India is being convulsed by mass demonstrations against a new citizenship law that places special disabilities on Muslims. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has responded with force, leading to more deaths in a couple weeks than during months of protests in Hong Kong.
Some Western policymakers once saw India as the great democratic hope for confronting communist China. Indian economic growth was poised to spurt past that of the PRC. When Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a majority in the 2014 election, he was compared to America’s Ronald Reagan, expected to free India’s hobbled economy and unleash his people’s productivity. Charismatic and determined, Modi seemed destined to turn his nation into a weltmacht whose interests had to be respected.
However, he proved to be more pro‐business than pro‐market, favoring stronger state control over the economy to support his political objectives. First‐term reforms were slow and tentative. He sought to squeeze cash out of the economy, enhancing the government’s power while starving small businesses of liquidity. The result was slower growth—last quarter saw the slowest expansion in six years. Thus, when the BJP sought reelection this year, it talked less about its disappointing economic record than about religious nationalism, especially the continuing conflict with Pakistan over majority‐Muslim but India‐administered Jammu and Kashmir.
The emphasis on Hindu nationalism should have surprised no one. Modi’s career saw him rise through the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, a paramilitary Hindu nationalist organization that promotes Hindutva, or Hindu supremacy. In 2002, as head of Gujarat State, he presided over—and, some charged, encouraged—riots that led to the deaths of hundreds and even thousands of Muslims. He described his reaction to those killings as similar to witnessing the death of a puppy.
Although Hindu violence and persecution has most often been directed at Muslims, Christians, who make up a much smaller portion of the population, also are frequent targets. Widespread rioting in Orissa (or Odisha) State in August 2008 left scores dead, thousands injured, tens of thousands displaced, hundreds of churches destroyed, and thousands of homes wrecked. Christians, who often minister to Dalits (formerly called “untouchables”), still badly mistreated by traditional Indian Hindu culture, are routinely targeted by anti‐conversion laws. And mobs, often at the behest of “cow protection” activists, have increasingly targeted Christians who deal in cattle. Sharad Sharma, who leads Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a BJP‐affiliated Hindu nationalist group, put it bluntly: everyone else has “to be subservient to Hindus and Hinduism.”
A vibrant, tolerant, and democratic India has much to offer the world.
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.”)
Despite the violence, the BJP remains dominant. And Modi is intransigent, denouncing those who “have an illicit intention of destroying the country” and accusing them of maligning “the country around the world.” Shah proclaimed, “There might be some difficulties along the way but we, and our leader, have the courage.”
However, many Indians, especially younger activists, appear to be tiring of sectarianism for political gain. Several states have announced they will not implement the new legislation. Preliminary results in Jharkhand State’s election, which concluded last week, showed the BJP losing its long‐standing majority to a coalition of the opposition Congress Party and a regional party. Last month, a switch in political alliances in Maharashtra State ousted the BJP in favor of Congress.
A vibrant, tolerant, and democratic India has much to offer the world. Unfortunately, the current government is moving in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, India’s people are proving they are not easily thwarted. India may yet achieve its great promise despite the aggressive growth of malignant sectarianism.