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India: New Citizenship Law Leads to Protests and Attacks

(New York) - India's new citizenship law and policies are discriminatory and have fueled violence against Muslims in the country, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The government of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) passed a law in December 2019, the so-called Citizenship Amendment Act. It is through him that religious affiliation becomes the basis for citizenship for the first time. The law, along with a planned nationwide screening process to identify “illegal migrants”, may threaten the citizenship rights of millions of Indian Muslims.

The 82-page report "Shoot the Traitors: Discrimination Against Muslims Under India’s New Citizenship Policy" documents that the police and other officials repeatedly failed to intervene when government supporters attacked demonstrators who protested against the new citizenship policy. On the other hand, however, the police were quick to arrest critics of the new policy and break up the peaceful demonstrations. This also resulted in excessive and sometimes fatal violence.

“India's Prime Minister has called for a united fight against COVID-19. Such a call was not made in the fight against anti-Muslim violence and discrimination, ”said Meenakshi Ganguly, director of South Asia at Human Rights Watch. “Government policies have opened the door to mob violence and police inaction. This practice is terrifying for Muslims and other minorities across the country. "

The report is based on more than 100 interviews with victims of human rights abuses and their families from Delhi and the states of Assam and Uttar Pradesh, as well as with legal experts, academics, activists and police officers.

The new citizenship law aims to speed up the processing of asylum applications from irregular immigrants from the neighboring, predominantly Muslim countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Muslims are excluded from this. It was enacted amid pressure from the BJP government for a nationwide citizenship verification process through a National Population Register (NPR) and a National Register of Citizens (NRC) aimed at identifying "illegal Migrants ”. While work on the population register has been postponed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, statements by the Home Secretary and other senior BJP members have raised concerns that millions of Indian Muslims, including many whose families have lived in the country for generations, are losing their citizenship rights robbed and thus disenfranchised.

The United Nations and a number of governments have openly criticized the Citizenship Act as discriminatory on the basis of religion. But BJP officials mocked and threatened protesters, while some of their supporters participated in mob attacks on critics and anti-government protesters. Some BJP leaders even called for the demonstrators, whom they described as "traitors", to be shot.

In February 2020, clashes and attacks on Muslims by the Hindu mob in Delhi killed more than 50 people. Testimony and videos show that the police were also involved in the violent clashes. For example, police officers beat a group of five Muslim men injured in the mob attacks and asked them to sing the national anthem as a form of humiliation. One of the men later passed away.

At least 30 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in protests in BJP-ruled states, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. In other protests, including by students, the police did not intervene when government supporters attacked demonstrators. "There were police on campus when the violence broke out," said a student at a university in Delhi. He was injured when supporters of the BJP attacked protesting students. “We sought help from the police, then we ran to flee from the attackers. The police didn't help us. "

Almost two million people in the Indian state of Assam, in the north-east of the country, have already been exposed to the risk of arbitrary detention or statelessness through the National Register of Citizens. In August 2019, Assam became the first state to complete the register. Human Rights Watch found that the process in Assam is not standardized enough, leading to arbitrary and discriminatory decisions by civil servants and unduly penalizing poorer residents who do not have access to decades-old identification documents in determining citizenship claims. Women, who are more likely than men to be unable to provide identification, were also disproportionately affected. The Assam trial has heightened concerns about a nationwide register of citizens.

The courts that rule on citizenship in Assam do not operate transparently or have consistent procedures, Human Rights Watch said. Human rights groups and the media reported that significantly more Muslims were brought to justice and a far greater proportion of Muslims were declared foreigners than Hindus, due to evident political pressure. Even some government officials and military personnel have been declared irregular immigrants.

"We sold two cows, chickens and goats," said a woman whose family could not afford the legal and document fees to assert her citizenship claims in an appropriate court. "Now we have nothing left to sell."

The new Citizenship Act violates India's international obligations to prevent disenfranchisement based on race, color, ancestry, or national or ethnic origin. The Indian government should repeal the law and ensure that any future national asylum and refugee policy does not contain any discrimination, including on the basis of religion, and conforms to international legal norms. It should ditch any plans for a nationwide citizenship review project until there are public consultations to standardize procedures and put measures in place to ensure processes are followed so that they are poor, minority, migrant or internally displaced people and women imposed undue hardship.

“The Indian government has attempted to decouple citizenship law from the citizenship review process. But it failed to reassure the minorities because the BJP leaders made contradicting, discriminatory and hateful claims, ”Ganguly said. “The government should immediately revoke measures that violate India's international legal obligations. It should also investigate alleged human rights violations by the police and protect freedom of speech and assembly. "

Selected cases from the report

Aslam (name changed), Assam

Aslam, a Bengali Muslim who worked as a driver in Guwahati, was banned from the Assam National Citizens Register, despite the fact that his parents, wife and children were included in it. Its name was most likely left out because it was spelled differently in different documents, which is common across the country. He said the spelling of his name on his voter ID card and his income tax card, known as a Permanent Account Number (PAN), is different. "The PAN ID form is in English, but we are filling out the voter ID forms in Assamese," he said. "Then when they change it to English, the spelling of the name often changes," he said.

Salima (name changed), Assam

Salima, 45, a Bengali Muslim woman in the Barpeta district, was declared an irregular foreigner in February 2019. However, their relatives were recognized as citizens with the same papers. Salima's attorney said this was because she was unable to adequately explain her case when she testified in court, as is common in rural communities where people do not know the exact ages of relatives and other details. "Those affected are poor, they do not understand the consequences," said her lawyer. "She was unable to tell the court that she has a stepmother, nor how many brothers and sisters she has and how old they are."

Asad Raza, Muslim clergyman, Uttar Pradesh

Police in Muzaffarnagar district reportedly stormed and searched a madrasa, an Islamic seminary, on December 20 and arrested the clergyman and 35 students, 15 of whom were under the age of 18. The clergyman, Asad Raza, said that after the afternoon prayers came numerous police officers allegedly looking for protesters but instead rioting, beating people and destroying property:

When I opened the main gate, the police started beating me. They broke open every door and looked for students. They didn't tell us why they were holding us. They just started beating us up. They took our cell phones and did not return them. They also took some money from the office. Nothing like this has ever happened here before.

SR Darapuri, Retired Police Officer, Uttar Pradesh

SR Darapuri, a former senior police officer and now a prominent activist, was placed under house arrest in December to prevent him from participating in protests against the citizenship law. However, the police arrested him on false allegations, perhaps to make an example of him. "If you can do that to a retired Police Inspector General, then I don't even want to think about what you do to ordinary people," he said.

Darapuri said the police in Uttar Pradesh are openly discriminatory: "They make no effort to hide their bias, knowing they have absolutely nothing to fear."