Narendra Modi’s new Indian citizenship law is dangerous and offensive. It is dangerous because it institutionalises and encourages discrimination against Muslims, a minority of 200 million people that is already the target of daily, petty prejudice and periodic, violent persecution. It is offensive because, whatever the government says, it clearly undermines India’s post-independence constitutional commitment to a secular state.
Modi has overreached. Re-elected as prime minister in May, when his BJP party secured a large parliamentary majority, he has sought, with increasing vehemence, to impose his hardline Hindu nationalist views on a country that is rightly renowned for its ethnic and religious diversity. In August, in a sign of things to come, Modi revoked the special constitutional status of Kashmir, India’s only Muslim majority state.
As we noted at the time, the arbitrary imposition, without prior consultation, of direct rule from Delhi and the suspension of Kashmiris’ democratic freedoms, which continues, amounted to an authoritarian coup with negative global implications. Indeed, Kashmir turned out to be a test run for the internet and mobile phone shutdowns that greeted last week’s protests against the citizenship law.
By removing the right to self-governance, and opening Kashmir state territory to Hindu settlers, Modi ignored UN resolutions on the dispute with Pakistan over the Kashmir region and, notably, the 1972 Simla agreement, which stipulates Kashmir’s final status must be resolved by peaceful means, not unilateral diktat.
Then, last month, India’s supreme court injudiciously ruled that the hotly contested religious site of Ayodhya, which Hindus regard as the birthplace of Ram and where a 16th-century Mughal mosque was demolished in 1992, belonged solely to Hindus, not to both communities. The ruling was seen as a triumph for Modi’s divisive “new India” agenda. It was another step along the path to a country that, no longer the open, inclusive, pluralist and secular society envisaged by its founding fathers, is defined as a Hindu nation run by and for Hindus. Nor are Muslims its only victims. Critics say India’s other minorities, and its democratic tradition, are under attack, too.
Evidence may be found in the ongoing, repressive and violent police response to the citizenship law demonstrations, whose rapid spread and multi-faith character has shaken Modi’s government. It is found in the BJP’s smothering of India’s independent press and digital media, its neutering of the judiciary and its bullying of opponents. It is found in the outrageous official indifference to vigilante lynchings of Muslims.
Modi should think again. Since becoming India’s leader in 2014, Modi has tried to rehabilitate himself as a world statesman and savvy technocrat leading India to greatness. But this latest furore is a reminder, at home and abroad, of his personal roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a sometime-banned, far-right Hindu supremacist organisation. The BJP is the RSS’s political arm.
According to a recent report by the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, the Indian psychologist Ashis Nandy interviewed Modi when he was still a lowly BJP functionary. Modi exhibited “all the traits of an authoritarian personality” and claimed that India was the target of a global conspiracy in which every Muslim in the country was probably complicit, Nandy said.
Not forgotten, either, is Modi’s time as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, when thousands of Muslims were killed in sectarian violence he failed to halt (to put it kindly). The US and Britain imposed sanctions on him at the time. Maybe he has changed since those torrid days. But Modi should be in no doubt: the world is watching him now. His reputation and India’s are in the balance. The hateful victimisation of Muslims must stop. A good start would be the immediate scrapping of the noxious citizenship bill.
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