India's Supreme Court extended by two weeks a deadline for millions of people left off a citizens register in Assam state to provide the necessary documents to be included. A new draft Register of Citizens (NRC) in the northeastern state announced in July left off four million people, mostly Bengali-speaking Muslims who could not produce valid documents. The move created fear among Muslims whose fundamental rights as Indian citizens are under risk they believe.
With many of these lacking the necessary papers, only around 1.5 million people have filed claims for inclusion in the last two weeks, according to the state government. But it appealed to the Supreme Court seeking more time, saying it could not process all the claims before the previous deadline of Dec. 15. The new deadline is Dec. 31.
Rights groups and activists say the drive targets Muslims who are Indian citizens, a charge the government denies. They have also criticized the government's move, saying the deletion of people from citizenship rolls was similar to Myanmar's removal of rights and protections for its Rohingya community in 1982.
The current register includes only those who were able to prove they were in the state before 1971, when millions fled Bangladesh's war of independence into the state, and their descendants. The policy was introduced by the state government, which is controlled by the same BJP party in power nationally. Critics say it is the latest move by the right-wing party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to bolster India's Hindu majority at the expense of minorities.
Meanwhile, PM Modi's nationalist party has suffered an embarrassing defeat in three state elections in its Hindu stronghold just months before national elections. According to results announced by the Election Commission yesterday, the opposition Congress party was a clear winner in Chhattisgarh state, and fell one seat short of a majority in both Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. With a regional party offering support, the Congress party is set to rule all three states, replacing Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party.
The setback to the BJP is expected to revive the political fortunes of the Congress party under Rahul Gandhi, the 48-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, who took over as party president from his mother, Sonia Gandhi, a year ago. He had campaigned extensively for his party in the three states. India's national elections are due by April. Modi came to power in 2014 after his BJP wrested power from the Congress party. Modi is still the front-runner for the next elections. But his party's defeat in the three state polls is expected to bring disparate opposition parties together with the Congress party as the main threat to Modi.