Students at Jamia Millia Islamia University stage a protest against the government's Citizenship Amendment Bill in New Delhi on Friday. Photo: AFP/STR

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first attempt at restoring calm over a controversial citizenship law has ended up being compared to United States’ President Donald Trump’s many factually incorrect claims since he has been in the White House.

Modi, addressing a massive rally in Delhi in the lead-up to polls in January, claimed there had been no move by his government to start a nationwide citizen registration to identify illegal immigrants and also claimed no massive detention centers had been built.

But his claims flew in the face of repeated statements by his cabinet colleague and federal home minister Amit Shah. For months Shah has been at the forefront of the citizenship debate asserting that a nationwide exercise was on the cards.

The new citizenship law offers fast track immigration to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. While this has been deemed discriminatory under India’s constitution, there are fears this will target Muslims once a nationwide program to identify Indian citizens start.

Many fear that if Muslims are found to be “illegal immigrants” it could lead to permanent exclusion under the nationwide registration of citizens. This has sparked protests across India against the new citizenship act.

False claims

“I want to tell the 130 crore (1.3 billion) citizens of India that since my government has come to power, since 2014, there has been no discussion on NRC anywhere. Only after the Supreme Court’s order, this exercise was done for Assam,” Modi said on Sunday.

What surprised many was that Modi had stated the need for a national register for citizens (NRC) exercise across the country in an interview to the TV news channel Times Now, just before the general elections this year.

His deputy Shah has been pushing the NRC for almost one year. In Parliament this month, while introducing the contentious citizenship bill, Shah said the NRC is coming soon.

“But you should keep this in mind that NRC is about to come,” he said while responding in a debate. In fact, his pronouncements over the coming NRC have convinced many people that the exercise will follow the citizenship law.

In fact, in April this year Shah described illegal immigrants as “termites” and pledged that his government “would throw them out.” Not to be left behind, his party colleague and federal defense minister Rajnath Singh stated on December 15 that the nationwide NRC was on the cards.

Prime Minister Modi also made another claim that has proved to be false. He said there were no detention centers in India to incarcerate those found to be illegal.

In Assam the detention center, a massive complex as large as seven soccer fields, has already been built and another one is nearly ready in the southern state of Karnataka. Both states are BJP-ruled. A detention center has also been planned for Navi Mumbai, a suburb next to India’s financial capital.

In fact, according to a written response from the Home Ministry in Parliament on July 24, it confirmed  that a “Detention Center Manual” has been “circulated to all state governments on January 9” this year.

The detention centers, as detailed in the Parliamentary record, sound similar to concentration camps built by the Nazi government after the Nuremberg laws were enacted.

“It provides for properly segregated accommodation for male and female detainees,” the response says. It is unclear what the government will do with the “illegal detainees” since the countries mentioned in the new citizenship law are unlikely to accept them back as their citizens.

“It is surprising that the prime minister is not aware of what his cabinet colleague has been stating on virtually every platform available,” a senior Congress leader told Asia Times. “This was also stated in Parliament. Is the prime minister not aware of what his government or cabinet colleagues are up to?”

“Following the standard principles of accountability, PM Modi after his speech in Delhi, should fire Home Minister Amit Shah. PM’s speech implies, without explicitly saying so, that Minister Shah was lying when he spoke – repeatedly – of a nationwide NRC,” said Ashutosh Varshney, professor of political science and director for the Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown University in the US.

Spiraling violence

Meanwhile, protests across the country against the new law continued to grow, marked by violence in BJP-ruled states. In the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, disturbing reports of protesters being shot in the head emerged. So far, 21 people have died in protest-related violence, all in BJP-ruled states.

In Bangalore, India’s Information Technology hub, a crowd of nearly 300,000 people marched in protest against the law. In Mumbai, about 100,000 protesters from Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, came out to protest. In Delhi, the national capital, sporadic protests continued in several places and were likely to grow in coming days.

A move by the Uttar Pradesh (UP) state government has generated fresh controversy. Police in the state are scanning social media sites to identify protesters and those they accuse of committing acts of violence and have been confiscating their personal property. Legal experts are not sure under which law this is being carried out, but the move has inflamed protests in other parts of India.

According to the Director General of Police of UP, 879 have been arrested, 135 cases registered and 15 have died in the state. “Till now, 879 people have been arrested under substantive offenses while 5000 persons who may instigate violence or vitiate the atmosphere are bound down (detained) on basis of suspicion,” he said.

A team of medical volunteers were also assaulted by Delhi police personnel on Monday afternoon. Several doctors and nurses who had volunteered to help protesters were surrounded by the police according to one of the volunteers. “The police surrounded us and some women constables molested me and then detained some of us. They told the doctors and nurses to leave the spot and threatened to detain them as well,” Anusha Paul told Asia Times. She is part of a youth organization that is affiliated to the Communist party in India.

The BJP has started marches to counter the growing protests. In Delhi, BJP cadres marched on Sunday, shouting that the protesters, who they called “traitors,” should be shot dead.

This has been the theme of their counter-marches in support of the new citizenship law. The BJP leadership has defended the prime minister’s claims, saying the rules and processes for operationalizing the NRC are yet to be finalized. However, critics point out that with detention centers already being built, this claim is “worthless.”

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