The Citizenship Law Behind India’s Sectarian Violence
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election campaign ahead of the 4th phase of state Assembly elections, in Dhanbad, (Source: PTI)

The Citizenship Law Behind India’s Sectarian Violence

(Bloomberg) -- Back in 1947, India’s constitution writers envisaged a secular state where all citizens were equal before the law. But the rise of Hindu nationalism has been testing that ideal. Since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014, hardliners in his Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, have become increasingly emboldened in promoting the dominance of its Hindus, who form 80% of the population. A restrictive new citizenship law is the latest in a string of moves to worry the country’s 170 million Muslims following Modi’s landslide re-election in May. Protests that broke out late last year have turned deadly.

1. What are the protests about?

The Citizenship Amendment Law, which was pushed through parliament by Modi’s party on Dec. 11 and took effect Jan. 10. It bans undocumented Muslim migrants from neighboring countries from seeking citizenship in India while allowing those of other religions. It is the first law since India gained independence to explicitly exclude Muslims. Demonstrations initially began in the eastern state of Assam, where there are fears the law would encourage an influx of new migrants. But the anger soon spread, including to the capital New Delhi, over the law’s discriminatory nature and fears it will damage India’s secular ethos.

2. What’s happened?

Students of all faiths started the protests, which then moved beyond college campuses to include such things as peaceful sit-ins organized by Muslim women across northern India. Yet violence has erupted at times. In early January, masked assailants stormed Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi in an attack on students and academics that prompted demonstrations in the financial capital Mumbai and beyond. Weeks later, more than two dozen people died, including a police officer, during three days of rioting in which Hindu mobs vandalized mosques and attacked residents in Muslim-majority neighborhoods -- all during a state visit by U.S. President Donald Trump.

3. Where is this headed?

The act will have to pass the scrutiny of the nation’s top court, which agreed to examine the legislation following more than 50 petitions filed by activists, lawyers, student groups, Muslim bodies and politicians from across the country. The court has criticized the police for failing to quell the communal violence.

4. Why is Hindu nationalism on the rise?

As the Congress Party, which dominated the government for decades, became increasingly viewed as corrupt and ineffective, that created room for the emergence of the BJP and Modi. The BJP is inspired by the ideology of the country’s main Hindu nationalist organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, which promotes a more assertive, orthodox form of the religion that sees India foremost as a Hindu nation.

5. What are Modi’s ties to the movement?

Modi, 69, joined the RSS as a teenager, then shifted gradually to the BJP as a political organizer. He moved rapidly through the party hierarchy in his home state of Gujarat and became the state’s chief minister in 2001. The following year the state saw widespread religious riots that left more than a 1,000 people, mostly Muslim, dead. After 13 years as chief minister, Modi turned to national politics. His first term as prime minister saw an increase in violence against minorities across the country, including mob lynchings. His re-election has emboldened fringe factions of his political base, especially in Uttar Pradesh, a state of 200 million people, where the BJP appointed a firebrand Hindu priest, Yogi Adityanath, as leader.

6. What else are the hardliners doing?

Hindu nationalists are pushing to build a temple on the site of a former mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya, which many Hindus believe was the birthplace of the warrior god Ram. After decades of legal dispute, the nation’s highest court in November gave Hindus control over the site. The BJP has promised to build a grand temple there and the court order clears the way for that. Since Modi’s rise to power, vigilante mobs across the country have attacked Muslims and lower-caste Hindus transporting cattle, especially cows -- which many devout Hindus consider sacred. In Uttar Pradesh this has disrupted the multibillion-dollar meat export industry, which is driven by buffalo meat. Adityanath led a campaign that blamed Muslim youths for waging a “love jihad” by seducing Hindu women to convert them to Islam, which allowed mobs to harass people with impunity. At least one marriage was ordered annulled by a court.

7. What else has Modi’s government done?

The tilt in favor of Hindus has coincided with the rise of Amit Shah, Modi’s closest aide, as the second-most powerful leader in India. Not long after Modi’s re-election, the government moved to scrap seven decades of autonomy for Kashmir -- India’s only Muslim majority region -- and imposed restrictions on phones and the internet. Several local political leaders were detained. A citizenship registry introduced in the eastern state of Assam threatens to render stateless close to 2 million Indians, including Muslims. Shah, who is India’s home minister, wants to extend the registry nationwide.

8. What has Modi said?

Until the protests erupted, Modi had mostly kept a low profile, leaving Shah to announce the most divisive elements of the BJP’s agenda. Then on Dec. 16, Modi issued a series of tweets defending the citizenship law and calling for peace -- two days after he told an election rally that protesters could be identified by their clothes, a reference to headscarves and other Islamic attire. He has assured border states worried about migration that their identity and culture would be protected. On Dec. 17, Shah ruled out any possibility of repealing the law. On Kashmir, Modi has repeatedly said his government wants to bring the disputed region closer to the rest of India. “We want to create a paradise in Jammu and Kashmir once again and hug every Kashmiri,” he said at a rally in western India, according to news reports.

9. What kind of power do India’s Muslims have?

The political space for India’s minorities has been shrinking: In 2014, only 3.7% of members of Parliament’s lower house were Muslim, compared to 9% in 1980, even as the Muslim share of the population rose to 14.2% from 11.1% in the same period. The BJP in 2014 and 2019 was the only major political party with no Muslim members elected to Parliament.

10. What do Modi’s critics say?

That the rise of religious identity politics has shifted focus from fundamental problems such as malnutrition, quality of education, lack of sanitation and rising income inequality. India is set for the slowest economic growth since 2009. While Indian businesses had initially welcomed what Modi said would be a pro-growth agenda, that enthusiasm seems to be waning. Billionaire Rahul Bajaj said in early December that business leaders were worried about the repercussions of criticizing Modi’s administration. It was a rare display of a corporate leader publicly expressing reservations about the government. Some outside India have chimed in, including Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. Western Asset Management Co. said it was reducing its Indian government bond holdings as tensions cloud the economic outlook.

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