think this is quite telling about who they see as ultimately finding a place in this kind of new proudly Hindu India.

FRAYER: There is another country that uses religion as a criteria for citizenship - Israel. Human rights lawyer Aman Wadud says Modi and other Hindu nationalists may see the Jewish state as a model.

AMAN WADUD: He thinks that India should be a natural country for Hindus, which is in contrast to the Constitution of India. The Constitution does not give citizenship based on religion.

FRAYER: To become a country like Israel, where citizenship is based on religion, India may have to alter its Constitution or use more subtle techniques, says historian Romila Thapar.

ROMILA THAPAR: Jobs, who is to be employed. Control over the media, for example. It is amazing how much the middle class has bought this whole idea of Hindu nationalism without really thinking about it.

FRAYER: Thapar says if Modi is re-elected, he'll carry on with a fundamental change in India's character. To that end, Modi's Citizenship Amendment Bill has already passed the lower house of Parliament. It awaits final approval from the equivalent of the Senate after this election. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Guwahati, Assam, India. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.