By Ben Goldson

A new citizenship law in India has sparked demonstrations across India, with protestors angered by the legislation’s exclusion of Muslim refugees. With the Supreme Court delaying its ruling on the law’s constitutionality until early next year, the protests represent a major challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda.

Across India, opposition parties are uniting to denounce a recent bill setting out a path to citizenship for religious refugees from nearby countries. At the heart of the controversy is the exclusion of Muslims, which the United Nations has labelled discriminatory. In response, Home Minister Amit Shah, who has referred to Bangladeshi migrants as “termites” on multiple occasions, defended the Citizenship Amendment Act’s exclusionary nature, claiming that Muslims are not subject to persecution and so do not qualify for asylum. Shah’s argument has failed to placate domestic critics, such as traditional rivals such as the Indian National Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who have rallied to defend Indian secularism from what they fear is a stepping stone to persecution of the country’s existing Muslim population. Now, mass demonstrations have taken place in the first major challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda.

For years, the Congress was independent India’s party holding the office that Modi now occupies, a streak that lasted into the 1970s. Having navigated a way out of the British Empire, the INC established the Republic of India as a secular state, something which outraged Hindu nationalists. An ideology that had chafed under the rule of Mughal shahs or the British raj only to have its vision rejected by the Congress during independence, belief in the Hindu nation inspired Nathuram Godse to assassinate legendary independence leader Mahatma Gandhi. For this Godse was executed, with the wider backlash causing an exodus from the right-wing Hindu Mahasabha of which he had been a member. Even the former President of the Mahasabha, Syama Prasad Mukherjee, left to join the cabinet of Jawaharlal Nehru as Minister for Logistics and Supply. However, Mukherjee soon split with Nehru’s INC as well, forming the Bharatiya Janata Sangh in an attempt to restore Hindu nationalism as a legitimate political force. Before he stepped down as Minister, a key point of difference between him and Nehru had been the autonomous status of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir regions, with Mukherjee attacking the compromise as a threat to national unity. In 1953, he was denied a permit to visit the area by the INC government and instead attempted to illegally cross state lines, where he died of an apparent heart attack in police custody at age 51 after being intercepted by the authorities.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Mukherjee’s alleged murder, the ideology of Hindu nationalism would slowly stage a comeback in the approaching decades. Fueled by the lengthy and bloody conflict with Pakistan, as well as the actions of insurgent groups allegedly backed by the hostile neighbour, Hindu nationalism scored a major victory in the 1970s amidst the backlash to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule. In response, the BJS formed the Janata Party along with several other smaller opposition parties, ousting Gandhi in 1977 to form the first non-INC government in postcolonial India. The Janata coalition soon fell apart. However, with the conflict between secularism and Hindu nationalism a key point of difference, Indira Gandhi was returned to the Premiership. What had been the BJS reformed as the Bharatiya Janata Party and continued to advance the cause of Hindu nationalism, particularly in local seats. One of these was the state of Gujarat, located on the border with Pakistan, in which Narendra Modi served as Chief Minister before stepping down to serve as Premier of the entire country. Modi’s victory drew concerns from rights groups, who pointed to Modi’s numerous controversies, most notably his role in anti-Islamic riots that took place during his tenure as Gujarat’s Chief Minister. Sparked by an alleged attack on Hindu pilgrims, the 2002 riots saw three days of intercommunal violence which left around 1,000 dead, mostly from the state’s Muslim minority. During the bloodshed, figures in local government such as Modi were accused of supporting those carrying out the violence, with the future Prime Minister denying the accusations and later being cleared by a Special Investigation Team appointed by the Supreme Court.

Suspicions remain about Modi’s involvement in the riots, but were not enough to stop him from winning a first and second term. Ascertaining the exact role that Hindu nationalism has played in his rise is difficult, complicated by other factors such as a fragmented opposition, allegedly corrupt in cases such as the Indian National Congress. There was also the wider desire for change, with the INC symbolic of India’s ongoing economic inequality more than half a century after independence. In contrast, Modi’s background operating a tea stall at a Gujarat railway station may well have resonated with voters potentially willing to shelve concerns about his agenda. At the very least, it didn’t hurt him enough to stop him from winning an unprecedented two terms while carrying the mantle once associated with Godse.

Since winning a second term in office, Modi has now moved to advance a more muscular Hindu nationalism. A key move was stripping the Jammu and Kashmir region of its autonomy earlier this year, with the government also ruling against the Muslim side of a dispute over the Ayodhya holy site soon after. Now, the government is seeking to exclude Muslim refugees from a path to citizenship afforded to followers of other religions, with little serious response from world leaders. At the same time, Modi is forging connections with other nationalist regimes around the globe, from Moscow to Washington, with the Citizenship Amendment Act bearing strong parallels to Donald Trump’s Executive Order 13769, more commonly known as the Muslim Ban.

Back in India, however, the new laws have caused mass demonstrations, and could serve to unite the country’s fragmented opposition. Further intensifying concerns is the promised implementation of a National Register of Citizens, first conceived of in the 1950s and now scheduled for completion by 2021. The NRC is intended to identify undocumented migrants for deportation, having already been trialed in the state of Assam, located on the border with Bangladesh. Started in 2013, the final Assam NRC was not released until April last year, where around 2 million people found out that they were stateless. Amongst these were a significant number of Bengali Hindus who, unlike Muslims in the same situation, will be able to apply for citizenship if the CAA is accepted by the Supreme Court.

Faced with a deluge of pleas, India’s highest court has suspended its decision until the 22nd of January. In the interim, protestors and the government show no sign of backing down, with both sides accusing the other of acting unreasonably. So far, at least 27 people have been killed, accompanied by thousands of arrests and allegations of police brutality during actions such as the storming of two Muslim universities. In a recreation of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency period, civil liberties in parts of the country have also been suspended and opposition figures detained, measures which may well be maintained or expanded over the coming days.

Ben Goldson is a news and current affairs broadcaster at 95bFM radio in Auckland. 

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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