Muslims in India rush to collect documents as anxiety over citizenship registry spreads

A municipal office in Mumbai is lined with racks of musty electoral rolls going back decades. (Washington Post photo by Niha Masih)

MUMBAI -Inside a musty municipal office, Farah Sheikh pored through hundreds of pages of tattered 60-year-old documents searching for evidence of her family’s roots in India.

India is the only country Sheikh has ever known: She was born and raised here, as were her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. But she worries that one day soon, she will be asked to prove it.

Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government passed a controversial citizenship law in December, many Indian Muslims have been in a state of heightened alert. The law has fueled anxiety that the government’s next step will be to conduct a long-promised nationwide citizenship test, which Muslims see as an excuse to target their status in India.

Now Muslims across the country are racing to collect property deeds, land records, graduation documents, voter records, and birth and death certificates in case the government asks for them – not an easy task in a country where many records are poorly maintained and not digitized.

On a recent afternoon, Sheikh and her sister were among more than two dozen people in a normally sleepy office in Mumbai sifting through voter rolls going back decades. Some squatted on the floor, others hunched over the papers using phones to illuminate their search. Mumbai has a higher proportion of Muslims than the national average and more-organized efforts toward procuring papers.

“My entire family is very worried,” said Sheikh, a 32-year-old human resources manager who was on her fourth visit to the office. “We don’t know what the future holds.”

The new citizenship law creates an expedited path to Indian nationality for migrants of six religions, excluding Islam, the faith practiced by 200 million of India’s more than 1.3 billion people. Critics say the measure is discriminatory and antithetical to India’s secular constitution. Hundreds of thousands of people of all faiths have joined protests in recent weeks, prompting a violent crackdown by authorities.

Just days before President Donald Trump was set to arrive in India, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on Thursday called the citizenship act a “significant downward turn in religious freedom in India.” Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have not directly commented on the act or the protests.

Home Minister Amit Shah, Modi’s second-in-command, has repeatedly asserted that the citizenship law would be followed by a national citizen register to weed out “infiltrators.” Seeming to contradict Shah’s remarks, a government minister recently told Parliament that the government had not made a decision about carrying out the exercise, known as the National Register of Citizens.

A similar exercise carried out in the northeastern state of Assam last year left 1.9 million people, Hindus and Muslims, at risk of becoming stateless and being sent to detention centers.

In Assam, getting on the list of citizens required more than providing an Indian passport, driver’s license or voter identity card. People were asked for proof of residency dating back decades and documents proving links to their ancestors. Some failed to make the list because of spelling errors, name changes or mistaken identities.

If such an exercise were carried out nationwide, its impact would be “catastrophic,” said Gilles Verniers, a political scientist at Ashoka University near New Delhi. Under the guise of rooting out undocumented immigrants, a citizenship registry “creates an entire category of doubtful citizens and puts the onus on them to prove they are citizens.”

The talk of detention centers for those excluded in Assam has scared Sheikh. She says the past month has been a blur: She took time off work to visit government offices during the day, then spent nights trawling through thousands of pages of digitized records to look for her ancestors’ names in past voter lists. She found the names of her father and grandparents in the voter rolls for most national elections, but the relevant pages for 1972 were missing.

“I don’t even know which documents are going to be asked for,” Sheikh said, but “we have to be ready for everything.”

Salim Khan, an agent in Mumbai who helps people retrieve government documents, said he has been deluged with phone calls since December. He said he now receives nearly 60 calls every day from people seeking to find paperwork. The callers routinely break down in tears. Last month, in a viral video, a Muslim taxi driver in Mumbai wept as he worried about the fate of his family under the registry proposed by Shah, igniting a debate over the widespread fear it has created.

Modi has defended the citizenship law and in December said there was no discussion underway surrounding a citizen register. Shah told the Parliament that Indian Muslims have nothing to fear from such an exercise.

But trust in the government has dwindled among Muslims such as Sheikh. Modi’s first term, which began in 2014, was marked by multiple mob lynchings of Muslim men under the guise of protecting cows, which are sacred to many Hindus. Since returning to power in May, Modi revoked the autonomy of majority-Muslim Jammu and Kashmir and received a green light from the nation’s top court to build a temple at the site of a 16th-century mosque illegally demolished in 1992 by a Hindu mob.

This month, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party ran a polarizing campaign during a local election in Delhi, where party leaders vilified Muslims protesting the citizenship law and sought to associate them with India’s rival Pakistan.

In Madanpura, a congested neighborhood in the old part of Mumbai, hundreds have attended workshops run by 70-year-old Pervaiz Ansari on the need for correct, up-to-date documents. “The most common problem is different spellings across documents,” he said. “Mohammad, a very common Muslim name, can be spelled in different ways.”

City officials in Mumbai confirm a sharp increase in applications for birth and death certificates since the passage of the law. Padmaja Keskar, the head of the city’s health department, said that in neighborhoods with large numbers of Muslims, the number of applications jumped by as much as 150% in January compared with December. The city government has provided additional staff in such areas to handle the high volume of requests.

The rush for documents is not limited to Mumbai. In Uttar Pradesh, an advisory listed 22 documents people should keep ready, and in Karnataka, mosques are collecting documents for families.

But record-keeping in India’s infamously Kafkaesque bureaucracy is patchy at best and often riddled with errors. A nationwide government survey conducted in 2016 suggests that only 62% of Indian children under the age of 5 had been issued birth certificates – the number was lower among poorer households. And a study of India’s nationwide identification program in 2018 found that 8.8% of registered users reported errors on their cards.

Shailesh Gandhi, a right-to-information activist who is Hindu, tweeted that city officials issued him a document saying they were unable to find any record of his birth.

Zainul Abdeen Ansari, 74, recently applied for a minor correction in his name printed on his birth certificate. “My name was corrected, but they made an error in my father’s name,” he said. “Now I have to do it all over again.”

For Sheikh, looking for paperwork has become a part-time job, and members of her extended family have begun asking her for help. Her next stop could be 750 miles away, in the southern state where their father was born, in search of a birth certificate from 1948.



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