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BJP's Priorities
India's New Government Takes Aim at Muslim Migrants

Nowhere on Narendra Modi’s 10 “commandments“—the top of the to-do list for India’s new Prime Minister—are Muslim migrants from Bangladesh mentioned. But India’s new government has wasted no time at all in taking aim at them. Just days after entering office, a cohort of hardline anti-immigrant BJP lawmakers announced a plan to remove “illegal immigrants”, allegedly from Bangladesh but more often than not long-standing residents, from Assam in northeast India. Violence has erupted over issues related to illegal immigrants in this area before: two summers ago, hundreds were killed and thousands displaced by raging hordes of angry rioters; tens of thousands of people across the country fled home, fearing further attacks; entire towns were burned to the ground and innocent women and children brutally killed. And it might happen again.

“The campaign will be initiated by the youth wing of the party within next 15 days,” a BJP lawmaker announced on Sunday. “In the first phase of the campaign, we will appeal to illegal immigrants to leave our land voluntarily in next 15 days. We will also launch a house-to-house campaign urging people not to engage the immigrants in any kind of work.”

Another BJP cadre called it a “flushing out.” India needs to send a “strong message” to illegal migrants, he threatened.

Going into the election, BJP candidates used hateful terms to discuss the immigrants. Assamese voters jumped on board. The BJP ended up getting seven seats in Assam, four more than in 2009. The party performed strongly throughout the northeast, where anti-immigrant sentiment runs high, and soundly defeated Congress, which is seen as weak on immigration issues. Modi himself spoke frequently in Assam and around the northeast during the campaign. In May, he said illegal immigrants should have their “bags packed” if he comes to power, and claimed “they are robbing the youths of India of their livelihood,” while speaking in Kolkata.

The issue is thornier and more complex than it first appears. To begin with, many of the so-called “illegal immigrants” aren’t illegal or immigrants at all: They are internally displaced Indians of various ancestries and religious beliefs. Many settled in northeast India in colonial times, in order to escape poverty or overpopulation, search for new opportunities, or flee natural calamities. Some of the so-called “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants” in northeast India are as Indian as Narendra Modi. But they just aren’t seen that way by the majority of Indians. In the northeast, over the years, militias and political groups have formed to fight against them. That fight can and does erupt into brutal violence.

Making the scene more complicated is a decades-old independence movement led by Bodo tribal groups. The Bodos fight for an independent homeland. Though that mission is nearly hopeless, their discontentment continues to simmer. And the government has failed to follow through on plans to disarm them. The Bodos frequently target those they decide are “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants,” whether they are or not, blaming them for range of socio-economic troubles.

The BJP swept to power in the northeast by capitalizing on anti-immigrant fears, choosing as its poster boy for the campaign a charismatic and hardline politician who came to prominence in the anti-foreigner movement of the 1980s. Now BJP lawmakers are following through with pre-election promises to be tough on illegal immigration. They are running a grave risk: The campaign may spin out of their control, with militias taking matters into their own hands. After all, it’s happened before.

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  • Loader2000

    For more important (and useful AND humane) is securing the border in any immigration struggle. Going through a population and instituting a witch hunt for foreigners or people that look like foreigners never leads to a good place. Who knows, though, maybe history won’t repeat itself this time.

  • Vadim Pashkov

    Fleeing from overpopulation to create overpopulation in other state.

  • Andrew Allison

    The headline should have read, as the body of the post makes clear: India’s New Government Takes Aim at Muslims” The muslims in question are not, by any stretch of the imagination, immigrants.

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