Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party has pledged to strip millions of Muslim immigrants of vote in the upcoming provincial elections in the eastern state of Assam.
In a series of recent campaign rallies in the remote state of Assam, officials of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promised that the party would try to bar Muslims of Bangladeshi origin from voting, which is scheduled to be held in April.
Meanwhile, Himanta Biswa Sarma, the BJP’s campaign manager in Assam, has stressed that the plan would include those Muslims who entered India from neighboring Bangladesh between 1951 and 1971. He also said they can stay but would have to re-apply for citizenship.
“There are about 2 million immigrants (who came before 1971) and their descendents. Let them grow economically and educationally,” said Sarma, adding, however, that “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 highest percentage of Muslims in India. Muslims, including those who migrated since the partition of the country in 1947, make up some 35 percent of the state’s population.
Reacting to the developments, local Muslim leaders have accused the BJP of polarizing the election campaign in a bid to form the provincial government. The BJP has also been denounced for not targeting millions of Hindus who emigrated from East Pakistan, now called Bangladesh, and gained Indian citizenship.
Critics say the BJP’s plan risks re-igniting communal tensions that have led to deadly clashes between Hindus and Muslims in the past.
Opponents have accused Premier Modi’s Hindu nationalist government of exploiting religious divisions. They say the tactic helped the BJP secure the largest election victory in three decades in May 2014.
Modi had told Muslim immigrants during the 2014 campaign in states bordering Bangladesh to have their “bags packed” ready to be sent home should he win.
The developments come as several incidents of anti-Muslim violence have fueled concerns as religious intolerance has been growing in recent years.
However, Modi has recently appealed for religious unity, saying the nation would only prosper “when Hindus and Muslims unite and fight” against poverty.
India, which has a population of 1.2 billion, is a country of diversity, where Hindus form the majority. India is also home to a large Muslim population, and sizable Christian and Buddhist minorities.