India: Why Modi's plan against Muslims is coming unstuck

India: Why Modi's plan against Muslims is coming unstuck
Comment: India's Muslims have begun mobilising against Prime Minister Narendra Modi's controversial citizenship law, writes Olivier Da Lage.
9 min read
15 Jan, 2020
Protesters demonstrate against PM Narendra Modi and the Citizenship Amendment Bill [Getty]

Muslims make up only around 14 percent of India's population, but that amounts to 180 million people, almost as many as Pakistan.

In a few decades, the number of India's Muslims will surpass that of Indonesia, giving India the world's biggest Muslim population. But they remain a minority, made to feel increasingly that they are no more than tolerated in their own country.

Hindutva (Hinduism) is the founding ideology of the BJP (the Bharatiya Janata Party, or Indian People's Party), whose faithful disciple, Narendra Modi - the current Prime Minister - took power in 2014, and was re-elected spectacularly in the general elections of May 2019.

In 2014, Modi in fact campaigned on a platform of good governance (the country had been plunged into financial scandals in which Congress leaders were implicated) and promises of development.

Rid the country of 'termites'

But five years on, with economic results failing to materialise, the BJP conversely based its campaign on the fundamental demands of the Hindu nationalists: ending the special status of Kashmir (the only Muslim-majority state); the construction of a temple dedicated to Ram on the site of the Ayodhya mosque, whose destruction in 1992 by nationalist militants triggered communal disturbances in which thousands died; and the imposition of a uniform Civil Code ending the special status accorded to Christians and Muslims.

During the campaign, the BJP and Modi himself bracketed the opposition, and notably the Congress Party, with the Pakistani enemy. As for Amit Shah*, he pledged to rid India of its "infiltrators" and "termites", meaning undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh, and to throw them into the Bay of Bengal.

For the first time, religion became a criterion for nationality, although the Indian constitution is secular

Because of the electoral system, the BJP's crushing victory gave it an absolute majority in the lower chamber with 37.4 percent of the vote, making it unnecessary to make concessions to coalition partners. This was taken by Modi as a clear mandate to set in motion the BJP's programme.

Kashmir cut off

So it was that on 5 August, Amit Shah had parliament vote for the abrogation of Article 370 of the constitution, which had allowed Kashmir's accession to the Indian Union long after the other Indian states. That article granted Kashmir a large measure of autonomy and was the fruit of a compromise with the Kashmiri leadership to join India at a time when Pakistan also had designs on the region.

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Outside Kashmir, Shah's initiative has been very well received by the Hindu population and by the increasingly less independent Indian media.

On the ground, a strict curfew has been imposed, political leaders placed under house arrest (including some former allies of the BJP), and the internet cut off.

Foreigners and even opposition MPs have been denied access to Kashmir, though the authorities claimed that everything there was normal. The Supreme Court, which has known more courageous days, declined to give urgent consideration to cases of habeas corpus which had been raised. Six months on, it still has not.

A controversial ruling on the Babri Ayodhya Mosque

Meanwhile that same Supreme Court on 9 November 2019 ruled on the dispute over the Babri Ayodhya mosque, destroyed in 1992 by militant extremists who wanted to "reconstruct" the temple dedicated to Ram which they claimed had been razed in the 16th century under the Moghul emperor Babur to make way for the mosque.

In a ruling running to 1000 pages, the judges, while admitting that the mosque's destruction was illegal and that there was no irrefutable proof that a temple had existed on the site, nonetheless accepted the demands of the Hindu plaintiffs and gave them the exclusive right to build a temple there, while granting the Muslims a five-acre site further away.

Among those who criticised the judgement for its lack of a legal basis, opinion was divided. Some accused the judges of bending to the prevailing "majoritarianism", while others saw it as a political decision but one aimed at calming the situation, averting the violence which a contrary judgement would undoubtedly have provoked from the Hindu extremists. Thus, most of the Muslim organisations refrained from appealing the decision.

Hindus deprived of nationality in Assam

At the same time, the state of Assam in the north-east had just finished compiling its National Register of Citizens (NRC), a project born in the 1980s under the government of Rajiv Gandhi.

On the border with Bangladesh, Assam has for some decades been subject to waves of xenophobia focused on the presence of many undocumented immigrants from next door. Many Assam residents want to expel those newcomers.

The BJP government, backed by the Supreme Court under Judge Gogoi (who is from Assam), sped up the process. In September 2019, preliminary figures indicating the presence of four million people who had failed to establish their Indian identity created a shock because many of those rejected - nearly two thirds of them - were Hindus, including some high-ranking military officers.

A new calculation brought the figures down finally to 1.9 million Indians who suddenly found that they were Indian no more.

Protesters demonstrate against PM Narendra Modi and the Citizenship Amendment Bill [Getty]

They were required to establish that they, or their parents, were resident in Assam before the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, an impossible task for many Indians in a country where the civil bureaucracy is patchy or even non-existent.

The New Delhi government began setting up detention camps for the newly stateless persons. Amit Shah, who had promised during the election campaign of 2019 to expand the Assam census experiment to the whole country, then went to the lower chamber on 10 December, knowing he could count on an automatic majority to propose an amendment to the 1955 citizenship law.

Under this Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), undocumented illegal residents in India could be naturalised if they came from three neighbouring countries, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan - but only if they belong to these religious minorities: Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Farsis, Jains and Christians.

Muslims are not named, any more than other neighbours of India such as Sri Lanka or Nepal. Amit Shah tried unconvincingly to argue that Indian Muslims had nothing to worry about because it was a question of giving new rights to victims of religious persecution rather than taking them away from others.

Contradicting the secular constitution

Easily voted through the lower chamber, the project won a narrow majority in the upper house, despite opposition protests vigorously denouncing the discriminatory anti-Muslim and unconstitutional nature of the new law, now baptised the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

Indeed, for the first time, religion became a criterion for nationality, although the Indian constitution is secular and the Supreme Court has enshrined secularism as one of the foundations of the country's judicial system.

Read more: Pondering their future in their own homeland: Muslims fearful in a hate filled India

As jurists began preparing submissions to the Supreme Court, Indian Muslims were hit by a shock wave. For two decades, they had as a community shown a great deal of resilience in the face of growing Hindu majoritarianism aimed at reducing them to second-class citizens.

They - and others - have staged timid protests against the wave of discrimination and lynching to which some of them fell victim, especially after the rise to power of the BJP. In general collectively they absorbed the blows with steadfast resignation. But now, it is their status as Indian citizens which is openly at issue.

Students beaten in New Delhi

Demonstrations erupted here and there throughout the country. One of them, by the students of the Jamia Millia University of New Delhi, was to have a momentous effect.

This prestigious - and Muslim - university establishment, whose students and teachers are not all Muslims, counts a number of eminent figures among its graduates. On 15 December, the Delhi police - who answer directly to the Ministry of the Interior - entered the university premises and fired tear gas even inside the university library. Many students were beaten with wooden truncheons wielded by the police and taken for questioning.

Video clips circulated on social media networks and within a few hours, solidarity movements sprang up in universities in almost all the Indian states, including establishments which so far had appeared unpoliticised.

The most spectacular support indisputably came from the students of the BHU, Benares Hindu University, the high sanctum of Hinduism located in the very heart of Prime Minister Modi's constituency.

Violent repression in Uttar Pradesh

The government might well denounce "disinformation", and repeat that the CAA was in no way a threat to the Indian Muslims, and Narendra Modi himself on 22 December told a crowd of 200,000 BJP militants and sympathisers that there was no plan for a countrywide census.

But the disturbances persisted and spread. At times they were harshly suppressed, notably in Uttar Pradesh state where the police are under the direct command of Yogi Adityanath, the local government chief, a merciless monk soldier appointed by Modi himself.

His police left many protestors dead, and mass arrests, torture and the destruction of property multiplied.

The fact is that the CAA and the NRC have trapped the Indian Muslims in a vice. As Amit Shah himself said in a tweet in April, "First, we will push the citizenship amendment law through, and naturalise the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Jain refugees. Then we will implement the NRC to rid the country of the infiltrators".

The NRC had barely been discounted by the prime minister, when the same Narendra Modi launched an early ordinary census, the National Population Register (NPR).

It is not the first of its kind, but this time its novelty lies in the fact that it envisages asking the date and place of birth not only of the respondents, but also of their parents. In other words, almost the entire Indian population is affected because even if the intention is to put the question only to those born after 1985, the simple fact of asking the birth details of the parents, necessary to pass through the NPR filter, also means establishing their nationality.

Many Indians, until now passive or intimidated, were awoken by the threat to the very idea of India

In a country where it has only been compulsory since 1969 to register births with the local authorities, and where the average age is only 28, this amounts in practice to a sword of Damocles hanging over all of India's Muslims.

Those marked as "questionable" by the administration could be rehabilitated thanks to the famous CAA. Provided, of course, that they are not Muslims. So that is how a law which is officially not meant to concern Indian Muslims ends up affecting them very directly.

A return to civil disobedience

The Modi government, which by no means intends to give up its project, was visibly taken aback by the mobilisation against the CCA, NRC and NPR.

Several of the main states, notably West Bengal and Kerala, let it be known that they refused to cooperate with the census and even opposed it. Some commentators who had so far held their silence in the face of Hindu nationalist excesses, now wrote about the magnitude of the civil disobedience, inspired by the Satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi. Many Indians, until now passive or intimidated, were awoken by the threat to the very idea of India.

Read more: Democracy languishes in Modi's anti-Muslim India

The question now, is whether, even under the BJP, India can remain a secular country respecting all religions equally, which was envisaged by the fathers of Indian independence, or whether it is on the brink of becoming the "Hindu Pakistan" which Nehru adamantly rejected.

Olivier Da Lage is a veteran French journalist and author specialising in Middle-Eastern affairs.

Follow him on Twitter:@odalage

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

*Editor's note: Amit Shah has been president of the BJP since 2014 and is currently minister of Home Affairs in the Modi government.