JALESWAR (India) • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party has vowed to disenfranchise millions of Muslim immigrants in a volatile frontier state, waging a polarising election campaign in a bid to form its first government there.
In campaign rallies in the remote state of Assam, officials of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have also promised to identify and deport younger illegal migrants, in response to rising discontent among the state's Hindus.
When Assam elects a state legislature next month, an estimated 10 per cent of its 20 million voters will be Muslims who have migrated since the 1950s from the former East Pakistan, later Bangladesh, and gained Indian citizenship.
"Legal Indian citizens are being branded as Bangladeshis," student Ismail Hussain, wearing a white skullcap, told Reuters at a rally held by a mainly Muslim party in Assam. "The BJP can't just do what they want. We have faith in the Indian Constitution."
Mr Modi, 65, swept to power less than two years ago with a promise of jobs and growth, playing down his roots in the powerful Hindu nationalist umbrella group to which his party is affiliated.
Yet, after a heavy defeat last autumn in Bihar, another eastern state, the BJP has pursued a more confrontational line. It has promoted the idea that India is a Hindu nation and rounded on "anti-national" opponents, in what critics say is an attempt to marginalise minority Muslims.
India is officially secular, but four- fifths of its 1.3 billion people profess the Hindu faith. Muslims comprise 14 per cent of the population, with Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and others making up the rest.
At 34 per cent, Assam has the second-highest percentage of Muslims of any Indian state. The BJP's plan risks reigniting communal tensions that have led to deadly clashes between Hindus and Muslims, although analysts doubt there will be a full-scale drive to expel Muslim immigrants. "All this is pre-electoral mobilisation," said Dr Ajai Sahni of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, which tracks security issues across South Asia. "You don't have a state that has the capacity, the instruments and the institutions to do anything about this."
If the BJP gains traction in Assam, hardliners in the BJP and the Hindu nationalist movement that backs it, the Rashtriya Svayamsevak Sangh, could push a similar brand of anti-Muslim politics in West Bengal, a bigger state that also borders Bangladesh and votes in the next two months.