As India's Protests Swell, What Is Modi’s Endgame?

Mihir Sharma

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Protests have broken out across India, a few of them violent, against a new law that fast-tracks citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from three majority-Muslim countries. In the northeastern state of Assam, where migration has long been a major political issue, four protesters were killed when security forces opened fire. In both the capital of Delhi and the town of Aligarh, local police stormed university campuses, beating up and arresting students. It is no coincidence that both the universities are historically Muslim.

In response, the government has arbitrarily turned off the internet across wide swathes of India and many states and cities have prohibited the gathering of four or more people — including in parts of Delhi, the software hub of Bengaluru, and the entire state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 200 million people. Hundreds have been arbitrarily detained, including some of India’s most prominent public intellectuals.

The widespread dissent has surprised nobody. The citizenship law is dangerous enough on its own terms: It imposes a religious test, which should in any case be anathema in a secular republic, and it deliberately excludes neighboring countries with persecuted Muslim minorities.

But it shouldn’t be seen in isolation. Officials have also promised a nationwide register that would require Indians to jump through hoops to prove their citizenship. Thus the two bills together are what have caused real concern: Very stringent requirements to verify citizenship can be imposed, and only Muslims will be required to fulfill them. The result is a sort of hideous hybrid of Trump’s “Muslim ban” and Britain’s “hostile environment.”

India is home to 200 million Muslims, the world’s second-largest national population. Like India’s other religious minorities, they’ve always been well integrated into the political system; for decades they were courted by politicians, and the law carved out special protections for them. In recent years, that has changed, especially after the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister in 2014. Right-wing ideologues declared gleefully that Modi’s party had “demolished the theory of a Muslim veto” on who ruled in India.

Now Muslims are slowly being pushed into a corner by a government completely in thrall to Hindu nationalism. This year, India’s only Muslim-majority state was split into two, and suffered the added indignity of having its statehood taken away and replaced by direct rule from New Delhi. A long-running dispute over a mosque that had been demolished by a fanatical mob to make way for a temple dedicated to a Hindu deity ended with the Supreme Court essentially legitimizing the attack by giving the land to “the Hindus.”

When the mosque was originally demolished in 1992, religious violence broke out across the country and India’s cities burned. This time, Muslims have accepted the injustice quietly. Even after the citizenship bill, and despite incidents of violence and vandalism in rural areas, many of the protests in the largest cities have been peaceful. Yet India’s leaders have chosen to draw attention to the violence: Modi, addressing a political rally, gave vent to a characteristic dog whistle when he said those “setting the fire” could be “identified by their clothes” as Muslims.

In fact, the protests in the cities — many led by students from some of the country’s best-regarded universities — have attracted young people of all faiths and none. They understand that the government wants to make things ever more difficult for religious minorities, and fear the logical endpoint of this strategy. Yet India’s Muslims are faced with an impossible choice. If they don’t protest, they’ll allow their homeland to slide further down a path that ends in the detention camps that are already being built on the border. If they do, then India’s rulers will seize on the crowds to further bolster insecurity among the Hindu majority. It is no coincidence that the harshest crackdowns on protest are in states ruled by Modi’s party; elsewhere, huge demonstrations have been peaceful and unimpeded.

To many in India and around the world, it’s inexplicable that the government would choose to play with fire in this manner. An overwhelmingly peaceful, well-integrated religious minority of such size is something other countries would envy. But cultural insecurity and demographic paranoia are a toxic cocktail, even when you are — like India’s Hindus — four-fifths of the country and almost a billion strong.

In the end, we’ll have to hope that good sense prevails in the rest of the political class. Some state officials have already said they’ll refuse to apply the laws as they stand. India’s federalism, already under strain, looks like it will be stressed still further.

The government in New Delhi might well have been pleased at first. After all, the angrier that liberals, secularists and minorities got, the more successful its divisive gambit would seem. Yet the growing scale of the crisis — the protests and the internet shutdowns and the assembly bans — suggests that even Narendra Modi’s government might now be wondering exactly what it has unleashed.

To contact the author of this story: Mihir Sharma at msharma131@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was a columnist for the Indian Express and the Business Standard, and he is the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.”

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