Delhi went up in flames on Monday as violence raged in the northeastern parts of the Capital for the second day around the Modi government’s plans to institute a National Register of Citizens. Five people have been killed in the violence so far, with large-scale arson and vandalism taking place in several neighbourhoods.
This is unfolding at a time when the United States president is visiting India, ensuring that the eyes of the international media are on the country.
The trigger for this violence is clear: the Bharatiya Janata Party’s repeated promises to carry out an NRC to identify undocumented immigrants. BJP leaders have repeatedly connected the NRC to the Citizenship Amendment Act, which awards Indian citizenship to undocumented migrants from three countries on the basis of religion – pointedly excluding Muslims. With this, top leaders such as Amit Shah, have communicated that only Muslims will have to undergo a citizenship test.
Complete confusion exists on how this NRC will be carried out. Assam recently published its NRC – but the exercise was so riddled with errors that even the BJP wants it to be conducted again. If this is the situation for Assam’s 3 crore citizens, the chaos that would result from an NRC for 130 crore Indians can only be imagined.
This inflammatory rhetoric of the ruling party has set off panic all through the country, especially among India’s 200 million Muslims. Already, the panic has potentially endangered the effort to conducted the decennial Census, as Indians are wary of any attempt to collect data in light of the BJP’s NRC threats.
Rather than climb down, the BJP has upped the stakes by threatening violence against people protesting the NRC. In the recent Delhi elections, a minister in the Modi government went so far as to threaten to shoot protestors. On Sunday, a BJP leader issued an “ultimatum” to the Delhi police to stop the protests in three days. “We will be peaceful till [Donald] Trump leaves,” he told a crowd, with a senior police officer standing right next to him. “After that, we won’t listen to even you if the roads are not cleared.”
As a result, protesters now not only face the NRC but also the prospect of violence from BJP supporters for opposing discrimination.
Some of the BJP incendiary rhetoric is driven by by its Hindutva ideology, which sees India as a Hindu rashtra. Some of it is motivated by short-term electoral gain. But as India’s ruling party, the BJP has a responsibility to India that goes beyond elections and ideology. By threatening hundreds of millions of Indians with an unprecedented citizenship test, the BJP has created a dangerously unstable situation.
Rather than fan the flames, the party needs to pull back immediately to calm the situation. This means going beyond mere statements. The BJP must take concrete, legal action to demonstrate its commitment to peace. The Modi government must immediately stop work on the National Population Register, the first step of the NRC. It must also repeal the 2003 Citizenship Rules, which create the legal framework for a National Register of Citizens, as well as amend the Citizenship Amendment Act to ensure that it does not discriminate against any community.