Why are Indians protesting?
The government has just passed a long-mooted law to fast-track citizenship applications for refugees from surrounding countries who are Hindu, Christian, Parsi, Jain or Buddhist – but not Muslim.
Critics argue the legislation is unconstitutional and undermines India’s secular ethos. In contrast to neighbouring Pakistan, an Islamic republic, India’s founding leaders were adamant that their country would not have an official religion. More than 80% of the country is Hindu, but India also has the third largest Muslim population in the world and one of the oldest Christian communities outside the Middle East.
People in India’s north-east, protective of their distinctive cultures and long suspicious that those cultures might be diluted by migrants, are also unhappy. They say they do not want refugees from neighbouring Bangladesh to become citizens of their states, whatever their religion. Some of the fiercest protests against this bill have been in north-eastern states such as Assam.
This week the demonstrations were fuelled by scenes of police beating protesters from a Muslim-majority university who were demonstrating against the law. Footage of young people, including many women in religious garments, being attacked by officers or stuck in a library that was being teargassed have shocked Indians and crystallised the concerns of opponents of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, that this government is eroding civil liberties.
Why did the Modi government pass this law?
The government argues non-Muslim minorities often face persecution in neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan. It says persecuted Muslims have many places in Asia to go, such as Malaysia or Indonesia. Hindus, on the other hand, have only India, and so they and other minorities should receive priority for citizenship.
Modi’s critics, on the other hand, believe the law is in line with the prime minister’s vision of India as an inherently Hindu nation. The roots of this dispute go back to India’s founding: the country’s first leaders established it as a secular republic over the strident objections of Hindu nationalists. For more than 70 years the religious nationalists have fought to fix what they perceive to be these early errors.
Since Modi’s decisive re-election in May, several items on the Hindu nationalist wishlist have been rammed through, including in August the effective annexation of Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region that lobbied for decades for independence and fought an armed insurgency – fuelled by Pakistani guns, men and money – against Delhi’s forces for more than 30 years.
How significant are this week’s protests?
India is a diverse country and there have been regular protests against various Modi policies in the past six years. But these latest demonstrations are the largest of his tenure and represent a rare instance of anti-Modi forces putting their vast differences aside and rallying around a single cause: the exclusionary citizenship bill.
Modi’s government is clearly rattled: it has shut down internet access, including in the capital, Delhi, and passed orders to prohibit protests in many places, including the entire state of Uttar Pradesh – which has a population of more than 200 million.
But the government’s efforts to suppress dissent are so far having the opposite effect, adding to the claims of its opponents that Modi has no respect for civil liberties and is trying to fundamentally alter a country that prides itself on being a raucous, vibrant democracy.
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