Opinion makers, especially in Israel, should be careful not to fall prey to the propaganda of India's opposition circles against Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party government. Political parties ousted from power, civil society elements and the ultra-leftist student community are pushing an ideological narrative against what they call the "right-wing" BJP and its "nationalist" agenda.
They are agitating about violence against minorities, the poor and the traditionally oppressed classes - the "dalits"- with no relation to the realities on the ground. Leftist elements, widely present in the free Indian media, are actively fostering this narrative.
The English-speaking, westernized urban elites, who have wielded and enjoyed the perquisites of power for decades, feel politically orphaned because power has shifted to those - non-English speaking, non-westernized, more rooted in Hindu culture and civilization - who don't belong to their privileged group. India's Muslim minority has traditionally voted against the BJP because of its "Hindu" character.
The BJP, led by Prime Minister Modi, won the 2014 national election with its own majority, against all expectations. It won even a bigger electoral victory in 2019, again contrary to political predictions. This explains the mounting vehemence of the opposition to the prime minister and his party, and their latching on to any issue which could be exploited to create unrest and resistance on the streets. In a hugely diverse society, pockets of dissent and dissatisfaction are a fact of democratic life. But the opposition is trying to compensate for their inability to counter the government politically, in parliament.
Prime Minister Modi has increasingly acquired the profile of a major world leader through his many well-planned visits abroad, marking India’s aspirations to play a larger international role. He has strengthened strategic ties with the U.S., preserved close ties with Russia, engaged China’s leader - despite serious bilateral differences, actively participated in G20 and BRICS forums, deepened understandings with the Gulf countries, and, of course, forged very productive ties with Israel.
Opposition circles in India have therefore decided to broaden the scope of their attacks on the prime minister and the BJP, in a bid to tarnish their image abroad in ways that would appeal to "liberal" political, academic and media circles in the West. For that a narrative, they're projecting the idea that Modi and his party are right-wing nationalists, anti-secular, anti-Muslim, intolerant, guilty of violating human rights, and so on.
A highly-loaded political vocabulary - one that would immediately attract attention in the West because of Europe’s own bitter experience - is used by some vocal Indian political and media commentators against Prime Minister Modi and the BJP. They use terms such as genocide, fascism, Hitler, Mussolini, Holocaust and Nazi tactics. Israelis, whether in the media or civil society, should be concerned that such a loose use of terms actually trivializes the abominable atrocities against the Jews. This kind of thoughtless exaggeration ought not to be reproduced uncritically in the Israeli media.
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All this outpouring of hate-filled propaganda against the Modi-led government has been triggered by the amendment of India’s Citizenship Act in December 2019 by the Indian parliament, after an intensive debate during which the government answered all the opposition's questions, including the perceived anti-secular nature of the amendment. The legislation was passed through an open, transparent and fully democratic process, with the support of some opposition parties. The constitutionality of the legislation has, nonetheless, been questioned by opponents and the matter will be adjudicated by the Supreme Court of India. This is consonant with the robust functioning of India’s democracy.
The Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA) allows persons belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Christian faiths who have illegally migrated into India over the last 65 years from three neighboring Islamic countries (Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan), to acquire Indian citizenship on a relatively fast track basis. The CAA was necessitated by the precarious lives these religious minorities had been living for many years, deprived of the benefits of Indian citizenship. It was a situation that could not be redressed without amending the existing citizenship law.
These minorities entered India for many reasons - persecution, discrimination, physical insecurity, threat of forcible conversion, protection of their womenfolk. They could only migrate to India, as no Muslim country would either accept them or give them citizenship.
In 1947, the non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan, mostly Hindus and Sikhs, constituted about 23 percent of the population; today they constitute about 5 percent, with Hindus at about 1.65 percent. In 1971, at the time of Bangladesh’s creation, Hindus constituted 19 percent of the population, whereas in 2016 they constituted only 8 percent.
This should be contrasted with the number of Muslims in India: according to the 1951 post-partition census, there were 35 million; their estimated number today at about 200 million (rising from 9.8 percent of the total population in 1951 to 14.2 percent in the 2011 census). Not only that, Muslims have occupied the highest positions in the country in all domains; the Indian constitution protects the rights of all minorities; and Muslims, along with other minorities, are given special rights in managing their religious and educational institutions.
Muslims from Bangladesh are amongst those who have entered India illegally over the decades. They did so not because of religious persecution discrimination, physical insecurity or threat of conversion. Previous Bangladesh regimes, unfriendly towards India and linked to Pakistani agencies and local Islamic elements, encouraged this migration as part of a policy to create a more intensively-populated Muslim belt in Indian districts adjoining Bangladesh. This was a strategy to manipulate politics to create security pressures on India.
These illegal Muslim migrants can return to their country of origin, after, of course, they are identified as illegal migrants. The Indian government estimates that there are about 20 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India, a figure officially conveyed to Dhaka as early as 2003. The exact number can only be determined after a citizenship roll is established.
The government has repeatedly clarified that the CAA aims to grant citizenship on a one-time basis to a particular group of persons with no alternative options, and not to revoke the citizenship of anyone, much less an Indian Muslim. The CAA has a cut-off date of December 31, 2014, after which no illegal immigrant, whether Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Christian or Muslim would be eligible for citizenship under the amendment. In this larger sense, the CAA is by no means anti-Muslim.
India is probably unique amongst major powers in not having a citizenship register; the system of national identity cards does not exist. This is an anomaly for a country that has open border of 1758 km with Nepal, a longer porous 4096 km porous border with Bangladesh, a 4056 km un-demarcated border with China and a 3323 km contested border with Pakistan. Ironically, all these neighboring countries have citizenship rolls of their own.
Before being divided in 1947, India was one country. Lines were drawn on the ground, not on the basis of defensible borders but in response to the religious composition of the population. No natural frontiers therefore exist between India and its neighbors - except in the north, with the Himalayas. Cross-border movement is therefore easy. This has been made easier over the years because of the fact that India is not a security state, and the policing of its borders has been lax.
India’s 200 million Muslims are spread all over the country. When Muslims from a neighboring country like Bangladesh enter the border districts of India illegally, they merge with the local population. If, as is the case at present, no citizenship register exists, over time it becomes very difficult to identify them. Local politics comes into play, especially in a democratic country where competing political parties canvassing for support promise to shield the illegal migrants from eviction in exchange for their votes.
India continues to be a major victim of cross-border terrorism from Pakistan. Sea-borne Pakistani terrorists caused mayhem in Mumbai in 2008, in which several Israelis too were brutally murdered. The shocking April 2019 terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists in Sri Lanka is a reminder of India’s vulnerabilities in its south. Muslim extremists are active in Bangladesh too. With the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, its links with Pakistani agencies, the emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan, India’s concerns about the spill-over of religious extremism and terrorism from the Pakistan-Afghanistan soil have got exacerbated.
All this necessitates, for sovereignty and security reasons, that India has a proper citizenship roll. For good governance, to ensure that the beneficiaries of government schemes are genuine citizens, for maintaining social harmony, and to prevent illegal migration in the future as well, such a roll is essential. India also has to plan for the future, for the repercussions of climate change, including the triggering of mass cross border movement into India. The government has proposed a National Register of Citizens (NRC), but it has stepped back from the proposal for the time being, because of an opportunistic opposition campaign which accuses it of being anti-Muslim in intent.
Outside observers need to better understand the dynamics of internal politics in a raucous democracy like India. But they're not trying to understand the issues dispassionately. Western liberal circles - political, academic and in the media - have picked up the CAA and NRC controversy in India to campaign against Prime Minister Modi’s government, because they realize they can frame the issues in terms of hot-button topics like refugees, migration, targeting of minorities and the rise of nationalism, all of which have international resonance.
In the process, they themselves show disrespect for India's democracy. They forget that Prime Minister Modi was elected as India’s leader through the largest-ever democratic exercise in human history, winning more than 550 million votes, in an electorate of 830 million.
The irony is that despites western liberal calumnies, the leaders of western democracies do see shared values of democracy, pluralism, human freedoms and private enterprise with India as a strong basis of partnership at a time when powerful authoritarian regimes are projecting their political and economic systems as superior to liberal western systems. These shared values are constantly highlighted when India and western leaders meet and issue joint statements.
When President Donald Trump visits India on February 24-25, this same confidence in shared values will be on show again. However, America is itself deeply domestically polarized, with American liberals assailing the president for a variety of illiberal sins. The sense and purpose of the Trump visit is therefore not linked to any endorsement that it may signal for India’s democracy and the current policies of the government.
One can assume that Trump has no quarrel with some of the steps the Indian government has taken in its internal affairs, though the U.S. State Department has made some prescriptive pronouncements on them. But the issues of protecting national borders, erecting walls against illegal immigration and imposing visa restrictions on travel from specific Islamic countries present themselves differently for India, the U.S. or Israel. India is dealing with past illegal migration as an internal administrative issue linked to identifying its citizens, without making any external interventions.
In the interest of their own credibility, the foreign media should not neglect its responsibility to ensure objective reporting. Opposition elements in India support their narrative of "fascism" by citing repeatedly a few stray comments by Hindutva ideologues in the 1930s about Hitler, when India was under the British colonial yoke. Some nationalists at that time may well have thought that India would achieve freedom if the British were defeated in WWII.
The BJP, portrayed as "fascist" and Hitlerite, because of its supposed ideological roots, has actually been the strongest supporter of Israel for a long time in the Indian political establishment. The leftists and others who hurl these accusations have been most anti-Israel. Prime Minister Modi and the BJP, once in government, have been the architects of the very strong ties between India and Israel that flourish today.
To claim that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh cadres are Nazis in khaki uniform who march with arms is a pure fabrication. What's being conjured up is a Nazi-like extermination of millions in India. That's how far those Indians writing for the Israeli press are willing to go to purvey hate-filled fiction.
Some commonsensical questions arise. How can "220 million" Indian Muslims be in danger of disenfranchisement and being made stateless, as is alleged in one Haaretz article? That would mean abrogating the Indian constitution, ending judicial independence, muzzling the press, and, in fact, creating civil war in the country. Not to mention the grave international implications of such an egregious step. Prime Minister Modi’s aspiration is, to the contrary, to accelerate India’s growth, build a $5 trillion economy by 2024, and make India a leading power that believes in the rule of law.
Israelis, of all people, surrounded as they are by external threats, Islamic extremism and terrorism, should understand more than others why India needs a proper national register of citizens. And Israel’s own citizenship laws should help Israeli opinion makers understand the logic, purpose and, as it happens, the limited scope of the amendment made to India’s Citizenship Act by Prime Minister Modi’s BJP government.
Kanwal Sibal is a former Foreign Secretary of India. He served as India's ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia, and Deputy Chief of Mission in Washington DC, and was a member of India’s National Security Advisory Board from 2008 to 2010