NEW DELHI: Amit Shah’s appointment as India’s new minister of home affairs less than a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sworn in for his second term in office on Thursday has sparked concern in India’s political circles.
Shah — a close confidant of Modi and president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — is a controversial appointment, not least because of his alleged links to extrajudicial killings during his tenure as interior minister in the western state of Gujarat.
In 2010, Shah was named as the “prime accused” in the “fake encounter” killings of a Muslim couple — Shohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Ishrat Jahan — accused of being terror operatives. The Supreme Court banished Shah from Gujarat that same year to protect the witnesses and evidence in the case. In 2014, the case was dismissed due to lack of evidence.
In this week’s general elections, Shah was in news once again, this time for statements he made regarding the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Bill. He announced that the NRC — a controversial register that is being prepared in the state of Assam to identify genuine citizens of India — would also be extended to the eastern state of West Bengal, which shares a border with Bangladesh of more than 2,200 kilometers.
Many Muslims in Assam see the NRC as an instrument to disenfranchise them and to classify them as illegal Bangladeshi migrants.
Shah also gave his backing to the Citizenship Amendment Act, which aims to give Indian citizenship to Hindu, Buddhist, Parsi and Sikh minorities from neighboring countries.
Critics say that if the government succeeds in amending the 1956 Citizenship Act, it will officially declare India a Hindu state. There are fears that Muslims would be then be relegated to second-class citizens.
The BJP leader was also vocal about removing Article 370 from the constitution. That article grants autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
The announcement on Friday that the BJP president had been appointed home minister was widely criticized on social media.
Journalist Rana Ayyub, who has covered Gujarat extensively, wrote on social media: “Amit Shah, the first serving Home Minister of state to be arrested for extra judicial murder and extortion, declared tadipaar (banished from state) by Supreme Court, is now the Home Minister of India. Let this sink in.”
Writer Mitali Sharan tweeted: “Amit Shah is Home Minister. What a time to be alive.”
The appointment of BJP National Executive member Pratap Chandra Sarangi as a minister of state has also drawn criticism.
Sarangi was leader of the hardline, rightwing Hindu group Bajarang Dal in the state of Orissa when a Hindu mob burned Christian missionary Graham Steins and his two sons alive in 1999. Many alleged that Bajarang Dal was behind the killings, but an official enquiry found no evidence that any single group was responsible.
“I am not surprised by the appointment of Amit Shah and Sarangi as ministers,” said Prof. Apoorvanand of Delhi University. “The message of the electoral mandate is that you have to accept people like them. You have to accept a terror-accused Pragya Thakur as your leader. You have to accept people who praise the killer of Mahatma Gandhi. You have to accept the majoritarian ideology. We should not be surprised at all.
“The prime minister’s words, ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikas and sabka viswash’ (together with all, development for all, and inculcate trust in all), do not carry any meaning with individuals with clear anti-minority track records occupying high office,” he continued.
Social activist Harsh Mander, who works with survivors of mass violence, told Arab News: “It’s a worrying signal both in the context of defense of the rights of minorities and the rights of liberals to dissent. I am not optimistic today.”
He went on to describe the government’s plans to extend the NRC to other states and to amend the Citizenship Act as “a complete subversion of the constitutional framework, which is cumulatively worrying.”