KOLKATA - Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial front-runner in India’s mammoth general election, on Sunday reiterated his strong stance against illegal immigrants, just days after a wave of sectarian killings in the north-eastern state of Assam.
India is in the home stretch of a five-week election in which Modi’s opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) looks set to emerge as the biggest group and which has heightened ethnic and religious tensions in many parts of the country.
India deployed troops in Assam on Saturday after more than 30 Muslims were gunned down in three days of what police said were attacks by Bodo tribal militants, who resent the presence of settlers they claim are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Modi has repeatedly called for tighter immigration controls and recently said illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in the state of West Bengal should have their “bags packed” in case he came to power, accusing the state government of being too soft.
At a rally on Sunday in West Bengal he accused the state government of looking to secure votes from ethnic and religious minorities. “You are concerned about infiltrators and not your own people ... they must go back, they are robbing the youths of India of their livelihood,” Modi told the rally in West Bengal, which borders Assam. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has condemned the attacks in Assam and his ruling Congress party accused Modi of making divisive comments. “Modi is a model of dividing India,” said Law Minister Kapil Sibal on Saturday.
Critics have long accused the BJP of deep-seated prejudice against India’s Muslims, who make up more than 12 percent of the country’s 1.2 billion population. The BJP says it only opposes preferential treatment for any community. “This violence has a long history,” said BJP spokesperson MJ Akbar, referring to the Assam attacks. “This knee-jerk reaction of blaming Narendra Modi for everything is absurd.” Bangladesh’s Information Ministry did not immediately respond to request for comments on Modi’s latest speech. Police on Sunday said the death toll after the Assam attacks now stood at 32 after they found another body in the state’s Baksa district, where some of the attacks took place.
Bodo representatives have long argued many of the Muslims in their part of the state are illegal immigrants encroaching on ancestral lands. In 2012, clashes erupted in which dozens of people were killed and 400,000 fled their homes.
State police said the latest outbreak of violence seems to have been sparked by these local rivalries, with Bodo tribesmen attacking Muslim settlers as punishment for not supporting their parliamentary candidate in the election. Assam also has a history of armed groups fighting for greater autonomy or secession from India. Voting in India’s election, the world’s largest ever democratic exercise, concludes on May 12 and results are due on May 16.
Several opinion polls have forecast the BJP will emerge with the biggest share of the 543 parliamentary seats up for grabs, although the party could fall short of a majority.
Meanwhile, the Indian government appealed for calm on Sunday after at least 32 Muslims were shot dead in the northeastern state of Assam in attacks targeting women and children and blamed on tribal separatists.
As more than 5,000 soldiers and police patrolled the restive tea-growing region, Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said the killings appeared aimed at provoking a “full fledged” communal conflict.
Police blame indigenous Bodo tribesmen for the violence on Thursday and Friday nights in the region, where Muslims have long been accused of grabbing land after migrating from across the Bangladesh border.
“The objective of this (separatist) group seems to be aimed at starting a full fledged communal conflagration,” Shinde said in a statement, adding the violence was targeted at women and children. “The public leaders of both Bodo and (the) minority community must see to it that things do not deteriorate,” the minister said, urging the region to maintain “peace and calm”.
Shinde put the death toll at 32. But a senior police official said two more bodies were discovered on Sunday while a teenager died of her injuries overnight Saturday, taking the number killed to 35.
“Two dead bodies were recovered from a riverbank a few kilometres away from Narayanguri while another teenage girl injured in the attack succumbed to her injuries in a hospital,” the officer told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Some 4,000 Central Armed Police Force officers and 1,500 soldiers have already been deployed, with another 1,000 police on their way, Shinde’s statement said.
Despite the tight security, Muslim community leader Ibrahim Ali told AFP families have fled their homes, some of which have been razed, adding that “a sense of fear and panic looms large”.
“More than 5,000 people have fled their homes in the two districts and are taking shelter in safe areas,” said Abdur Rahim, leader of the All Minority Students Union.