Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was deeply concerned with the fate of democracy in Asia. He was proud of the fact that Israel was founded, amidst regional violence, as a democracy in 1948, and believed India, founded a year earlier, offered great hope in Asia thanks to its democratic, secular and egalitarian ambitions.
For this, he credited Jawaharlal Nehru, who led India as its first prime minister until 1964. Meeting U.S. President John F.Kennedy, in May 1961, Ben-Gurion declared: "He is a great man. I admire him. There is democracy in India; it is the only country in Asia which is democratic, except Japan. If Nehru goes, I am not sure what will happen; but [for] now,it has democracy."
Ben-Gurion’s admiration for Nehru’s vision was not dulled by the fact that even a full decade after India recognized Israel in 1950, New Delhi was still reluctant to establish diplomatic relations. But now, under the premiership of Narendra Modi, precisely the values that Ben-Gurion and many other world leaders so admired are being systematically undermined in India.
Last week, Modi’s government passed an amendment to India’s constitution – the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAB) – which changed the criteria determining who can be a citizen of India. The three-page document is entirely detrimental to India’s founding secular democracy: it establishes religion as a key component of citizenship.
The law means that any person belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian communities who comes from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan can apply for Indian citizenship. Muslims from these countries are excluded.
The bill does not even bother to mention phrases like "minority communities" or "religious persecution" as a pretext for its revision of Indian citizenship. Modi and his most trusted lieutenant, Home Affairs minister and ruling Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah, can’t conceive of India being any kind of refuge or home for Muslims in South Asia.
Shah’s language is explicit: He has serially called Muslim illegal migrants "termites" and "infiltrators," even vowing to throw them into the Bay of Bengal. The new law, of course, offers similarly illegal migrants full citizenship – as long as they’re not Muslim.
Those comments and the passing of the citizenship law has already led the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to call for sanctions against Shah and other key political leaders behind the bill. The U.S. has form in this area: the State Department denied Modi a visa for years, citing his responsibility for severe violations of religious freedom when he was chief minister of the state of Gujarat, when rioting in 2002 targeting the Muslim community left a thousand Muslims dead.
Unsurprisingly, protests against the new law, its communal reframing of India’s constitution and its obvious attack on Indian Muslims have been intense and are spreading across the country.
Last Sunday, the students of Jamia Millia Islamia, a Muslim-minority institute of higher education in Delhi, led massive demonstrations against the bill. The police promptly used excessive force on a peaceful march, and that led to the unfamiliar spectacle of violence on the tony streets of South Delhi.
The police tried to pre-empt further by entering the university at night and in full force, tear-gassing students all over the campus, including the library and the women’s hostels. In another prominent Muslim university, Aligarh, students were served an immediate eviction order to prevent them protesting at all.
But such a blatant targeting of Muslim-majority universities, and the disproportionate force used by the police, has backfired. Their actions have just fueled more students and the general public to march in solidarity, protesting against the CAB and police violence in more than 15 cities.
In one particularly symbolic protest, students and civil society activists gathered at Delhi’s Arc de Triomphe, India Gate, to read together the Preamble to the Indian constitution, which declares India to be a "sovereign, secular and democratic republic" offering "justice, liberty and equality" to all of India’s citizens, and which seeks to "promote fraternity among its people."
An appeal to India’s Supreme Court may be the final chance to obstruct the law’s enaction. Tuesday, the court adjourned any decision until 22 January, and asked the government to respond to the charge that the CAB is constitutionally invalid.
A predictable consequence of the focus of protests being Muslim-dominated institutions is the deliberate fuelling of a Hindu-Muslim binary narrativeby the Hindu nationalist political establishment led by Modi and Shah. They recognize the political mileage they can derive from the Muslim community's anger against rising majoritarianism. Much like Israeli Arab Israelis, Muslims in India are often labeled "outsiders," "fifth-columnists" or "enemies of the people" by the nationalist right.
One compensatory spark of hope is the clear solidarity of some sections of Indian society, and their refusal to bolster the Hindu-Muslim binary/enemies narrative: witness social media hashtags like #IndiaAgainstCAB, and Bollywood mega-celebrities who have spoken out against the law.
Narendra Modi has never shied away from his long-held Hindutva ideological preferences; he is never moved by opposition to his ideas and actions, whether it is changing - by political aggression and military might - Kashmir’s constitutional status quo, or adopting an increasingly authoritarian mode of politics, at the cost of what were once almost unanimously considered India's most essential democratic institutions.
But Modi’s assault on the citizenship act is a watershed moment: it is an act of violence against both the letter and the spirit of secular India.
Right-wing Hindu politics have targeted the Muslims of South Asia long before and long after partition. The 200 million Muslims of India, the largest religious minority in the world today, have had to survive constant allegations of disloyalty, abusive accusations and direct violence, all generated by majoritarianism.
The citizenship bill, though, is still a major, shocking event, legitimizing as it does a fundamental questioning of their status and origins. It has created the unconscionable situation whereby Muslims, not any other religious group in India, have the burden of proving they belong to India.
Nehru would have hung his head in shame. Mahatma Gandhi would have declared a fast unto death. Ben-Gurion was rightly worried about what would happen to India when a leader like Nehru was not around.
Back in 1966, it was Nehru’s own daughter, Indira Gandhi, who opened the first cracks in India’s democracy. As prime minister, she overrode her father’s democratic ethos, preferring to govern as an autocrat, centralizing all power in her hands. She established the dynastic politics which has plagued India ever since. From 1975-77, she imposed emergency rule, suspending India’s parliamentary democracy entirely and imprisoning the political opposition in their thousands.
But the even more fundamental ideological challenge to Nehru’s India and its egalitarian constitution has arisen thanks to the populist rise of the right-wing religious nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in the 1980s. The BJP’s parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh("National Volunteer Organization," or RSS), a Hindu nationalist paramilitary group, holds an uncompromising belief in an India of Hindus First.
Early RSS ideologues active in the independence movement, like K.B. Hedgewar and M.S. Golwalkar even opposed the tri-color national flag, contending that it was an unnecessary compromise that demoted the pre-eminence of the saffron color symbolizing Hinduism. They wanted the green strip to go, because it represented the Muslims of India.
That position is having an abhorrent renaissance now, and Gowalkar’s words in 1946 have taken on a chilling relevance: "We firmly believe that, in the end, the whole nation will bow before this saffron flag."
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been immersed in the RSS worldview all his life, volunteering in their activities from the age of eight. He is their proud pracharak – their full-time propagandist.
He and many of his followers loath Nehru’s ideals - secular democracy, an egalitarian society and internationalism. Nehru, in their eyes, was far too liberal, and his values were contaminated by the West.
There is not much respect left for Nehru and the democracy he fought for in Modi’s "New India." From its origins as a liberal and plural democracy, India is inching towards illiberal majoritarian rule – unless more Indians realize what is about to be lost, before it’s too late.
Khinvraj Jangid is Assistant Professor and Co-Director at the Jindal Center for Israel Studies at the OP Jindal Global University in Delhi
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