Since his election to office in 2014 and his landslide re-election last year, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s grand aspiration to implement an “ideological re-imagination of Indian citizenship along majoritarian lines” (The South China Morning Post)—specifically, in concordance with the Hindutva understanding of Indic civilization—has gone largely unimpeded. Throughout the years, major and revealing gaffes by his closest lieutenants, including Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah, who has used perjorative terms such as “termites,” “illegal migrants,” and “vermin” to describe Muslims, have bounced off of Modi. Despite criticism of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) treatment of Indian Muslims over the years, Modi himself has remained electorally unassailable.
Modi has successfully cast aside the old political certainties of modern India, which were once shaped to varying degrees by the Gandhi-Nehru clans and their governing allies. Thanks to the favor of most media channels and newspapers, along with a slick projection of himself as a priestly figure with the blessing of India’s great religions (Buddhism included), Modi has enjoyed smooth sailing—until now.
Protests far larger and angrier than the government expected have erupted across India, including in major cities such as Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai, and New Delhi, in response to two connected government initiatives. The first is the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), introduced in 2016 and which will “grant Indian citizenship to non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan who entered the country before 2015.” (CGTN) As a comprehensive op-ed in The South China Morning Post argues, the arbitrary choice of these three countries “fits the Hindu nationalist narrative of a tolerant Hindu India where Muslims flourish vis-à-vis rogue Islamist neighbors that oppress their Hindu populations.” (The South China Morning Post) Sri Lanka and Myanmar, from where considerable numbers of Muslim refugees are fleeing, are not on the approved list of countries of origin for non-Muslims seeking to apply for citizenship.
The second law involves the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a proposed pan-India citizen verification process that has hitherto been limited to the state of Assam since 1951. Applied in conjunction with the CAB, Muslims within India stand to be scrutinized to unreasonable and dehumanizing extents about their citizenship and right to abode in the country. Many Indians, including Hindus, therefore fear that this two-pronged assault on “illegal immigrants” is actually an attempt to strike at the heart of India’s secular constitution.
Amit Shah has attempted to reassure such fears, but has also struck a stridently defiant and defensive tone: “No Indian will be sent out of the country. I want to tell the minorities that special facility will be made for them and also other people [for the NRC]. But I also want to ask should we keep our borders open for illegal immigrants?” (India Today) He has also said: “They [intruders] should be identified. Delete their names from the electoral roll. The BJP clearly believes that they should be identified and deported. Intruders are also threaten [sic] the security of the country.” (Hindustan Times)
The reality is that the BJP has long believed that religious affiliation constitutes a fundamental component of Indian identity. It has been able to maintain strong relationships with a number of Buddhist, Jain, and Sikh leaders and groups because the BJP’s founder, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, described these religions as one and the same with Hinduism. Over the past five years, the party has spent considerable money, political capital, and effort in making overtures to non-Hindu religious leaders. It has mobilized, since 2015, a long-term and sustained campaign of Buddhist diplomacy across Asia and domestically, through the Vivekananda International Foundation and the International Buddhist Confederation. It has also relentlessly paid fealty to and adopted the discourse of figures of Indian inclusivity, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, and even the third century BCE Mauryan emperor Ashoka the Great.
It is no surprise that the religious tradition that the BJP has a serious problem with is a theistic one, which the BJP sees as fundamentally unable to conform or compromise to the Dharmic family of faiths. Yet the reality is that when the modern nation of India was created, a significant portion of its population was already Muslim (as of 2018, it stood at 14.2 per cent). Furthermore, the BJP’s contradictory vision of inclusiveness goes far beyond Islam and is in tension with many of the figures it claims to revere, including Gandhi himself.
BJP politicians would argue that their spiritual ideology’s all-encompassing character functions as a unifying force. Yet ironically, in dealing with India’s sizable Muslim population, their interpretation of Indian cultural identity has failed to provide nuance and distinction between diverse communities of faith, while ignoring how citizenship in India cannot be one of crude and simple categories such as spiritual affiliation, but patiently and elegantly negotiated identity. Perhaps the Modi government is attempting to launch a cultural war, much like what is now happening in the United Kingdom via Brexit, or the United States through the Trumpian era. However, this does not seem to be a fight for which the BJP has adequately prepared, especially as its only means of leverage seem to be rather blunt tools in the populist and discriminatory vein.
Indian civilization and citizenship is big enough to encompass non-extremist Islam, to which the overwhelming majority of Indian Muslims and Muslim refugees in India adhere. The government should move carefully (especially amid such explosive expressions of opposition across the country), lest it inadvertently find itself in the unenviable position of defending a diminished vision of Indian identity.
Citizenship Amendment Act: India PM Modi appeals for calm as protests grow (BBC News)
Modi’s surgical strike on Muslims puts India at war with itself (The South China Morning Post)
What is NRC: All you need to know about National Register of Citizens (India Today)
Hundreds protest India’s proposed religion-based citizenship bill (CGTN)
India not a ‘dharamshala’ for illegal immigrants, says Amit Shah on NRC (Hindustan Times)
Gandhiji embodied Advaita Vedanta (The Asian Age)