Officials overseeing Assam's National Register of Citizens (NRC) check documents of Indian residents during an appeal hearing at an office in Dhubri in the northeastern Indian state. Photo: Biju Boro / AFP

At a time when India is battling Covid19, Western media continue to propagate fear among Indian Muslims that they are considered “foreigners” by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Assam NRC is an old issue

Western media and Western liberals have always misinterpreted the National Register for Citizens (NRC) exercise in the northeastern state of Assam, which left out 1.9 million citizens. The aim of the exercise, implemented on the order of India’s apex court, was to detect, detain and deport illegal immigrants living in Assam. The idea of the NRC is rooted in India’s Foreigners Act of 1946, which gave such powers to the state.

Many Western commentators found this exercise to be “anti-Muslim” and tried to put the whole of the blame on Modi, ignoring the fact that this exercise was done based on the Assam Accord signed in 1985. That accord, signed between then-prime minister Rajiv Gandhi of the Indian National Congress and various Assamese organizations, promised to the Assamese citizens that the state’s NRC list of Assam would be updated with a cut-off date of March 24, 1971. Western critics ignore the fact that the NRC was first imposed in Assam back in 1951, during the tenure of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

The fact is that the NRC exercise didn’t collect data on religion. It is true, however, that the exercise gave birth to many complex problems. But this is because though mandated by the Assam Accord, was delayed by Congress governments for political reasons. Actually, it was the Congress party that betrayed the Assam Accord by trying its best not to implement it, despite the promises made to the Assamese community.

Fake citizenship longtime issue

The outcome of the NRC exercise was rejected by all Assamese organizations and political parties including state units of both Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and the opposition INC, as they felt many genuine Assamese were excluded while illegal Bangladeshis made it on to the list. But Western media and liberals choose to blame only the BJP for rejecting the outcome of the exercise.

There always have been strong allegations of fabrications of documents by illegal immigrants in Assam. In 2008, the Gauhati High Court in Assam found more than 50 Bangladeshis acquiring Indian citizenship fraudulently. Despite repeated arguments of Bangladesh’s “zero enthusiasm” for taking back illegal immigrants, data suggest something a little different from the dominant perspective.

It is true that the country has reservations about taking back the illegal immigrants, but in 2018 Bangladesh identified 152 of its nationals lodged in detention centers in Assam. Also, in the same year, Bangladesh agreed to take 33 of its nationals declared infiltrators by various foreigner tribunals in Assam. Those tribunals operate mainly based on the Foreigner Tribunals Act of 1941 and the Foreigner Tribunal Order of 1964.

Assam Accord violated

It is true that Modi’s new citizenship law violates the Assam Accord, which was achieved after many sacrifices. So, clearly, it was an insult to the history of the Assamese struggle by the Modi government. That’s the main reason that Assamese organizations protest against the law – which they view as against the interests of the majority Assamese.

Because of Assamese protests, the Modi government is now forced to rethink about the new law’s implementation in Assam. Not to forget that Assam, despite not being a rich state, has always been burdened with migrants. The first large-scale migration of Bengali Muslims into Assam from Bengal province of British India was facilitated by the British. Later, Bengali-speaking Hindus also migrated from what was then East Pakistan. As a result, the Assamese population was reduced to only 48% – giving rise to genuine fears of losing identity in their own land. The interesting fact that many Western critics ignore is that even minority Assamese-speaking Muslims support the NRC exercise.

Pre-Modi detention centers

It is true that there are genuine worries regarding the foreigner tribunals and the detention centers, where currently 799 people are lodged. There is already an order of the Supreme Court that one can be freed based on bailable bonds after staying three years in one of these detention centers, which were first built in the Congress era on a court’s order.

However, because of the failure of state authorities, some remain in these centers even after completing three years. But the problem arises when Western media try their best to put the whole blame for this mess on the Modi government. It is also true that India isn’t going to push back the illegal immigrants forcefully as it has no extradition treaty with Bangladesh.

Muslims too have benefited

Some Western media outlets and liberals believe that they have to criticize everything that happens in India only to portray the country as “illiberal.” That’s the reason they have been concentrating on bashing Modi, who is a twice-elected prime minister with strong mandates for both terms. It’s not that whatever the Modi government does is all right. But one thing that can’t be denied is his pro-poor welfare policies that have benefited people of every caste and religion, including Muslims.

Sagarneel Sinha is a freelance contributor from Tripura, India, who tweets @sagarneelsinha