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India sends a signal to Muslims: You are no longer welcome

For many living on the margins in India, democracy has always been another word for an abusive state
Protesters express opposition to a new citizenship law and solidarity with the students of Jamia Millia Islamia university in Ahmedabad, India, on 17 December (Reuters)

If there was any doubt over the intentions of the right-wing Hindu government in India, the events of the past week have laid these firmly to rest.

Last week, India’s parliament passed a law that categorically excludes Muslim immigrants and refugees living in India from obtaining citizenship. 

A 'new' India

The Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) was signed into law by India’s president. Rolled out in tandem with the planned National Register of Citizens (NRC), a country-wide government initiative to determine who are legal citizens, it means that the BJP-led government has laid the blueprint for exercising a long-held dream to create a so-called Hindu democratic state.

According to the CAA, citizenship in this new India would be based on religion. 

The law, according to legal experts, has been designed to serve an entirely different purpose: The institutionalisation of Muslims as the perennial outsider

An editorial from the Economic and Political Weekly journal called the legislation "insidious" and "a substantial building block for the majoritarian–exclusivist political project of Hindutva".

"It is so because it seeks to suggest a discriminatory and arbitrary answer to the question of who an Indian is or what it means to be an Indian," it added.

The Indian government says that the law is an attempt to protect Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Parsi, Buddhist and Jain from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who might have fled religious persecution.

But the law does not apply to all religious minorities, neither does it include all of its neighbours.

Legal experts contend that the exclusion of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, Tamils from Sri Lanka or even Muslim minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan - many of whom have fled to India on account of religious persecution - indicates that the law has been designed to serve an entirely different purpose: the institutionalisation of second-class status for Muslims.  

Within days, the protests began. And protesters had different grievances. 

The awakening

In the northeastern state of Assam, thousands took to the streets to argue that the law would mean the naturalisation of Bangladeshi Hindus and result in a shift in the cultural identity of the state.

It is as if a nation has awoken from a deep slumber

In other cities, the protests have revolved around the communal nature of the CAB that puts India firmly on the path towards establishing a Hindu Rashtra, or a Hindu state. Protests took place in 25 cities and 50 universities, prompting observers to note their scale and uniformity of message - unseen since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in 2014. 

It is as if a nation has awoken from a deep slumber. 

The crackdown on protesters has been methodical; the state cut the internet in three states with partial disconnections in two others. Add the communication blockade in Kashmir and that means 60 million people were taken offline.

Demonstrators throw stones towards police during a protest against a new citizenship law in Seelampur, area of Delhi, India on 17  December (Reuters)
Demonstrators throw stones towards police during a protest against a new citizenship law in Seelampur, area of Delhi, India on 17 December (Reuters)

Then they sent police to quash the protests. They entered universities, physically assaulting and intimidating protesters and firing tear gas at students at one university in the capital.  In Assam, they fired live rounds.

The rapid mobilisation by the masses was unexpected. And it came like a storm.

It appeared as if the Modi government expected that their latest move would be received with little complaint, in the way previous measures had been.

For instance, when the government imposed demonetisation in 2017, punctured the economy and left the poor without their daily bread, as the state made certain currency notes obsolete, the population accepted it. 

It was a loyalty test, novelist Arundhati Roy wrote afterwards: “[It was] a love exam that the Great Leader was putting us through. Would we follow him, would we always love him, no matter what? We emerged with flying colours. The moment we as a people accepted demonetization, we infantilized ourselves and surrendered to tinpot authoritarianism,” Roy said.

The Kashmir saga

In August this year, the Indian government abrogated Article 370 and Article 35A of its constitution, effectively ending Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status. Tens of thousands of additional troops were sent in, a communication blockade imposed.

Boys as young as 14 were picked up and placed in jail without charge. Some were sent to states thousands of kilometres away without any notice to their parents. Kashmiri protests were quashed before they could even start. The Indian public, most of the media, even the courts accepted this, too.

Four ways Palestine and Kashmir are connected

The extent and level of brutality in Kashmir is still unknown because five months on, the internet is still disconnected. Even a benign utility like SMS messaging in Kashmir does not work.

Later in August, the government published a National Register of Citizens (NRC) list that aims to discern between citizens and "infiltrators" in the northeast state of Assam. Around two million people were left out of the register, rendering them all but stateless and held in detention camps.

Then in November, the Supreme Court ruled on the Ayodhya case dating back to 1992, when a Hindu mob destroyed a medieval mosque. The Hindu right claimed that the mosque had been built on the birthplace of Hindu deity Ram and have been angling for the site to be "returned" to Hindus. 

For many, the destruction of the Babri Masjid marked the arrival of the Hindu right-wing into the national consciousness. More than 1,000 people were killed in the ensuing riots. The Supreme Court ruled that while the demolishing of the mosque was illegal, it awarded the site to Hindus to build a temple.

However desperate India might have been to see the end of the case, the judgement merely signalled the arrival of a majoritarian democracy, where appeasing the majority would be valued more than justice. 

Incidentally, both Kashmir and Ayodhya were campaign promises made by Modi prior to May’s election.

Modi rattled

But the unexpected response to the citizenship law seems to have rattled Modi. 

In a rally on 15 December, Modi blamed outside interference and opposition parties for the outpouring of rage. Modi, usually careful with his public statements, succumbed to his inner demons. "Those who are creating violence can be identified by their clothes itself," he said in a clear reference to Indian Muslims, who can often be identified by their skull caps or headscarves and dress.

In the past, Muslims have been referred to as termites by Amit Shah, the party’s second in command. That not everyone in India carries identity cards or passports and residency papers that prove they belong is well known. 

The fear is that once the Modi government introduces the National Register of Citizens in other parts of the country, the new law would be used to subject Muslims to arbitrary harassment and persecution. "Proof of belonging" will now rest on Muslims.

Death of democracy

Though the project to unite all of ancient India - which includes Pakistan, Kashmir, Bangladesh - is decades old, the Hindu right has been invigorated by Modi’s partnership with Israel. Since 2014, India’s relationship with Israel has reached new heights with Delhi being the biggest purchaser of Israeli weapons. 

And the Israeli methods are being replicated in matters of security or justification of brutality, in the deepening of occupation in Kashmir, with talk of Hindu-only settlements modelled on the Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank.

India consul says “Israel model” should be used in Kashmir

Now, the CAA, with its preferential track to citizenship based on religion, carries echoes of Israel’s right of return law - that allows Jews from around the world to claim Israeli citizenship. India is building a Hindu state. Muslims are now unwelcome and it’s only a matter of time before other minorities are put in their place, too.

The brutality of authorities towards students has sent tremors across the nation.

In the coming days and weeks, there will be many allusions to the death of democracy and the end of secularism in India. There will be allusions to Mahatma Gandhi and Jawarharlal Nehru and their touted vision for a secular India. But for many living on the margins in India, democracy has always been another word for an abusive state.

This is a society that has continued to exist under a polite veneer of secularism while higher-caste Brahmins have maintained their stranglehold over every aspect of social life - business, politics, education and entertainment. 

In truth, democracy has long been in dire straits in India.

And secularism, despite what the constitution says, was always living on borrowed time.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

| Senior Reporter
Azad Essa is a senior reporter for Middle East Eye based in New York City. He worked for Al Jazeera English between 2010-2018 covering southern and central Africa for the network. He is the author of 'Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel' (Pluto Press, Feb 2023)
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