‘Those who are creating violence can be identified by their clothes.” This was the message from India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at a political rally in mid-December. Modi was referring to protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) — a law that makes it possible for specific religious minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh to obtain Indian citizenship — which at that point were only just beginning.
This is what Modi was really saying: It is Muslims who are protesting, and by doing so, they are showing their lack of patriotism.
In other words, he was appealing to the Hindu nationalism that is so central to his party’s political project. At the core of this ideology lies the belief that India should be a nation for and of Hindus — the so-called Hindu Rashtra. According to its key tenets, India’s Muslim community — a minority of some 200 million, or approximately 14% of India’s 1.3 billion-strong population — constitutes a threat to the integrity of the Hindu nation, and this threat must be flushed out and defeated.
But, if Modi’s speech was intended to undermine opposition to the Act, it failed. Over the past few weeks, India has been engulfed in protest. The response has been one that India has become accustomed to under Modi — repression. At the time of writing, 27 people have been killed. Most of these killings occurred in the BJP-ruled state of Uttar Pradesh, where police have unleashed a reign of terror against Muslims to curb protests.
“What we are witnessing in Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh,” said veteran civil society activist Harsh Mander, “is the police force itself becoming the riotous lynch mob.”
Across the nation, thousands of protesters have been detained or arrested, and large numbers have suffered violent beatings at the hands of the police. Protests have been banned in BJP-ruled states, and authorities have shut down the internet and telephone networks.
Despite all these vulgar displays of state power, protests continue. At Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, Muslim women have spearheaded peaceful protests for more than two weeks. On New Year’s Eve, the protesters greeted the arrival of a new decade with a mass singing of India’s national anthem.
Make no mistake, this clash between citizens using their constitutional right to protest and a government whose playbook is defined by majoritarian cultural nationalism and violent coercion is nothing short of a breaking point for Indian democracy, which has been in the making since Modi and the BJP assumed power in India in 2014.
Let’s start with the most immediate question: Why has the Act, which was passed into law on December 11, met with so much anger and opposition in India’s public sphere? On the face of it, the Act is grounded in humanitarian concerns; the law offers expedited citizenship for persecuted religious groups from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who can prove that they have been living in India since before December 31 2014.
But there is a catch — and that catch is religiously defined: the Act only extends this right to Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis. Muslims — for example Afghan Hazaras, Pakistani Ahmadiyya Muslims and Rohingyas from Burma — are excluded from its remit.
It is this omission that sparked the ongoing protests. Critics believe that by defining the right to citizenship for those persecuted for religious reasons, the BJP government is violating the most basic principles of India’s secular constitution.
“The worry,” says Professor Niraja Gopal Jayal, a scholar of the country’s constitution at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, “is that the introduction of the religious criterion will yield, effectively, a hierarchy of citizens, a kind of two-tiered, graded citizenship.”
It is abundantly clear that Indian Muslims will end up as second-class citizens in this hierarchy. This is because the BJP aims to couple the Act with the introduction of a national population register and a national registry of citizens (NRC). Under the provisions of the registry, the right to Indian citizenship is directly linked to whether individuals can prove that they were born in India between January 1950 and June 1987, or that they are children of bona fide Indian citizens.
In a country where it is more common than not that people — especially poor people — do not have the required documents, many risk losing their citizenship. But Hindus who find themselves in this situation can make use of the lifeline offered by the Act.
The fact that this opportunity is not afforded to Muslims results in an excruciating vulnerability, which again is the result of an explicit design.
“First, we will bring [the] Citizenship Amendment Bill and will give citizenship to the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain and Christian refugees, the religious minorities from the neighbouring nations,” Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah declared in one of his many speeches during the campaign for the 2019 general election. “Then we will implement NRC to flush out the infiltrators from our country.”
With “infiltrators” being staple Hindu nationalist speak for Muslims, the writing could not be more plainly on the wall.
The BJP plot against India’s secular democracy, however, runs deeper than this.
The current situation is a culmination of a process that has been unfolding since Modi’s landslide election victory last year. In August, the abrogation of article 370 of the constitution reduced Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, to a union territory.
This was an act of territorial engineering that advances the idea of a Hindu Rashtra in very tangible ways
Next, in October, an updated citizen register for the BJP-ruled state of Assam in northeastern India was published. Aiming to prevent so-called illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, the initiative effectively rendered two million people stateless. The fact that detention centres are being built across the state does not bode well for their future. The logic is clear: the Hindu nation is to be built by purging India of the Muslim “enemy” within.
And then, in November, the Supreme Court passed its verdict in the Ayodhya dispute, in favour of Hindu plaintiffs who claimed the right to the land where the Babri Masjid, a 16th-century mosque, stood until it was demolished by Hindu nationalist mobs in December 1992.
Not only did this verdict lend credence to weaponised Hindu mythology, it also signalled that the Supreme Court has aligned itself with the political project of the Modi regime.
This political project, in turn, is predicated on an authoritarian populism that draws a line between “true” Indians and their “anti-national enemies” within.
During Modi’s first term in power, from 2014 to 2019, this line was drawn through majoritarian violence against Muslims, and the repression of public dissent against the BJP government.
The trajectory of events since Modi’s re-election in May last year has effectively inscribed this majoritarianism, violence and authoritarianism into law — and it is this that has brought the republic to its breaking point. There is little doubt that Modi’s authoritarian populism has been successful in attracting support from the Hindu majority across class and caste lines.
This is much of the reason the BJP regime has seemed like an unstoppable juggernaut. Until now, that is. The onward march of Hindu nationalism stands challenged by the “No Pasaran!” of nationwide popular protests, which assert that a citizen is a citizen is a citizen.
At this point, there is no way of knowing the outcome of these protests. What is not unclear is that the future of India’s democracy is at stake. Given the authoritarian nature of the BJP government, further repression is likely.
But winning demands such as the repeal of the Act and the cancellation of the citizen registry process could be a crucial first step in cracking the hegemony of the Modi regime.
A more lasting counterhegemonic movement could in turn be built by fusing public anger at the blatant attacks on constitutional democracy with the discontent that is bound to result from the economy’s stagnation that happened on Modi’s watch. The right to be a citizen must be an unconditional right to life — a social right as much as a civil and political right.
And it is incumbent on those of us watching India from abroad to extend our solidarity to those who are on the front lines of the struggle against the dying of the light in the world’s largest democracy.