Protest sweeps India over ‘anti-Muslim law’

Populist: Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads the world’s largest political party, the BJP. © Getty

Is India becoming a racist state? A new citizenship law has sparked protest across India. The government says it protects persecuted minorities; opponents say it is racist and anti-Muslim.

They were studying quietly in the library when the police attacked.

Students at a Muslim university in Delhi climbed over desks to escape riot officers armed with teargas and batons. Other students were beaten whilst praying in the mosque on campus.

That was Sunday.

This week, the protests have spread. In cities across India, schools and offices closed; streets were barricaded, and protesters clashed with police.

But what is it all about? A new law has just been passed allowing migrants from neighbouring countries to become Indian citizens. As long as they are not Muslim.

The government says it is protecting religious minorities in Muslim countries from persecution. Critics say it discriminates against Muslims and treats them like second-class citizens. And they fear what may come next.

India is the world’s largest democracy, sixth-biggest economy and fast becoming a global superpower. But is it also becoming a racist country?

Home to all the world’s major religions — including 200 million Muslims — religious tolerance and a secular constitution have been key parts of its national identity.

But in 2014, populist Narendra Modi’s BJP won national elections. The world’s largest political party, the BJP wants to remake India as a Hindu nation. Over the last six years, many of its policies have targeted India’s Muslim minority.

These policies have been widely condemned. The UN calls them “fundamentally discriminatory”.

Modi says, “Debate, discussion and dissent are essential parts of democracy”, but these protests are violent and unacceptable, stirred up by opposition parties “spreading lies, creating an atmosphere of fear for Muslims”. He says, “No Indian has anything to worry [about] regarding this act.”

And the language being used is explosive. The opposition Congress Party called the government “fascists”, and the writer Arundhati Roy compares the law to the Nuremberg Laws in Nazi Germany.

The head of West Bengal said it would be implemented “over my dead body”.

So is India becoming a racist state?

On the brink?

Some say India is already racist and getting worse. A law discriminating between Muslim and non-Muslim migrants is a major step towards Hindu nationalism. Muslims are already being treated like second-class citizens, unable to protest, study or pray peacefully. The next step will be to force all Indian Muslims to prove they are citizens. If not, they may be expelled from their own country.

This is scaremongering, say others. India isn’t China. It has strong, democratic institutions; free and fair elections, and an independent press. If the law breaks the constitution, it will be overturned in the courts and regional governments have already said they will not implement it. And if the BJP pass more extreme laws, the Indian electorate will throw them out of office at the next election.

You Decide

  1. What is the difference between a protest and a riot?
  2. Should religion always be kept out of politics?

Activities

  1. What do you know about India? In groups, research and share what you know about Indian culture. Then design a poster welcoming visitors to India.
  2. Do you know the rules for claiming citizenship in your country? Research them and decide whether you think they are fair. Can they be improved?

Some People Say...

“India is a country in which every great religion finds a home.”

Annie Besant (1847-1933), British socialist and campaigner for Indian self-rule

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Passed last week, the new law is called the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB). It changes the law to allow illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship. However, only non-Muslims from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan can apply. India has a troubled history with its neighbours, following the partition of British India into Muslim and non-Muslim countries in 1948. In the northeast, millions have migrated from Bangladesh; in the northwest, the predominantly Muslim state of Kashmir is disputed between India and Pakistan.
What do we not know?
What happens next? The images of police violence at the weekend shocked India, but will it change the government’s course? Public opinion may turn against Modi and the BJP to help unite the opposition against the citizenship law. However, it is also possible that the protests and police response may escalate, becoming more widespread and more violent. The government may pass more extreme citizenship laws, or it may find its way blocked by regional governments. India’s future looks very uncertain.

Word Watch

Delhi
The capital of India.
Secular constitution
The separation of the state and government from religious institutions.
Populist
Populist parties and politicians, blaming elites and minorities for social problems, have been on the rise across the world in the last decade. Other examples include Donald Trump, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Erdogan in Turkey.
Narendra Modi
Leader of the BJP and prime minister of India, Modi is a charismatic and populist leader who has helped make the BJP electable. Before becoming PM, he was most known for causing anti-Muslim race riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002.
BJP
The Bharatiya Janata Party (“Indian People’s Party” in Hindi) is a Right-wing party closely associated with the Hindu nationalist movement.
UN
The United Nations.
Congress Party
Also known as the Indian National Congress. The main opposition in India and its oldest political party.
Nuremberg Laws
Passed by Nazi Germany in 1935, these racist laws targeted the German Jewish population, stripping them of their citizenship rights.

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