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A Crisis Brews In India, and Not the One You Think

August 13, 2021

The suffering of India's massive population resulting from the coronavirus pandemic has received well-deserved attention and concern from the international community. A humanitarian crisis is brewing there, however, that is less well known outside India. It simmers in the same unholy cauldron that has produced so much misery for the world in recent years: intolerance, nationalism and authoritarianism. Ongoing efforts of the Indian government to create a "National Registry of Citizens" ("NRC") are intended to bring about the disenfranchisement, detention and statelessness of millions of Muslim citizens of that country. The international community must denounce those efforts, firmly and soon. 

The party in power in India, dominated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, makes no secret of its disdain for India's Muslim population. They preach a doctrine of Hindu Nationalism, frequently identifying India as a Hindu state despite language in the Indian Constitution preserving the religious neutrality of the government and forbidding discrimination based on religious belief. The government has been working since 2014 to create a registry identifying who should be considered a proper citizen of the country and who is "doubtful." Such allegedly doubtful citizens are to be hauled before officials of questionable training and impartiality, at semi-judicial tribunals where the burden of proving citizenship is on the individual and requires production of detailed records-such as birth, marriage and death certificates-relating to not only the individual, but also family members and antecedents going back multiple generations. The Indian government does not reliably produce such records for its citizens, many of whom have minimal education. It has been estimated that as many as half of Indians do not have their own birth or marriage certificates, much less those for their antecedents. 

The target of this campaign is clear. The Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 allows for exempting practitioners of several major religions from the danger of losing citizenship, with one glaring exception: the Muslims. The NRC is a critical step in a long game of ethnic cleansing by Modi and his party, intended to disenfranchise, detain and deport millions of Muslims, many of whom have lived in India for generations. 

While they might claim this to be an internal matter of no concern to the international community, no effective recourse is in fact available in India for the victims of this campaign. More than 100 lawsuits challenge the legality of the government's actions, claiming violations of the Indian Constitution's guarantees of religious equality and due process of law. The government is also violating Indian law by using minimally qualified census officers to gather the information that will be used to identify supposedly "doubtful" citizens, even though this is nowhere authorized in the Indian Census Act. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court of India has refused to grant hearings to any of the lawsuits and also has taken the extraordinary step of forbidding lower courts around the country from hearing them. Only international pressure might stop the Modi government's slow but inexorable creation of a humanitarian crisis. 

The crisis has already begun. Based upon registry data compiled during an initial, highly controversial census in the state of Assam, hundreds of Muslims have been detained indefinitely. If no nation will accept the return of these people, many of whom have known no country but India, the detention may become a life sentence. Millions face the real possibility of losing their homes, livelihoods and citizenship despite the fact that Muslims make up nearly 15% of the population of India (more than 170 million people) and have been an important segment of Indian society for centuries. 

The world cannot be a silent spectator to the possibility of another Rohingya-like crisis. The illegal linking of the NRC to the Census of India, along with the exclusion of Muslims in the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019, threatens to destabilize the social and family structure of Muslims, curtail their contribution to the national economy and deepen levels of poverty among them.  

The United States government, a long-time ally of India, should condemn India's attacks on its Muslim population, by Congressional resolution and otherwise. Other well-meaning countries and the United Nations should follow suit. It would be tragic indeed if, after the ravages suffered by Indian citizens in the COVID pandemic, a blend of intolerance, nationalism and authoritarianism should double down with a humanitarian crisis of the government's own making. 

By Abusaleh Shariff, Ph.D, Chief Scholar, US India Policy Institute and James A. O'NealBoard Chair, The Advocates for Human Rights 

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