Argument

Secularism Is Dying in India

Both houses of parliament have passed a controversial citizenship bill that excludes Muslims.

Demonstrators protest India's Citizenship Amendment Bill in New Delhi on Dec. 10.
Demonstrators protest India's Citizenship Amendment Bill in New Delhi on Dec. 10. Indraneel Chowdhury/NurPhoto via Getty Images

On Dec. 11, following a rancorous debate, the upper house of the Indian parliament followed the lower house in passing a controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill that would grant citizenship to immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh so long as they are not Muslims. The bill will allow Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis, and Sikhs who entered India before Dec. 31, 2014, to apply for citizenship. Furthermore, members of these communities need only reside in India for six years before they become eligible for citizenship.

According to government spokespeople, the bill does not include provisions for Muslims, as they are not members of minority communities in the three pertinent countries. When asked about the plight of minority Islamic sects, such as the Ahmadis of Pakistan, who face rampant discrimination, government officials dismiss such concerns on the grounds that they nevertheless enjoy the right of citizenship.

Critics of the bill have argued that the legislation—which will become law once signed by the president—violates the principle of secularism that is embodied in the country’s constitution. India, they argue, never accepted religion as the basis for citizenship. More to the point, they have underscored, the new law would violate Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, which promises equality as a fundamental right. In prior cases, the Indian Supreme Court has ruled that such fundamental rights are not subject to parliamentary amendment.

What has prompted the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to introduce this legislation? The answer, though seemingly straightforward, is actually complex. At a superficial level, it can be argued that the BJP, a right-wing, Hindu nationalist party with a clear-cut parliamentary majority, is simply implementing its ideological agenda—and enacting the very proposals it included in its campaign manifesto. Such an argument, though seemingly attractive, fails to capture the party’s evolution from a socially, economically, and religiously conservative party into a radical entity bent on transforming the ideological foundations of the Indian state.

It is true that the BJP and its forerunner, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, long had a strain of Hindu nationalism as an important element in its ideological corpus. This had manifested itself most prominently in December 1992, when Hindu zealots attacked and destroyed a mosque that they claimed had been built on the ruins of a Hindu temple in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Hindu mobs had also rampaged through significant parts of the state of Gujarat in February 2002 in the wake of an attack attributed to Muslims on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. This episode, of course, had taken place while Narendra Modi, the current prime minister, was the chief minister of the state. At the time, Modi came under withering criticism both at home and abroad for his government’s apparent unwillingness to contain the Hindu mobs.

These two incidents, though undoubtedly tragic—as well as downright bloody in their consequences—could nevertheless be seen as spasmodic episodes in a country with a history of secularism. It can also be conceded that they may have bolstered the standing of hardcore Hindu zealots within the party. Yet for all their ugliness, they did not amount to a carefully orchestrated legislative assault on one of the most basic tenets of India’s democratic and plural ethos.

Why then has the BJP undertaken this drastic step? Among other matters, the party has undergone a fundamental transformation over the past several years. After five years in office as a majority party from 2014 to 2019, it has promoted the steady rise of a virulent, all-consuming variant of Hindu zealotry in its midst. This has taken place under the tutelage of Modi and his ideological alter ego Amit Shah, the current minister of home affairs and the principal architect of the citizenship amendment bill.

This transformation of the party, within this short time span, in turn, begs a question: Why has it come about? The answer, in considerable part, must be attributed to the current leadership. Past leaders, most notably Lal Krishna Advani, who had led the successful movement for the 1992 destruction of the Babri mosque, undoubtedly had strong anti-secular proclivities. However, they had not succeeded, despite their best efforts, to wholly radicalize the party and marginalize any moderate members within its ranks. Modi and Shah, on the other hand, have managed to move the party inexorably toward an embrace of a parochial, anti-Muslim, Hindu majoritarian ideology. And they have done so while winning elections—both at the national and state level—with majorities not seen in more than three decades of Indian politics. Modi and Shah have deftly marginalized a weak and dispirited opposition, outlined the grievances of segments of the Hindu population, and made scapegoats of minorities. 

Modi and Shah have achieved their goals through a variety of means: They have deftly marginalized a weak and dispirited opposition, outlined the grievances of segments of the Hindu population, and made scapegoats of minorities. Most importantly, they have deployed their newfound and growing power with an alarming clarity of vision. To that end, they have appointed individuals with dubious intellectual qualifications to key governmental institutions with the explicit goal of promoting and disseminating a radical Hindu ideology. For example, the government, even during its first term, chose a historian with little or no professional standing, to head the apex Indian Council of Historical Research. Since the council is responsible for directing the content of history textbooks, this appointment was fraught with significance.

There have been several other questionable decisions that, in hindsight, can help explain the current moment. The government has hounded the students and faculty of India’s principal, if left-leaning, university for the humanities and the social sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, in an attempt to bring them to heel. The hostility toward the university stems from its well-deserved reputation as a bastion of intellectual liberalism and, most importantly, secularism. Worse still, the government, through a variety of measures, has also managed to tame significant parts of India’s long-feisty press.

Simultaneously, and as has been widely reported and commented on, the government has turned a blind eye toward any number of Hindu vigilantes, who with the tacit blessings of India’s leaders have routinely attacked and even killed Muslims suspected of trafficking in cattle for slaughter. And some of India’s lower courts, probably with a view toward not offending the government, have shown a remarkable laxity in prosecuting the marauders.

The BJP government’s most drastic action, prior to introducing this legislation, was the abrupt (and legally questionable) abrogation in August of Article 370, the provision of the Indian Constitution that had granted a special status to the Indian-controlled portion of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. Ostensibly this was done with an eye toward promoting economic development in the state and to end its isolation from India’s political mainstream. However, there is little question that the underlying reason for its revocation lay elsewhere. With this article removed, Indians from other parts of the country will be able to settle in this Muslim-majority state, thereby altering its demographic composition. This, in effect, is the reverse of ethnic cleansing and instead can be seen as a form of ethnic flooding.

Sadly, it appears that the BJP leadership has tapped into certain deep-seated anxieties of the majority population—nearly 81 percent of Indians are Hindu—which despite its entrenched privileges is seeking scapegoats for any number of failures of public policy and, most recently, for the country’s dramatic economic slowdown. Transforming the basis for citizenship in India will do little to alleviate the plight of religious minorities among India’s neighbors. One hardly envisages droves of individuals and families leaving hearth and home for a future with an uncertain promise in India. Yet given the widespread anti-Muslim sentiment that this government has spawned and nurtured, the government’s latest legislative action is likely to bolster its position among a sizable portion of the Indian electorate. Its ramifications could include a death knell for Indian secularism.

Sumit Ganguly is a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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