Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party has promised that if it is elected it will bar millions of Muslim immigrants from voting in restive Assam state ahead of legislative assembly elections set to be held in the Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala, Puducherry, and Assam states of India in April.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, campaign manager for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Assam, said a deportation plan will target migrants who entered the country between 1951 and 1971 after Bangladesh won its independence, adding that they can stay if they re-apply for citizenship.
"There are about 2 million immigrants and their descendents. Let them grow economically and educationally," he said.
However, immediately afterwards he added, "Their status should be refugee and, on the basis of individual application, if someone becomes an Indian citizen that’s a different issue."
Assam has the second largest Muslim population in India. Many Muslims migrated from former East Pakistan, later Bangladesh and became Indian citizens, making up around 35 percent of the state’s population.
Local Muslim leaders have accused the BJP of polarising the election campaign to gain ground, complaining that the planned policy ignores thousand of Hindus who migrated from the same locations in the same period.
Opponents say the decision could worsen religious divisions.
Around a 2014 election in Assam violence claimed more than 40 lives.
Following the violence, the winner of the election and current prime minister Modi said illegal immigrants in states bordering Bangladesh should have their "bags packed" ready to be sent home should he win.
"The infiltrators have to go, go and go," he said in West Bengal, which also borders Bangladesh.
"Don't you think they have made your life miserable?"
Sarma has rejected criticism of his party, saying it is not running a divisive campaign and also accusing Muslim politicians pf using the immigrant issue to polarise state politics.
"Their entire idea is to take over the state, suppressing our voice and suppressing our culture," said Sarma.
"That's why this election will be a counter to that communal propaganda. We are all for Indian Muslims and they are with us."
"We all know what has happened to the Rohingya Muslims [a Muslim community denied citzenship and heavily persecuted in Myanmar]. It could happen to us too," Aminul Islam, a leader of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), told a crowd during a demonstration against the deportation plan.
"There's a conspiracy to disenfranchise 4 million of us. We will become stateless if we don't come together."