India has been shaken by widespread protests against the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) plans to amend citizenship laws.
Under the measure known as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), those who flee religious persecution and seek refuge in India will be entitled to citizenship except if they are Muslim.
The move comes on the heels of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam state, which put 1.9 million people who previously considered themselves Indian citizens, at risk of losing their nationality over claims that they or their ancestors moved to the country illegally.
While the majority of the 1.9 million listed as having an unproven claim on citizenship in Assam are Hindu, all affected except Muslims will have a route back to getting their nationality restored via the CAA.
Both laws are therefore seen as a way of targeting India’s Muslims.
In order to produce evidence of their right to citizenship for the NRC, nationals cannot just provide regular ID, such as passports and tax payer documents. Instead, they must provide birth certificates, or similar for their direct ancestors.
In a country where millions live mouth-to-hand without adequate shelter, keeping possession of such documents poses an issue for many.
While BJP officials have sent mixed signals, some have stated that they intend to expand the NRC to the rest of the country.
Indian Home Minister Amit Shah has repeatedly pledged to implement the NRC across the country and drive out “ghuspaithiyas” (illegal immigrants), “one by one”.
Indian intellectual Harsh Mander said the NRC policy had burdened Indians who were already vulnerable.
“I have witnessed incredible levels of suffering created by the (NRC) in Assam. Impoverished rural people, often landless and unlettered, staked all their meagre belongings and many years to gather documents to prove that they were citizens.
“Even a small discrepancy in spelling was sufficient for these documents to be rejected…You could be sent to detention centres for years, with no hope of release. Finding names missing from the NRC lists, or when loved ones were exiled to detention centres, several committed suicide in despair.”
To deal with this new class of ‘illegal immigrants’ India is working towards building camps, which some critics have characterised as ‘concentration camps’.
With fear of displacement mounting, some experts say this presents a crisis in the making for neighbouring states, which in the case of Assam, means Bangladesh.
Barrister and citizenship expert, Afzal Zami Syed-Ali, said the citizenship issue had been weaponised by the Indian government.
Syed-Ali explained that Bangladesh’s quietist policies in the face of the BJP’s India would leave them unable to respond in the event of denationalisation of Indians en-masse.
“They are caught out surprised and unprepared by this sudden uber nationalist piece of legislation by India,” he said.
Already, this ratcheting up of nationalist policies has led to consternation among Bangladeshis, with Dhaka’s foreign and home ministers calling off visits to India, and the country’s outgoing ambassador to New Delhi, declaring his compatriots would “rather swim in the ocean and reach Italy instead of coming to India.”
For a country like Bangladesh, already dealing with a wave of refugees from the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, another crisis could place further strains.
There are signs that the latest moves by the BJP will force Bangladesh to look for new partners, including old foes.
Bangladeshi media has reported that the Hasina government is already looking forward to mending its thorny relations with Pakistan.
In a move unprecedented since Hasina came to power, Bangladesh is building a large embassy building in Islamabad with a generous land gift from Pakistan government.
It was just last May that Bangladesh stopped issuing visa for Pakistanis over a feud regarding the 1971 war, in which Bangladesh gain independence from Pakistan.
The BJP’s campaign against ‘illegal immigrants’ may therefore win it support inside the country, but could end up costing it crucial allies abroad.