With the Citizenship Amendment Bill dominating Indian politics, LSE MSc Student Sahima Gupta (International Relations) explains the place of religion in contemporary Indian politics and looks at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempt to strip India of its modern secular heritage.
As one the world’s most diverse countries, India has always been home to many different religious groups. After the long struggle towards Independence, the ideology of secularism was enshrined in the constitution, designed to establish a just social order. This meant that 21st century India would not have any state-religion and would therefore belong to all of its citizens equally; the constitution codified a new ethos of harmonious co-existence with no partial advantage given to one group.
This utopian picture of secularism is, however, very different to the present-day reality of India. The secularist identity which was the heart and soul of the constitution is crumbling. Secularist roots have withered away, leaving behind a majoritarian Hindu nation. India is in the era of desecularization, under which the Narendra Modi government is using religion as an exploitative tool.
This process of desecularization has become evident through the specific targeting of India’s largest religious minority group. In the last few years, there has been a massive decline in the political representation of Muslims. Other incidences such as their mass lynching’s, Citizenship Amendment Bill, building of detention camps in Assam, widespread hate speech and revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir makes it clear that their safe future is under massive threat.
With the Modi government at the forefront of politics ever since 2014, the marginalization of Muslims has become drastic. There has been a surge of Hindu nationalism with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) serving as the hegemonic power governing all aspects of Indian politics. What the party is trying to achieve has never been clearer and more evident: using the extremist ideology of ‘Hindutva’ given by V.D. Savarkar; the government is trying to seize India’s secular roots and convert it into a Hindu rastra (nation-state).
Just after the resounding win in the 2019 elections, a rise in the incidents of hate crimes against Muslims was reported. A few hours after the results, community members across the country were reported to be attacked. A Human Rights report suggested that in the first five years of the Modi government, around 44 people were lynched – most of them being Muslims. The attacks were mostly done by “cow vigilantes” who deem it as their duty to promote a ban on the sale of beef.
Asaduddin Owaisi, President of the All India Majilis-e-lttehadul Muslimeen, has said that “just hours after the results were declared, Muslims were publicly attacked in many places by those celebrating Modi’s victory.” Those who tried to raise their voices against this violence were reduced to internet trolls and WhatsApp jokes; increasing the cleavage between the two communities even more.
On 11 December, the Modi government passed the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB). This bill provides Indian citizenship to non-Muslim minorities from three countries: Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The six communities that it provides amnesty to involve Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains, and Christians. This legislative step is being deemed as another strategy of the Modi government to marginalize Muslims, since it conveniently singles them out of the bill. The bill discriminately divides migrants into two groups: Muslims and non-Muslims. The motive of the introduction of the bill is questionable, and if its goal was the actual protection of minorities then why are religious minorities such the Rohingyas in Myanmar and Ahmadis in Pakistan not included?
Many individuals have voiced their concerns. Mukul Kesavan contends that the CAB is, “couched in the language of refuge and seemingly directed at foreigners, but its main purpose is the delegitimisation of Muslims’ citizenship”.” In another worrying step, India is constructing detention camps for 2 million people in the northeastern state of Assam. The camps are being built to house the alleged “foreigners” whose names cannot be found on the National Registration of Citizenship (NRC).
The catch here, however, is that the names of those excluded from the NRC list are mostly Muslims. This recent change in Assam is being viewed as an attempt to target the community which suddenly finds itself in a crisis of having to prove their citizenship or face detention. The Muslims living in Assam currently are believed by the government to have come from the neighboring country of Bangladesh and hence not citizens of India. Their case becomes worse because, to prove that they are indeed rightful citizens, these individuals have to provide birth certificates or land agreements. But most residents do not have these documents. Many international organizations such as the Human Rights Watch and United States Commission on International Religious Freedom have given clear warning signals of the severe consequences of this step which has the potential to become a deep humanitarian crisis.
India has also recently witnessed an increase of hate speech against the community, which has been undoubtedly exacerbated thanks to Modi’s silence over these actions. Such silence on his part has given legitimacy to anti-Muslim sentiments. For example, Avaaz reported that Facebook is being used as a ‘megaphone for hate’ against the group. The platform is mainly targeting the Muslim minorities in Assam against the background of the NRC issue. While analyzing the content, Avaaz found that out of the 800 posts relating to Assam, around 27 per cent was just hated speech with viewership as high as 5 million.
This new wave of desecularization is evident and frightening. The various discriminatory steps taken by the Modi government has increased the cleavages between both the religious communities. This has severe implications for the future including massive polarization and threats of rampant violence. As a step to save the secularists identity of India, the CAB needs to be less arbitrary and include Muslim communities. Widespread hate on social media platforms also needs to be curtailed and a national-level dialogue needs to be introduced.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Featured image: Question Marks. Credit: Qimono, Pixabay.