Commentary: India's Citizenship Law an Attack on Democracy Worldwide

Kavitha Rajagopalan

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to uphold and protect the world's longest standing democracy, and earlier this month, an elected body on the other side of the world voted to mortally wound the world's largest democracy. On Dec. 11, following votes in its lower and upper houses of Parliament, India changed its citizenship law to block naturalization for Muslim refugees and undocumented migrants from neighboring states.

We can debate the finer points of what the current Hindu nationalist leadership claims is its intention, but then we'd be indulging in the type of linguistic masquerades familiar to any student of ethnic cleansing. Instead, we can look to the steady project enacted by India's leaders to, by any means at their disposal, redefine the Indian nation and end its 72-year run as the world's largest secular democracy.

The true intent of this amendment is clear: to move one step closer to defining India as a Hindu nation. That is especially evident when the law is considered in the context of other events this year: the annexation and military occupation of Muslim-majority Kashmir; the pilot this summer of the National Register of Citizens, which excluded 1.9 million Indian residents (Hindu and Muslim) from the state of Assam's citizenship list and will soon roll out nationwide; the November Supreme Court Decision to permit a Hindu temple to be built on the site where in 1992 a militant Hindu mob destroyed an ancient mosque, unleashing some of the worst communal violence in modern Indian history; and the countless statements by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah conflating Muslims with "termites" and "infiltrators" and linking that population to Pakistan and terrorism.

Never mind that there are hundreds of different ways of being Hindu in India, and that India also is home to the second-largest Muslim population in the world, themselves belonging to dozens of different ethnic, linguistic, and faith communities within Islam -- some of which have been on Indian soil since the Middle Ages. Some Muslims in India wear sari and bindi every day, and some Hindus eat mutton rasam and drink toddy, who are Modi and Shah to say which of these is right and clean and which of these is truly Indian?

Never mind that India, by far the most powerful country in its region, now hosts barely 200,000 resettled refugees at a time when more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have converged on Bangladesh, when Ahmaddiya, Tamil and Baluchi Muslims from neighboring countries suffer murderous persecution and Uighurs in nearby China are currently facing genocide. All over the world, powerful countries are turning their backs on refugees fleeing war, terror and climate change. Indeed, 84% of the world's refugees are currently in developing countries, where poverty and violence are endemic, and where the effects of climate change are posing the greatest direct threats.

What we in the United States should heed is that India's turn toward Hindu nationalism is deeply relevant to the future of democracy globally and the safety of its people. India is one of the U.S.'s leading allies. In the past, this allegiance has rested on strategic security and economic interests, but today, it also feeds upon (and fuels) mutual enthusiasm for xenophobia and Islamophobia, and a personal affinity between the two heads of state who espouse these values.

Unfortunately, U.S. media producers and consumers tend to make the same mistake as its politicians in conflating Indian and U.S. Islamophobia -- it has different roots in both places, and orients itself to different foundational wounds. In the U.S., Islamophobia like xenophobia orients itself to the legacy of slavery and racism. In India, it stems from India's bloody birth after centuries of divisive colonial rule in Partition, and then Bangladesh's subsequent birth in one of the most violent civil wars in human history.

[MORE: India's Citizenship Law Protests Reveal Deeper Anger by Country's Students]

India today seems poised to descend into another kind of civil war, with the central government responding with brutal repression to the widespread protests, demonstrations, and also xenophobic ethno-nationalist rioting that have engulfed the country since the citizenship amendment became law.

In response to protests, the Indian government turned to the tried and tested tools of martial law and internet shutdowns, akin to what Kashmir has endured for more than four months. India shut down the internet in some parts of the country 104 times in 2019, according to the Internet Shutdown Tracker, a portal tracking incidents in the country. Even more concerning are reports from the state of Uttar Pradesh that Hindu nationalist paramilitaries are being emboldened if not outright engaged by local authorities to attack Muslim residents.

India's rapidly devolving safety and stability will directly impact many facets of U.S. society and its economy. The U.S. is already home to more than 2.4 million immigrants from India, itself the world's leading source of migrants. The Washington Post reported that the U.S. employment green card backlog exceeds 800,000 people, most of them Indian. Irregular migrants are also fleeing India in record numbers.

Just this year, in an unprecedented mass deportation, 300 Indian nationals were sent back to Delhi from Mexico, where they were attempting to cross the southern U.S. border. According to an India Today analysis, of UNHCR data, asylum claims by Indian nationals have risen by 996% in the past decade. India is one of the world's leading consumer markets and also generates a significant percentage of profits for U.S. companies in its $150 billion outsourcing industry, some 70% of which accrues to U.S. companies. Destabilizing India directly affects Americans.

This current crisis also poses some significant questions about how humanity should understand and define citizenship in an age of mass migration amid declining democracy and rising xenophobia. Citizenship worldwide has been about excluding far more than including -- the poor, the wrong color, the wrong faith. Likewise, India's citizenship law has always been incomplete and fragmented, and has incrementally but steadily moved to identify alien, enemy elements as anyone who might have a cultural affinity with Pakistan, which was created as an Islamic republic.

Indeed, India didn't even have a citizenship law for the first seven years of its existence, and to this day, citizenship cannot be considered equal and equally accessible for all Indians, regardless of faith. India is home to the world's largest indentured and enslaved population, the overwhelming majority of whom are Hindu. Being undocumented is not just the purview of migrants in India; many of India's internal migrants and poor live in informal settlements and slums, without any documentary proof of their birth or citizenship, or in cities where they have no municipal residency status and cannot vote or own property.

My father was born into subjugation and when he was 2 years old, his nation became free. But he could not become a citizen of that nation until he was 8, when India passed its first citizenship law, the Citizenship Act of 1955. My great-grandmother was a freedom fighter. My great-grandfather, who was knighted by his colonizers and served on free India's nascent Supreme Court, corresponded with its first prime minister to define the franchise. He came down on the wrong side of history, as it turns out, arguing that only the literate should be allowed to vote.

This is personal for me. But it is, in fact, personal for all of us who believe in democracy.

Kavitha Rajagopalan is the author of "Muslims of Metropolis" and is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.