Back to India’s Secular Future

Protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act are rallying Indians of all stripes around their country’s foundational principles.

By Kapil Komireddi, the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.
A protester holds a placard during a demonstration against India's new citizenship law in Mumbai on Dec. 27, 2019.
A protester holds a placard during a demonstration against India's new citizenship law in Mumbai on Dec. 27, 2019. Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

For nearly six years, Indians indulged Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he sought to make the world’s largest democracy submit to his ideology and impulses. When he announced one evening in 2016 that all high-denomination currency notes were going to be annulled that very night, supposedly to extinguish the proceeds of graft, a wave of misery washed over the country—but Indians endured extreme hardship without a show of resistance. Two years later, when it became apparent that the man who had lured young voters in 2014 with the promise of generating 20 million jobs a year had in fact precipitated the worst unemployment crisis in two decades, there was barely any backlash.

Despite the fact that Modi failed to deliver on the major promises that earned his Hindu-first Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) absolute dominance in parliament in 2014, he secured a second term in office in 2019 by inciting religious passions and mobilizing voters around the idea of a Hindu nation. But over the past four weeks, just as Modi began to appear invincible, the resentments seeded by his excesses finally erupted. The issue that jolted multitudes into uniting against him was the legislative subversion of the constitution to introduce a religious test for citizenship.

The spark was supplied by the government’s decision in December to railroad through parliament the Citizenship Amendment Act, a piece of legislation that grants expedited citizenship to members of half a dozen religious communities (Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Parsi, and Sikh) fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The government justified the exclusion of Muslims from this legislation by arguing that, as members of religious majorities in all three countries, they will not have encountered the same discrimination as other groups. This logic, even if it’s accepted, is difficult to reconcile with the law’s other proviso that qualifies for citizenship only those refugees who entered India before Dec. 31, 2014. To slap an arbitrary cutoff date on a law intended to give dignity to victims of religious oppression, as Modi says it is, is to defeat its proclaimed objective.

Opponents of Modi’s Hindu nationalism must not neglect the fact that the persecution of religious minorities in India’s neighboring countries being cited by the law’s proponents is very real. They should recognize, too, that the new act does not, by itself, endanger India’s own religious minorities. It does not endow the government with the authority to strip away the citizenship of Indian Muslims. But when it is combined with another of Modi’s initiatives—a proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC)— India’s religious minorities will be faced with the very real threat of being reduced to second-class citizens. And that is what has prompted hundreds of thousands of people to pour into the streets over the past three weeks.

The idea of a national citizen’s registry originated in the 1950s as a way to maintain a tally of Indian citizens in the northeastern border state of Assam. The 1971 genocide of Bengalis by the Pakistan Army in what was then East Pakistan brought millions of refugees to India. Most of them returned home after East Pakistan won independence and became Bangladesh. Of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who remained in India, many relocated to Assam.

The intensifying strain on scarce resources that resulted from this migration gave rise to a formidable local political movement, led by students, to protect indigenous Assamese against foreigners. No matter the religion of the outsiders, Assam’s leaders said, they would have to be detected, deleted from electoral rolls, detained, and deported. The Indian government pacified the protesters by pledging to identify all foreigners who arrived in Assam after March 24, 1971—which it pinpointed as the date atrocities began in East Pakistan—and deport them. Once life in Assam normalized, however, the accord fell by the wayside—until the Indian Supreme Court, responding to petitions by local nongovernmental organizations, ordered the government in 2014 to update Assam’s registry.

The process of sifting Indians from supposed foreigners, which lasted four years and cost almost $200 million, was unspeakably incompetent and inhumane: nearly 2 million people, omitted from the final list for failing to furnish documents proving their ancestral connection to India, were rendered stateless and given 120 days to appeal their impending deportation. Although the exercise had achieved its aim in theory, faith complicated matters. A substantial number of those left off the NRC were Hindu Bengalis—and the BJP, committed to protecting Hindu interests, could not countenance their expulsion. So rather than discard the NRC altogether, it hastened to amend India’s citizenship law in December to give accelerated citizenship to non-Muslims excluded from the list.

And so religion, seldom a factor in Assam’s catholic agitation against all foreigners, suddenly became the basis for Indian citizenship.

What began as a crisis in Assam rapidly engulfed the country. In spring 2019, as horror stories of Muslims left off the NRC proliferated—one of those identified as a foreigner and detained turned out to be a decorated veteran of the Indian Army—Amit Shah, India’s home minister, pitched a pan-Indian NRC. Based on the cost of updating the registry in Assam, the distinguished sociologist Niraja Gopal Jayal estimates that a nationwide registry would cost in excess of $50 billion and consume the labor of more than 13 million government officials. It would require every Indian to prove their citizenship by producing a series of documents. Those unable to do so—a very real prospect, as the test case in Assam showed—can invoke the provisions of the Citizenship Amendment Act to seek formal citizenship. But because the act doesn’t extend its protections to Muslims, any Muslim left out of the NRC becomes effectively stateless.

In other words, the citizenship act and the national registry, rolled out together, will ensure that Pakistani Hindus who have no connection to India are guaranteed Indian citizenship, while Muslims born and raised in India will be forced to devote themselves to protracted legal battles to prove their Indianness.

The Assamese, many of whom are still intent on pushing out foreigners regardless of their faith, began damning the BJP’s plan to confer legal status on millions of Bengali Hindus even before it was put before parliament. Once it became law, on Dec.12, the northeast went up in smoke. But what began unfolding in the rest of India since then is more than a protest. It is, with all its manifest flaws, a secular uprising to reclaim a great republic from religious nationalism.

Modi, increasingly accustomed to dealing with an obedient populace, did not anticipate the fallout. And confronted with a severe public challenge to his absolute authority, he activated a colonial law to ban gatherings of more than four people, intermittently suspended the internet, and sought to rally his base by playing up the sectarianism that helped him rise to the top. As police truncheons bloodied young protesters in the Indian capital, Modi lashed out at rootless cosmopolitans for inciting violence and pointed the finger at Muslim troublemakers.

None of it worked. Across India, people of all religions have joined together to proclaim their allegiance to the secularism that is the foundational basis of the Indian republic. In New Delhi, Hindus formed a human chain to protect Muslim worshippers during a rally. In Hyderabad, tens of thousands of Muslims, led by the lawmaker Asaduddin Owaisi, recited the preamble to the Indian Constitution: “We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic…” Muslims, vilified as a fifth column ever since India was partitioned in 1947 by votaries of religious nationalism, are at the forefront of the nationwide rallies to halt the country’s degeneration into a Hindu facsimile of Pakistan. “Secular,” the most impugned word in India’s political lexicon for the past half-decade, is now being embraced as a badge of honor by young Indians of all faiths. Universities, throttled for half a decade by Hindu nationalists, are now the staging grounds for patriotic dissent.

Hope, however, must be tempered by an appreciation of Modi’s command over the state. His degradation of democratic institutions during his first term in office—when he tamed the media, the military, and the electoral commission—has left few checks on his power during his second term. At his disposal are extraordinary powers of patronage, bottomless supplies of cash, an obedient state machinery, and private militias quietly raised by Hindu nationalists over seven decades. Modi has never lost a direct fight in his political life. And, even though he has strategically retreated from the public eye, the prospect of a major defeat is likely to prompt him to throw everything into this battle.

Against him, the protesters have nothing but their resolve and faith in the Indian Constitution. And they are being broken without a hint of clemency. In the big cities, police are deploying the latest facial recognition technology to identify and detain protesters. In Uttar Pradesh—home to 200 million people, of whom 40 million are Muslim—the police have reportedly fired at Muslim protesters, killing nearly two dozen; tortured children as young as 13; and pillaged Muslim homes.

The chief minister of the state, Ajay Bisht, has a history of intractable bigotry against Muslims. In 2002, he founded a private army that recruited more than a quarter-million fighters over a decade. Bisht has called on them to kill 10 Muslims for every Hindu killed. And he said if a Muslim should “take one Hindu girl, we will take a hundred Muslim girls.” Bisht himself has faced such criminal charges as an attempted murder, trespassing on burial sites, criminal intimidation, and rioting.

This is the figure Modi hand-picked, in the summer of 2017, to be the chief executive of India’s largest state. Far from expressing contrition for the conduct of the police on his watch, Bisht, who goes by his born-again name “Yogi Adityanath,” has sought compensation from Muslim civilians for the damage caused during the recent protests.

The muddled response to the citizenship law from Modi’s elected political rivals certainly hasn’t helped the protesters. They argue in one breath that India should take care of its own citizens first—and complain in the next that India should expand the citizenship act to include Muslims such as the Rohingya in Myanmar and the Ahmadi in Pakistan. That this baffling mixture of nativism and internationalism is what passes for Indian liberalism today is a measure of how thoroughly Modi has disorientated the opposition.

India, ceasing gradually to be itself since Modi entered office, is inching toward a point of no return. The mutinies breaking out from Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram could either rescue India—or they could be a swan song to an India irrecoverably lost. Either way, they should hearten everyone who loves India: They reveal the depths to which the inclusive nationalism propagated by the founders of the republic percolated over the past seven decades. For the first time in Modi’s “New India,” Indians are marching—and they are marching not as members of a religious community or a linguistic minority but as citizens joined in the cause of equality. Their holy book is the constitution, their standard is the Indian flag, and their song is the national anthem. The men and women who fought for India’s freedom, having failed to thwart divisive communalism, would be proud today to behold the sight of India’s young refusing to yield to religious nationalists.

Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.