Protests against a divisive new citizenship law began to rage in the northeastern states of India (Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya, etc.) on December 11, 2019 when the BJP-led Hindu nationalist government won parliamentary approval for the new citizenship law. Such protests, at times violent (clashes with police have, meanwhile, caused a number of deaths), have now engulfed all of India and continue unabated.
Police clashed with protesters in Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, Lucknow, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Patna, Raipur and in many other places. The scaled-up protests have witnessed West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at the head of long street marches in Kolkata in the east of the country; and the Congress and CPI (M), two arch-rivals in the political arena, sharing the same dais in Thiruvananthapuram, capital of Kerala, in the south. At least five state chief ministers, including those of West Bengal and Kerala, have vowed to reject the implementation of the new citizenship law in their respective states.
The new citizenship law grants Indian citizenship to non-Muslims, who fled Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan before 2015. Along with Muslim immigrants from those three countries, if any; other minorities, such as Tamils from Sri Lanka, Rohingyas from Myanmar and Tibetans from China would also be refused citizenship. Therefore, they would be rendered stateless. The law evidently violates the principles of equality and secularism enshrined in India’s constitution. Some opponents of the law have already submitted petitions in India’s Supreme Court to challenge the legality of this law. The topmost court says it will hear the petitions in January (2020). Prime Minister Modi, however, remains defiant; and is blaming the opposition Congress Party for spreading “violence and creating an environment of fear by lying about the law’s intent”, and on December 19, police banned protests against the controversial law in several places in India. However, protesters are defying the ban.
The enactment of the law is the third major election promise that Modi’s government has fulfilled. Political analysts believe that the law will re-invigorate his nationalist Hindu support base and divert people’s attention away “from a slackening economy”. The opposition and rights groups believe it is part of Modi’s Hindu-nationalist masterplan aimed at marginalisation of India’s 200 million Muslims. His government said the Citizenship Bill had “sought to correct the wrong done by the partition of India on religious lines”.
The BJP-led government, by having passed the new discriminatory citizenship law, and pursuing NRC, has, in effect, lent weight, despite itself, to Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s “Two-Nation theory”, which considered Hindus and Muslims as two separate nations, who should have separate homelands.
Derek O’Brien, an opposition lawmaker in the upper house of the Indian parliament, observed that the legislation had an “eerie similarity” to Nazi laws against Jews in 1930s’ Germany. Many Indian Muslims feel they have become second-class citizens since Mr Modi assumed power as prime minister in 2014. Several cities with Islamic-sounding names were renamed. Allahabad, for instance, became Prayagraj, or Prayag, and Faizabad district became Ayodhya, while some school textbooks reportedly stand modified to understate Muslims’ contributions to India.
In August (2019), the Indian government rescinded the special status, or limited autonomy, that was granted to Jammu and Kashmir—the only Muslim majority state of India—under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. The government has split the state into two union territories—each to be governed by a lieutenant governor and a unicameral legislature.
A register of citizens in Assam, finalised recently, left out 1.9 million people, a huge chunk of them Muslims. Now they are facing possible statelessness, detention in camps and even deportation. The BJP-led government intends to replicate the register nationwide with the aim of deporting all “infiltrators” by 2024. Modi’s right-hand-man and Home Minister, Amit Shah, has compared illegal immigrants to “termites”. Human Rights Watch suspects that “the Indian government is creating legal grounds to strip millions of Muslims of their fundamental right of equal access to citizenship”. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom termed the Constitutional Amendment Bill a “dangerous turn in the wrong direction”.
The BJP-led NDA government of India seems to have taken the sub-continent back to a situation that smacks of the horrific communal situation in India in 1947. Far-right Hindu nationalist political organisations like BJP, RSS, Biswa Hindu Parishad, Shib Sena, etc. have been nurturing communalistic “Hindutva” (an ideology seeking to establish Hindu hegemony and the Hindu way of life) in constitutionally secular India since its independence. There was BJP-led government in India in the past (Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government) too, but that government had not pushed “Hindutva” too far. Persecution of minorities, especially of Muslims, has been carried to extremes under the Modi government. This is indeed inconceivable in these enlightened times.
The right-wing Hindutvadi cultural and political organisations envision India as a Hindu country and regard Muslims as outsiders. During the first term of the Modi government, Muslims were killed just for eating beef and were coerced into converting to Hinduism under the Ghar Wapsi programme. Celebrity actors like Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan felt insecure and alienated in an atmosphere of extreme religious intolerance; and they faced severe backlashes too for voicing their sense of insecurity.
The new citizenship law, the pursuance of NRC, and other acts of discrimination against Muslims could divide the Indian nation and generate communal unrest and tensions amongst the people of India, with serious implications for India’s economy. All such acts of the Modi government are potentially fraught with diverse ramifications for India and its neighbours. These could provoke acts of communal hatred in all the countries of South Asia; and could plunge them into political chaos, social instability, and religious riots between different communities. The communally biased steps of the BJP-led government could also embitter India’s bilateral relations with its Muslim neighbours; and badly undermine the efforts towards economic integration between the South Asian countries. These could also spark a wish amongst the Hindus in the Muslim majority neighbours of India to migrate in large numbers to India in expectation that the cut-off date of 2015 would be further extended. On the other hand, Muslims in India could come under increased communalistic pressure to leave their own homeland for one of the Muslim majority countries in the sub-continent—a situation that would be vividly reminiscent of the atmosphere of trepidation and mass migration of people between India and Pakistan in 1947.
It is because of the far-right Hindu nationalist organisations in India that communal sentiments of Hindu majority India have remained largely at the 1947 level. However, as the largest country in South Asia, it was incumbent upon India to lift the masses from the scourges of religious bigotry, extremism, militancy, communal hatred, etc. The founding fathers of independent India dreamt of a secular India—and not of a Hindu state.
Muhammad Azizul Haque is a former ambassador and secretary.