Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial frontrunner in the general election, on Sunday reiterated his strong stance against illegal immigrants, just days after a wave of sectarian killings in 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 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,” law minister Kapil Sibal said on Saturday.
Critics have long accused the BJP of deep-seated prejudice against India’s Muslims, who make up more than 12% 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 M.J. 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.
A combative Modi also took on the Election Commission (EC), accusing it of not acting impartially in the wake of complaints of booth rigging in West Bengal, Bihar and western Uttar Pradesh and dared it to take action against him.
“Why are you not acting? What is your intention? If you feel wrong about what I am saying now, then you are free to lodge another case against me,” Modi told an election rally in Asansol.
Modi’s attack on the commission came days after a police complaint was lodged against him following a direction from the poll panel, which said he had violated electoral laws by displaying his party symbol after casting his vote in Gandhinagar in Gujarat and addressed a press conference soon thereafter.
However, hours after Modi charged the commission with not acting impartially, BJP sought to downplay its prime ministerial candidate’s remarks, saying he was merely making a suggestion.
The 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 the general election, the world’s largest ever democratic exercise, concludes on 12 May and results are due on 16 May.
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. Reuters
Biswajyoti Das in Guwahati and Ruma Paul in Dhaka contributed to this story.