“Those who are creating violence can be identified by their clothes.” This was the message from India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at a rally in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand a little over a week ago. Modi was referring to protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) — a law that makes it possible for specific religious minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh to obtain fast-track Indian citizenship — which at that point were just beginning.
This is what Modi was really saying: It is Muslims who are protesting, and by doing so, they are showing us their lack of patriotism.
In other words, he was appealing to the Hindu nationalism that is so central to his party’s political project. At the core of this ideology lies the belief that India should be a nation for and of Hindus — the so-called Hindu Rashtra. According to its key tenets, India’s Muslim community — a minority of some 200-million, or approximately 14% of India’s 1.3-billion-strong population —constitutes a threat to the integrity of the Hindu nation, and this threat must be flushed out and defeated.
However, if Modi’s speech was intended to undermine opposition to the CAA by way of majoritarian stigma, it failed. Instead, during the course of the past two weeks, massive protests have erupted across the country. The response has been one that India has become particularly accustomed to under Modi — namely repression. At the time of writing, at least 23 people, including an eight-year old, have been killed. The majority of these killings have happened in the BJP-ruled state of Uttar Pradesh, where police has unleashed an outright reign of terror to curb demonstrations. Nationwide, thousands of protesters have been detained, arrested, or badly beaten by police. Students in university libraries have been violently attacked, and police have vandalised homes and businesses in Muslim neighbourhoods. Protests have been banned in BJP-ruled states and authorities have shut down the internet and telephone networks. Despite all these vulgar displays of state power, protests continue.
Make no mistake: this clash between citizens using their constitutional right to protest and a government whose entire playbook is defined by majoritarian cultural nationalism and violent coercion is nothing short of a breaking point for Indian democracy. And it is crucial that we understand that it is a breaking point that has been in the making since Modi and the BJP assumed power in India in 2014.
Let’s start with the most immediate question: why has the CAA, which was passed into law on December 11, met with so much anger and opposition in India’s public sphere? “It’s a humanitarian issue, beyond political ideologies,” said Amit Shah, India’s Home Minister, as the legislation was being debated in the Indian parliament. On the face of it, this appears to be true — the CAA offers expedited citizenship for persecuted religious groups from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh who can prove that they have been living in India since before December 31 2014. However, there is a catch — and that catch is religiously defined: the CAA only extends this right to Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Parsis. Muslims – for example Afghan Hazaras, Pakistani Ahmadiyya Muslims, and Rohingyas from Myanmar – are excluded from its remit.
It is this omission that, most directly, has sparked the ongoing protests. Critics believe that by defining the right to citizenship for persecuted on religious terms, the BJP government is violating the most basic principles of India’s secular constitution. “The worry,” argues Professor Niraja Gopal Jayal, a preeminent scholar of the Indian constitution at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, “is that the introduction of the religious criterion will yield, effectively, a hierarchy of citizens, a kind of two-tiered, graded citizenship.” And it is abundantly clear that Indian Muslims will end up as second-class citizens in this hierarchy.
This is due to the fact that the BJP aims to couple the CAA with the introduction of a national population register and a National Registry of Citizens (NRC). Under the provisions of the NRC, the right to Indian citizenship is directly linked to whether or not individuals can prove that they were born in India between January 1950 and June 1987, or that they are children of bonafide Indian citizens. In a country where it is more common than not that people — especially poor people, of which there are many in India — do not have the kind of documents required by this process, many risk losing their citizenship. However, Hindus who find themselves in this situation can make use of the lifeline offered by the CAA.
The fact that this opportunity is not afforded to Muslims results in an excruciating vulnerability, which again is the result of an explicit design. “First, we will bring Citizenship Amendment Bill and will give citizenship to the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain and Christian refugees, the religious minorities from the neighbouring nations,” Amit Shah declared in one of his many speeches during the campaign for the 2019 general election. “Then,” he continued, ”we will implement NRC to flush out the infiltrators from our country.” With “infiltrators” being staple Hindu nationalist dogwhistle-speak for Muslims, the writing could not be more plainly on the wall.
The BJP plot against India’s secular democracy, however, runs thicker than this.
In fact, the current situation is a culmination of a process that has been unfolding with disconcerting momentum since Modi’s landslide election victory earlier this year. In August, the abrogation of Article 370 of India’s Constitution reduced Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, to a Union Territory. As a consequence, Kashmiri authorities are no longer in a position to define who is a permanent resident with a right to own land in the state, and this paves the way for dramatic demographic changes with the capacity to advance the idea of a Hindu rashtra in very tangible ways.
Next, in October, an updated citizen register for the BJP-ruled state of Assam in northeastern India was published. In this exercise, people had to prove that they had been resident in the state since before March 26 1971 – the day that Muslim-majority Bangladesh, which shares a border with Assam, came into existence as an independent nation-state. And it was illegal immigrants from Bangladesh — referred to as “termites” by Amit Shah — who were in the crosshairs of this initiative. Again the logic is clear: the Hindu nation is to be built by purging India’s territory of the Muslim enemy within. Some two million people were excluded from Assam’s NRC. The fact that detention centres are currently being built across the state does not bode well for their future.
And then, in November, India’s Supreme Court passed its verdict in the Ayodhya dispute, in favour of Hindu plaintiffs who claimed the right to the land where the Babri Masjid, a sixteenth century mosque, stood until it was demolished by Hindu nationalist mobs in early December 1992. In doing so, the Supreme Court effectively lent credence to a weaponised mythology which claims that this land is the birthplace of Lord Ram, and therefore rightfully belongs to India’s Hindu majority. Even more worrisome, the verdict signalled that the Supreme Court, which is supposed to be an independent guardian of India’s secular constitutional democracy, has aligned itself with the political project of the Modi regime.
This political project, in turn, is predicated on an authoritarian populism that draws a line between true Indians and their anti-national enemies within. During Modi’s first term in power, from 2014 to 2019, this line was drawn, above all, through majoritarian violence, carried out by Hindu nationalist vigilantes against vulnerable minorities – chief among them Muslims. Often carried out in the name of protecting the holy cow, there were more than 100 such attacks between May 2015 and December 2018, leaving a total of 44 people dead. Thirty-six of these victims were Muslim. At the same time, dissidents — journalists, human rights activists, academics, students, and lawyers — were subjected to intimidation, harassment, arrests, and murderous violence, all in the name of protecting a purported national interest. The trajectory of events since Modi’s re-election has effectively inscribed this majoritarianism, violence, and authoritarianism into law — and it is this that has brought the republic to the breaking point where it currently finds itself.
There is little doubt that Modi’s authoritarian populism has been successful in attracting support from India’s Hindu majority across class and caste lines. In fact, 44% of all Hindu voters — that is, two in every five — supported Modi in the 2019 elections. This, of course, is much of the reason why the BJP regime has seemed like an unstoppable juggernaut. Until now, that is — when the onward march of Hindu nationalism stands challenged by the “No Pasaran!” of nationwide popular protests which assert that a citizen is a citizen is a citizen.
At this point, there is no way of knowing what the outcome of these protests. What is not unclear, however, is that the future of Indian democracy, hinges, to a very large extent, on what happens next. Given the authoritarian nature of the BJP government, further repression is not unlikely, and the consequences of this would be nothing short of catastrophic. However, winning demands such as the repeal of the CAA and the cancellation of the NRC process could be a crucial first step in cracking the hegemony of the Modi regime. A more lasting counter-hegemonic movement could in turn be built by fusing public anger at the blatant attacks on constitutional democracy with the discontent that is bound to result from the stagnation of the Indian economy that has happened on Modi’s watch. The right to be a citizen must be an unconditional right to life — that is, a social right as much as a civil and political right.
And it is incumbent on those of us watching India from abroad to extend our solidarity to those who are on the frontlines of the struggle against the dying of the light in the world’s largest democracy — with protests, with signatures on letters and petitions, and with constant reminders to the Modi regime that we will bear vocal witness to what it chooses to do in this crucial moment.