India is often billed as the world’s biggest democracy. But that title has worn thin: Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is becoming a nationalist state home to Hindus and closed to Muslims.
A new citizenship law is exclusionist: It provides a path to citizenship for every religion save Islam, which is practiced by roughly 16 percent of India’s population, or nearly 200 million people. Modi proclaims the law part of the “New India.”
Besides being inhumane, the new law is clearly unconstitutional. According to India’s constitution, any “person who has his domicile in the territory of India and — (a) who was born in the territory of India; or (b) either of whose parents was born in the territory of India; or (c) who has been ordinarily resident in the territory of India for not less than five years immediately preceding such commencement, shall be a citizen of India.” Among the “fundamental rights” granted under the constitution are: (1) “The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.” (2) “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them. No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition … ”
Those citizenship and human rights are now being actively undermined. In Modi we have India’s Trump, a man engaged in the pretense of making India great while suborning its democratic institutions. Under Modi’s ruling party, the BJP, which won a second term in May 2019, secularism is out and Muslims, to quote the novelist Arundhati Roy (writing in The Nation, January 13/20, 2020), “are cast as permanent, treacherous outsiders … [that] finds utterance in chilling slogans by rampaging mobs.” The BJP’s origins lie in the RSS, founded in 1925 and today claiming a following of hundreds of thousands organized in numerous interest groups (students, trade unionists, farmers, etc.) and movement branches. The RSS claims Modi as a member since childhood, and its enormous political power makes it the main far-right force in India.
Unlike Kashmir, where millions of people are fighting for the right not to be Indian citizens, in the east India state of Assam, about 2 million Muslims now find themselves effectively made into non-citizens by virtue of the National Register of Citizens. Other religious groups — such as Sikhs, Buddhists, and Christians — are considered “persecuted minorities,” having emigrated from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. By act of parliament those groups are entitled to asylum. But Muslims in Assam, and by extension Muslims everywhere else in India if Modi has his way, must produce “legacy” papers that prove their uninterrupted presence in India for the last 50 years in order to be allowed to remain. Otherwise, as Modi’s home minister said last December, the national register will be used to “flush out the infiltrators from our country.”
Worrisome Messages from Kashmir and Xinjiang
The citizenship trap may be only the beginning of the Muslims’ ordeal. Kashmir, whose autonomy was suspended by Modi last summer as Indian troops moved in and an Internet blackout was imposed, provides a mirror to the future for Muslims. So may India’s defense minister, who has spoken about setting up “deradicalization camps” for Kashmiris — an idea that may well have emerged out of watching China’s massive reeducation camps for Muslims in Xinjiang province. Arundhati Roy reports that three Indian state governments have already begun work on establishing Foreigners Tribunals and detention centers, which would be the insidious follow-up to dealing with de-citizenized Muslims. Modi denies there are detention centers in India, but the Washington Post report cited above notes that in Assam a huge one is under construction.
Modi has joined the list of major autocrats, showing anew that the trappings of a democratic government are no barrier to authoritarianism. As we found in eastern and central Europe after the downfall of the Soviet Union, one form of dictatorship can give way to another.
Now, under new international conditions — the reassertion of illiberal nationalism, the influence of Trumpism, the global immigration crisis, and financial hardships — autocratic leadership is in vogue in several countries where democratic hopes once ran high, often with popular support. Modi’s BJP is popular despite its corruption, media censorship aggressive assertion of Hindu nationalism, and defiance of constitutional norms. But protests are now occurring in response to his citizenship law, which is so contrary to the Nehru’s dream of a secular state. The more Modi presses his far-right agenda, the more sectarian violence his regime is likely to face.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.