A motorcyclist and a pedestrian pass a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) election campaign billboard. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)

Modi’s Party Weighs Expanding Contentious Indian Citizenship Rules

(Bloomberg) -- Hardline members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party want to expand a controversial register that could strip millions of their citizenship, in a move aimed at attracting majority Hindu voters ahead of national elections.

A draft national register of citizens, or NRC, released in the eastern state of Assam last week identified around 4 million people, mostly Bengali-speaking Muslims, who could be classified as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Activists say the process puts many at risk of deportation and could stoke sectarian tensions.

While Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was forced by a Supreme Court order to publish the register, some state-level lawmakers have begun calling for an examination of illegal migrants across the country -- from the state of West Bengal in the east to the political and financial capitals of New Delhi and Mumbai. And the divisive plan hasn’t been disregarded by senior leadership.

"Based on the Assam experience and after a deliberation, we will take a call," said BJP president Amit Shah at a recent press conference, responding to a question about whether the NRC should be expanded to all of India.

The contentious process could help Modi win favor with Hindu nationalist voters wary of Muslims. Analysts suggest some elements within the BJP are testing the waters with a policy -- and broader electoral strategy -- of subtly highlighting religious differences to consolidate votes among India’s majority Hindus, who make up around 80 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people. However, this could raise tensions in a country already struggling with attacks by Hindu nationalist vigilantes on India’s sizeable Muslim minority of 170 million people.

"Undoubtedly, the BJP wishes to make the maximum political capital from this issue," said Sandeep Shastri, a political scientist and Pro Vice Chancellor at Jain University in Bengaluru, India. "They’re testing the political waters -- those whose citizenship is in doubt, if they were to be singled out across the country, is that something that could give political mileage?" Shastri said.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s office, Jagdish Thakkar, and two other BJP spokesmen didn’t respond to calls or texts for comment.

Sectarian Tensions

The citizenship issue in Assam has its roots in the 1971 India-Pakistan war. Millions of Bengali-speaking Muslim refugees fled from what was then East Pakistan across the border into India before and after the creation of Bangladesh.

Tensions between Hindus and Bangladeshi migrants in eastern and northeast Indian states have flared occasionally, most notably during communal violence in Assam in 1983 when around 2,000 Muslims were killed.

The BJP is highlighting the issue because they get most of their votes from India’s majority Hindu community, rather than among Muslims or religious minorities, Shastri said. It’s also long accused the rival Congress party and others of ignoring "illegal migration in order to expand their own Muslim vote base," said Pratyush Rao, Control Risks’s associate director for India and South Asia.

"By tapping into the Assam NRC issue, the BJP also hopes it can help mobilize and consolidate its support among the disparate Hindu voter base," Rao said. "Political parties’ efforts to exploit India’s religious and social fault lines is likely to intensify in the run-up to the 2019 elections, resulting in localized incidents of violence which can potentially pose incidental security and operational risks for foreign firms."

Energized Base

BJP officials have pledged to launch similar mechanisms if they were elected in West Bengal, which is ruled by a regional rival. And the BJP chief minister of the state of Haryana, which is home to Gurgaon, a city just outside Delhi that hosts offices from Google Inc. and other multinationals, has also said he wants to examine illegal migrants there.

BJP leaders want to emulate the NRC elsewhere so they can look strong on national security and law and order, said Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "And it helps keep the base energized -- heading into a contested general election, the latter is especially important."

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