The Narendra Modi government’s relentless drive to turn India into a Hindu-dominant country has been given fresh impetus with the introduction of a parliamentary bill that discriminates against illegal Muslim immigrants over their rights to citizenship, while favoring people from other religions.
The highly divisive Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which is creating concern among India’s 200 million Muslims about their future, was passed by the Lok Sabha late on December 9, having been launched earlier in the day (December 9) by Amit Shah, the arch Hindu-nationalist home minister and president of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Shah revealed his party’s religion-based aims and its angst about India’s history when he angrily shouted, to roars of approval from BJP MPs, that the bill “would not have been needed if the Congress had not allowed partition on basis of religion” – a reference to the creation of Muslim Pakistan when India became independent in 1947 under a Congress government.
The proposed legislation follows repressive action over the past four months in Muslim-dominated Kashmir where the widely supported removal on August 5 of the state’s special status under Article 370 of the constitution was accompanied by a massive security clampdown that has still not completely ended.
It also follows another Hindu nationalist victory when the supreme court last month cleared the way for the construction of a Hindu temple on the highly controversial and contested site of a mosque at Ajodhya in Uttar Pradesh that was demolished in 1992.
These and other actions are revealing an authoritarian and sometimes brutal side of India, which is losing its image internationally as a tolerant, all-embracing and welcoming society. This is lowering the attractiveness of the country as a business and tourist destination and could also affect its international standing.
Focus on Hindutva not economy
There is criticism that Modi has focused government attention on the Hindutva political agenda, ignoring till recently the signs of slowing growth. During the general election campaign, Modi diverted voters’ attention from the economy by focusing on the risks of terror attacks emanating from Pakistan.
Consequently, the government failed to act early enough to arrest a decline in the country’s economic growth rate, which has slumped over the past 18 months from around 8 percent to 4.5 percent, despite recent policy initiatives. This has been partly caused by international economic trends, but it is also substantially due to Raghuram Rajan, a recognized international economist, one of the government’s sternest critics since he was not reappointed after his first term as governor of the Reserve Bank of India in 2016, who attributes part of the problem to Modi’s centralized rule.
“Not just decision-making but also ideas and plans emanate from a small set of personalities around the Prime Minister…..That works well for the party’s political and social agenda…. which is well laid out, and where all these individuals have domain expertise,” he wrote recently in India Today magazine.
“It works less well for economic reforms, where there is less of a coherent articulated agenda at the top, and less domain knowledge of how the economy works”.
The developing economic crisis has also brought out the authoritarian side of a government that regards any criticism as anti-national and lacking in patriotism.
When Rahul Bajaj, the chairman of Bajaj Auto, a leading two-wheeler manufacturer and the doyen of India’s industrialists, criticized the government for creating an “atmosphere of fear” that silenced critics and deterred investment, he was quickly rebuked by Nirmala Sitharaman, the finance minister.
Such public criticism, she declared, “can hurt the national interest.” Bajaj has been known for years for his unguarded public statements and what he said would be quickly vanished from the headlines, but for Sitharaman’s criticism that created a storm of claim and counter-claim. Sitharaman was appointed after the election and is reported to take policy orders from Modi’s prime minister’s office (PMO).
National Register of Citizens
The citizenship bill provides for the creation of a National Register of Citizens (NRC) before the next general election due in 2024. The existing citizenship law prohibits illegal migrants from becoming citizens, but the new legislation would grant Indian citizenship to Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis and Jains who sought refuge in India before 2015 from persecution in predominantly Muslim Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Opponents criticize the Bill for aiming to marginalize Muslims by breaching India’s constitutional requirement that there should be no discrimination against any citizens.
Yesterday Shah stressed the positive side of the legislation, claiming it “does justice” to the six religious minorities in the three countries by offering them sanctuary in India.
Earlier this year however he referred to Bangladeshi (Muslim) immigrants as “intruders” and “termites” and has promised that, once the national register is set up, “every infiltrator in India will be shown the door.”
The fear is that the BJP would use the survey needed to set up the register to harass Muslims across India by requiring them to produce documentary evidence that they are legitimate Indian citizens. Many of the country’s poor do not have adequate proof of their birth and ancestors, and there is a serious risk that Hindu nationalist extremists would use the legislation to create communal unrest.
The development of the legislation began earlier this year in Assam, where there were mass demonstrations yesterday because of a fear that large numbers of refugees from neighboring Bangladesh will be allowed citizenship.
The government failed to pass the legislation before the recent general election, but it now has a majority in the Lok Sabha, parliament’s lower house, which cleared the bill with a large majority. It will need backing from other parties to build a majority in the Rajya Sabha, which it will probably manage within the next couple of days.
The fate of this legislation, and the way that Shah implements it, will have a significant impact on how the Hindu nationalist agenda plays out in the next four or five years.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.