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Suppressing Secularism: The Marginalisation of India’s Muslims

On December 12, 2019, India’s Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB). This bill, pushed through by the incumbent right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), would ease the process for immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to attain Indian citizenship. It also allows them to file expedited citizenship claims after just six years of residency, compared to the 11 years required in the original law. The bill is unique and contentious because it uses religion as a discriminator, as it will fast-track citizenship for almost all of South Asia’s most prominent religious groups, with one notable exception: Muslims. The pointed exclusion of a group that comprises 14% of the Indian population has caused many to denounce the legislation as unconstitutional and Islamophobic. 

India’s conception was as a secular democracy, a country that found its strength in its diversity and plurality of religions. However, this idyllic image has been repeatedly undermined, especially by the hard-line Hindutva program of the BJP under the leadership of the controversial Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP defends its bill by claiming that it specifically seeks to protect religious minorities who are fleeing persecution in the aforementioned countries, and so it offers solace to groups such as Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs. Yet the bill’s critics point to India’s constitution, which guarantees that all are equal before the law (Article 14) and cannot be discriminated against based on religion (Article 15). 

In December 2019, over 1200 Indian scientists and scholars issued a statement condemning the bill: “the use of religion as a criterion for citizenship in the proposed bill would mark a radical break…and would be inconsistent with the basic structure of the constitution. We fear… that the careful exclusion of Muslims from the ambit of the Bill will greatly strain the pluralistic fabric of the country.” 

Dissent against the bill has led to widespread rioting and protests, particularly in the northeastern Indian states. While much of the unrest is on behalf of the secular principles of the country, some indigenous groups in the northeastern states have their own concerns not pertaining to religion. They fear that giving citizenship to large numbers of immigrants, regardless of what religion they are, may change the ethnic demography of their region. Across the entire country, thousands have been arrested and casualties reported as Indian police attempted to quash the protests against the law. Media access has also been curtailed, with television broadcasters warned not to air content that could heighten tension and incite more protests. In more Muslim-dominated states in particular, such as Uttar Pradesh, Assam, and West Bengal, internet access was also shut down. 

Many protests have been led by students, particularly at Jamia Millia Islamia University and Aligarh University. The violent crackdown on these protests caught attention globally. In the case of the Jamia Millia University protest, people were outraged at videos circulating of Delhi police beating students, firing tear gas at protesters who had run into the library for safety, and entering the campus by force. There are also allegations that police officers sexually harassed female students at the protest. A similar scene erupted at Aligarh Muslim University in Delhi, where brutal police violence and suppression injured over 60 people. 

Modi’s administration has faced criticism in the past for its track record of persecuting Muslims and condoning hate crimes and discrimination against Muslims in India. The party has been labelled jingoistic, building their campaign on the cultural othering of India’s 200 million Muslims and pushing their agenda of Hindu nationalism at the expense of religious freedom for Muslims. 

One of the most controversial moves made by the Modi administration is the revoking of Article 370, which gave India’s only Muslim-majority state of Kashmir autonomy and special status. Kashmir is one of the most heavily militarized regions in the world—the conflict being the source of much of the tension between India and Pakistan. In the days leading up to the constitutional change thousands of additional Indian troops were deployed, Kashmiri political leaders and activists arrested, and telephone/internet services suspended. Many Kashmiris feel threatened by the BJP allowing non-Kashmiris to buy land in the region and settle there, seeing it as a concerted attempt to change the demographic make-up of the state and reaffirm the BJP’s image of a Hindu India, while stripping Kashmiris of access to communications and self-determination. 

Being tough on Kashmir and changing the constitution was part of the BJP’s campaign trail promises to appeal to a predominantly Hindu-nationalist voter base, as was another move that also threatened Muslims in the country: the rollout of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). In August 2019, the Modi administration published the NRC, a citizenship list for the Indian state of Assam that was contentious at the time and foreshadowed the CAB. The list aimed to identify and differentiate between citizens and illegal immigrants. When the NRC was published, many Muslims in particular found that their names were not listed, despite many having lived in Assam for decades. The implications are grave for these people if they fail to prove that they are citizens of the place they call home, as they could be sent to detention camps or deported. While the NRC only affected Assam, the BJP has indicated that it will roll out the list throughout the country. In conjunction with the CAB, the BJP’s actions could create thousands of stateless Muslim refugees, locked in detention centers, deported, or fleeing to nearby nations, many of which are already struggling with refugee influxes. 

The grave and wide-ranging implications of the marginalization of Muslims in India has meant not only protests and condemnation within India, but globally as well. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch warned India that the combined effect of the NRC and the CAB could create a humanitarian disaster. UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet articulated concerns over the “increasing harassment and targeting of minorities… in particular, [of] Muslims.” The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom urged the U.S. government to impose sanctions on Amit Shah, Indian Home Minister who introduced the bill, as well as other leaders. 

Protests and mobilization against the bill have also taken place on Yale’s campus as well as other universities across the country. Spearheaded by Shreeya Singh, Yale South Asian Society (SAS) Political Chair, SAS penned an open letter denouncing Hindutva ideology and vowing to stand in solidarity with the “brave civil disobedience” of protesters in India. The letter also reads: “We believe the fight for equal treatment for India’s Muslims is also fundamentally a fight for India’s foundational values of secularism and democracy. This is a fight for the future… led by those who will inherit the future.” Protests are planned for March, to coincide with the Holi festival.

The moral concerns surrounding the systematic marginalization and cultural othering of India’s Muslims by the BJP are immense. While Modi still enjoys popular support, with many praising him for delivering on his populist campaign promises, the implications of these controversial and unethical moves may backfire. The leader faces a sharply divided country. In 2018, the BJP controlled 21 of the country’s 29 states; over the past year, that number has shrunk to 15. His divisive identity politics combined with an economy that is growing at its slowest rate in six years, added to a high unemployment rate of 7.6%, is costing the party. The increasingly authoritarian moves of the Modi administration—which in 2019 shut down internet access more often than any other country in order to silence dissent, and which continues an ongoing media blackout in Kashmir that began in August—may also have detrimental economic effects by spooking investors. 

Fundamentally, the tolerant principles enshrined in India’s constitution are under attack by the Modi administration’s propagation of fear, hate, and a perverted form of “patriotism” based on religion. Increasingly, the feeling that Modi’s India is the “world’s largest democracy” in nothing but name is spreading, and Muslims and minorities see they have no place in the BJP’s revisionist, exclusionary future. The fact that this democratic state resorts to police brutality and suspends communications highlights not only the gravity of the situation but also how the BJP dismisses basic civil liberties and devalues freedom of expression. Whether through Kashmiri policy, the NRC, the CAB, or other BJP actions, the country is being divided along religious and moral lines, and so the road ahead for Modi, Indian Muslims, and India’s core values is fraught with tension and uncertainty.