A Dangerous Assault on India’s Secular Democracy

By: Achin Vanaik

March 9, 2020

Religion and Citizenship in India

Religious nationalist currents exist in many societies including in democracies like the United States and India. But depending upon how strong they are amidst other competing conceptions of nationalism, they will have greater or lesser influence on the state and its policies. The federal state in the United States may be swayed in this or that policy by religio-political forces, but its basically secular character is not under serious threat. A rock-bottom principle of any secular state is that there must be equality of citizenship rights irrespective of religious affiliation. To be a democracy, those citizenship rights must incorporate by law a host of freedoms and even certain group and minority rights. What exists on paper and in practice can of course differ. Making democracy more substantive is about reducing this gap as well as empowering people through generating laws of better and wider scope. But if the gap is ever widening and more repressive laws enacted, then one can certainly talk of an authoritarian drift of different speeds taking place in those very countries that pride themselves on being democratic, even to the point when the minimum criteria for being perceived as a democracy may no longer hold.

This, in fact, is the current state of affairs in India. Over the last three-and-a-half decades, the forces of Hindu nationalism have made steady advances to the point where its electoral wing, the BJP, is not only ruling the country but, ideologically speaking, is expanding its hegemony. Its basic credo is called Hindutva or Hindu-ness, whose key propositions are simple enough. 1) The cultural-political foundations of Indian nationalism must rest on this “Hindu-ness.” 2) Democracy means, not flexible political majorities, but simply the rule of the fixed majority who are Hindus and whose interests must therefore be prioritized. 3) This is all the more necessary because only a sustained Hindu unity will guarantee that India fulfils its destiny of becoming and remaining a strong power, globally admired. 4) Historically, the country was weakened, above all, not by British colonial rule but by Muslim invaders who came a thousand years ago and whose political legatees, the Muslim League, caused the “rape of mother India,” Partition in 1947. 5) If Islamic Pakistan (and to a lesser extent its subsequent breakaway, Bangladesh) are the danger from without, then India’s Muslims (to a lesser extent its Christians and communists who also follow “un-Indian” beliefs) are the danger within. 6) The Hindutva project requires saturation of this “common sense” within society as well as the creation in place of the state that currently exists, a Hindu one in all but name—and who knows, in due course, even explicitly so.

Ever since the Modi government came to power on its own in 2014 and then got re-elected with a bigger electoral majority in 2019, among the major policy changes taken to fulfill its Hindutva ambition, two currently stand out. Although the Indian Union is an asymmetric federalism with not all states having the same distribution of powers, the BJP has always been bitter about its “Hindu India” tolerating the only Muslim majority state in India, namely Jammu and Kashmir, having such autonomy when Muslims must prove their allegiance by not having any “special privileges”! That the Kashmir Valley has been disputed territory between India and Pakistan has been a further spur to the BJP’s recent unconstitutional annulment of the laws guaranteeing that autonomy. While the BJP has always been open about this aim, those opposed to Hindutva never anticipated the legal maneuvers that it had quietly and well in advance prepared—a completely unexpected and fraudulent amendment to a Constitutional article—for eventually carrying out this act. 

This is also the case with the Citizenship Amendment Act, the first ever law in the country which vitiates the secular and democratic principle of equality of citizenship rights irrespective of religious affiliation. Ostensibly designed to allow in the name of “religious persecution” only otherwise illegal non-Muslim minorities from the neighboring countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh residing in India before December 31, 2014 to apply and get fast-track naturalization to become Indian citizens. Before 2003, you could become an Indian citizen automatically if born before July 1987 and afterwards or if besides being born here you had one parent who was an Indian citizen. The first BJP-led coalition government (1998/9–2004) added another condition requiring that the other parent must not be an illegal migrant, in which case neither that person nor the children born after the end of 2004 to those parents could ever become Indian citizens. However, Hindus from Pakistan overstaying in India would not be deemed illegal. This was the first introduction of a religious criterion of selectivity. Furthermore, it was laid down that there would be a National Population Register (NPR) throughout the country to collect information to decide who are “doubtful citizens.” This is to be followed by a National Register of Citizens (NRC) to decide final status. 

In the 2014–2019 first term of Modi’s rule, financial (freedom to purchase immovable properties, for example) concessions were made to precisely the same non-Muslim minorities from the same three countries that did not as yet have Indian citizenship. The Citizens Amendment Bill was introduced in 2016 in Parliament, but it had to wait for after the second 2019 general elections when the BJP secured a majority in both houses of Parliament for it to be introduced and passed. What this act now does is to provide an escape route even for non-Muslim residents in India who do not have documentary proof of their citizenship, to stay and be citizens once the NPR and NRC are undertaken. The NPR house-to-house enumeration will start on April 1, 2020, and will demand information on the basis of which “doubtful citizens” can be then identified. If they do not have the required documentation of proof, the subsequent NRC can put them in detention camps and at the very least take away various rights (voting, freedom of movement, holding property, for example) not available for non-citizens. Of course, non-Muslims not having the required documentation (which will also run into tens and tens of millions, since huge numbers of Indians are not born in hospitals and do not have birth certificates) can nevertheless plead that they are migrants from the three neighboring Muslim-majority countries and facing religious persecution, lost their documentation. 

In short, whether the NPR and NRC are fully carried out or remain as a Damocles Sword, the aim is to legally establish the condition of as many Muslims as possible as second-class citizens who must be obedient to their Hindutva masters. This is why so many ordinary Muslims have come out in prolonged agitation against the CAA/NPR/NRC declaring that they are Indian citizens as much as anyone else. While they have been joined in their struggles by a large number of youth and college students across religious faiths, this is not enough. Wherever the BJP controls the police forces, extreme brutality has been visited upon protestors including deaths, injuries imprisonments, false charges with no punishment against these official victimizers. The Supreme Court has been so suborned that it has not shown the courage so far to either reject the CAA or to call for an immediate halt to the six-month lockdown and arbitrary mass arrests of people in Kashmir. Meanwhile, two vicious Islamophobes—Modi and Trump—greeted each other warmly on February 25, when the latter arrived in India on a state visit.

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