Discrimination, intolerance, and violence have increased on Modi’s watch. Even the traditionally secular Congress Party played the Hindu nationalist card in this year’s legislative contest. Reports the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, India’s “history of religious freedom has come under attack in recent years with the growth of exclusionary extremist narratives—including, at times, the government allowance and encouragement of mob violence against religious minorities—that have facilitated an egregious and ongoing campaign of violence, intimidation, and harassment against non‐Hindu and lower‐caste Hindu minorities.”
Although India has been shaped by the legal culture of its former colonial overlord, Great Britain, New Delhi’s commitment to the rule of law is less than complete. Freedom House rates India as free, but with a middling score, and especially disappointing on civil liberties. In its latest human rights report, the State Department notes “reports of arbitrary killings; forced disappearances; torture; rape in police custody; arbitrary arrest and detention; harsh and life‐threatening prison conditions; and reports of political prisoners in certain states.” Journalists have been harassed, censored, and physically attacked. Earlier this year, historian Ramachandra Guha warned that India risked becoming an “election‐only democracy,” with no accountability afterwards for government misbehavior.
This combustible mix has been set afire by the Modi government’s seeming campaign against India’s Muslim citizens, who, at 201 million, number second only to Indonesia’s Muslim population. After the May election, in which the BJP strengthened its majority, parliament banned the Muslim “triple talaq” quickie divorce. In August, New Delhi ended Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and initiated a widespread crackdown, detaining thousands of people and shutting down the internet. That territory has a Muslim majority but ended up in India during partition because the ruling prince was Hindu. Since then, the sectarian conflict there has been a constant source of tension with Pakistan.
In Assam state, which neighbors Muslim‐majority Bangladesh, Modi’s government has demanded evidence of presence before 1971 for residents to prove citizenship. When the official registry was published in August, some two million people, including many Muslims, were left off, rendering them potentially stateless and eligible for detention in newly built prison camps. In November, India’s highest court ruled in favor of construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a Muslim mosque destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992. That round of violence resulted in roughly 2,000 deaths.
In early December, both houses of India’s parliament approved citizenship legislation that places Muslims at a disadvantage. The Citizenship Amendment Act expedites applications from migrants who are Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, or Parsee, but not Muslim. Modi insisted that the measure “does not affect any citizen of India of any religion.” BJP spokesman Shahnawaz Hussain went further, arguing that “there is no better country for Muslims than India.”
However, the cumulative impact of recent legislation and practice has been to make India more Hindu. Moreover, Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah is planning a national citizenship registry based on Assam’s process. He said it would be used to “flush out the infiltrators from our country.” (Of Muslim immigrants, he opined, “infiltrators are like termites.”) Shah served with Modi in Gujarat and was BJP president during the government’s first term. The minister “wants a Hindu nation much more than Modi,” contends Rajdeep Sardesai, a journalist who covered Modi’s rise.
Many Indians fear this vision. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor warned, “The religious bigotry that led to partition and the establishment of Pakistan has now been mirrored in pluralist India.” Financial Times columnist Nilanjana Roy worried that “Mr. Modi and his party are intent on replacing India’s secular democracy with their long cherished dream of a Hindu ‘Rashtra’ or nation,” which would be “a nightmare for Muslims” and anyone who believes in equal rights. Former Supreme Court judge S.N. Srikrishna was blunter still: “They want a theocratic state.”
Despite reports that BJP leaders have agreed to suspend the national registry, protesters still fear a de facto religious test for citizenship that could be used to disqualify Muslims and others. Political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta concluded that the citizenship law was “the first legal articulation that India is, you might say, a homeland for Hindus.”
Protests began in Assam and have spread to more than 20 cities across the nation, including New Delhi. Frustration with the slowing economy, continuing corruption, and rising authoritarianism have added to the demonstrators’ fury. The government has banned protests in some cities, arrested thousands, deployed paramilitary forces to Muslim campuses, and used live ammunition, killing at least 25 so far. To hinder the opposition, it’s shut down internet and mobile phone networks, closed metro stations, and blocked roads in cities and states with major demonstrations planned. (One police official declared, “Peace is more important than a little inconvenience to you and me.”)