Bottom Line Up Front
- Protests continue in India over the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which provides for expedited citizenship but specifically excludes Muslims.
- The new law applies to people who entered India before 2014 from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh if they belong to six specified religions.
- The Hindu-nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seen as trying to marginalize and demonize India’s 200 million Muslims.
- Growing religious and sectarian tensions in India have been exacerbated by the spread of disinformation across social media, which has frequently led to real-world violence.
On December 17, a large protest occurred in Delhi as demonstrators took to the streets to denounce a controversial law known as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). This was one of several protests in cities across India since the CAA was approved on December 12th. For the protesters, the CAA is the latest in a trend of anti-Muslim actions taken by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Many Indians see the CAA as a marked break from the secular framework that has guided India since 1948, in that for the first time religion will be considered in applications for Indian citizenship. Tensions between India’s 200 million Muslims and the Modi government, which retains widespread political support throughout the country, are escalating at a rapid rate.
The CAA amends Indian immigration laws; part of it applies to those who entered India illegally prior to 2014. Individuals who came from three countries in particular—Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh—can apply for an expedited path towards citizenship provided they are from one of six listed religions. Those listed religions are Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian. The Modi government said that the act protects those of persecuted religious minorities, and stipulates Muslims do not need such protection from those three countries. There have been significant persecutions of religious minorities by governments in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan. Those protesting the CAA stress that the deliberate exclusion of Muslims is another move by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to marginalize and even demonize Muslim Indians. Some have speculated that the Modi government’s campaign against Muslims is merely a way to distract from some of India’s most pressing challenges, including air pollution, terrorism, and violence against women.
The language being used by some Hindu-nationalist hardliners including Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah to describe the migrant issue and Muslims specifically, is inflammatory and reminiscent of language that preceded the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Minister Shah has referred to migrants as ‘termites’ in an effort to dehumanize them. The CAA comes at a time of already heightened tensions between Muslims and their government. In November, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that a Hindu temple could be built in the town of Ayodhya on the site where a Muslim mosque had once stood. The Ayodhya issue has been ongoing for decades and it is difficult to overstate its symbolic importance, particularly for the BJP, the country’s largest political party. Growing religious and sectarian tensions have been exacerbated by the spread of disinformation across social media, which has frequently led to real-world violence.
In August, the Indian government revoked the semi-autonomy of the Jammu-Kashmir state, an extremely controversial move. The Parliament’s vote to change Article 370 of the Constitution was framed by its supporters as necessary to bring the disputed state more fully into the Indian nation. The vote was also immediately matched with mass arrests and detentions. The Indian government blocked internet access throughout the region, which has continued for nearly 140 days in what advocacy group Access Now said was the longest such interruption ever by a democracy. Indian officials claim that blocking access to the internet has helped to prevent violence related to the vote, an argument which seems specious at best. There are more than 7 million people in the Kashmir valley currently without internet access. Just this week, the Indian government relied on this tactic again, this time temporarily blocking internet access in Delhi. Lawmakers are concerned over disruption to business, commerce, and tourism resulting from the protests, which have not waned even in the face of increasing pressure from authorities. There are no hopeful prospects for a near-term reduction of tensions in India, and broader prospects for addressing the deeper structural issues plaguing Muslim-Hindu relations seem non-existent. Long before becoming Prime Minister, Modi used these tensions as a political tool; he was widely criticized for his handling of the 2002 deadly anti-Muslim riots and mass killings in Gujarat, where he was Chief Minister at the time. The current popularity of Modi’s government highlights the significant support among many for his hardline Hindu nationalist approach, while also laying bare serious and seemingly irreparable rifts between different groups in Indian society.