On Monday, India’s home minister pushed a bill in Parliament — Narendra Modi’s most brazen action to lead India away from being the world’s largest democracy to a Hindu nationalist state — with an inflammatory speech stoking Hindu victimhood.
The minister, Amit Shah, said the Citizenship Amendment Bill — which offers legal status and citizenship to non-Muslim minorities — aimed to correct the injustices meted out to the Hindu majority with the partition of India in 1947. The speech given by the home minister was an exercise in perpetuating Hindu victimhood in a country that boasts of an 80 percent Hindu population. Since the partition of India, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological fountainhead of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has been stoking a misplaced victimhood in the self-pitying Hindu majority asking for a first stake to all resources in the country since Muslims were given a separate piece of land in the form of Pakistan.
The resentment was stoked over decades by right-wing leaders who exaggerated figures of Muslim population in the country. WhatsApp messages and fake news published by right-wing websites leading up to the Indian election this year even spoke of a Muslim takeover in India by 2050.
Article 14 of the Indian constitution seeks to protect all citizens from any form of discrimination. But by presenting this anti-Muslim bill in the sanctum sanctorum of the Indian Parliament, the Modi government has sought to give an official legal cover to its dream of entrenching Hindu supremacy.
Intellectuals and commentators have called the amendment bill an attack on the Indian constitution and a distraction from the country’s economic failures. Many, like me, disagree. Since his ascent to power in 2014, Modi has been explicit in his agenda for a totalitarian, fascist regime, laying out his blueprint to “other” India’s Muslims from his first day in office. Modi’s BJP swept to power with an increased majority in 2019 for his fulfillment of those promises.
Soon after, the government implemented the National Register of Citizens that rendered nearly 2 million citizens of the northeastern state of Assam, mostly Muslims, stateless and excluded as citizens.
Next came the revoking of the special status of Kashmir, the only Muslim majority state in the country, which was kept under months of lockdown with mass detention and arrests of democratic leaders. The election manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party also promised a magnificent Ram Temple on a disputed site where Hindu nationalists razed the iconic Babri Mosque in 1992. Last month, a court ruling allotted the land in favor of Hindus.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill cannot be seen in isolation — it should also be seen in conjunction with the Modi government’s announcement last month to implement the National Register of Citizens across the country.
While the government plans to rescue and rehabilitate persecuted Hindus from neighboring countries through the Citizenship Amendment Bill, it is simultaneously seeking to disenfranchise Muslim citizens through the National Register of Citizens by labeling them as migrants and infiltrators.
The message is clear, and that’s why Muslims in the country are living in fear. Mosques in India are asking Muslims to keep their citizenship documents in order, but in a country where Muslims form the lowest rung of the socioeconomic strata, this has only resulted in widespread paranoia and anxiety.
Zainul, a construction worker in Mumbai, stared blankly at his 8-month-old son Abid, as his wife spread out a sheet of newspaper for them to eat lunch in a slum in central Mumbai. Both Zainul and his wife, Ameena, arrived in Mumbai two years ago from Dhaniakhali, a village in Hooghly district, after a torrential flood hit and swept off the roof above their head. It took them three days to arrive in Mumbai, in a crowded train with no money to buy tickets, and without food for more than a week. After months of struggle, Zainul found work as a mason, and his wife took odd jobs, including cleaning the sewage, to feed themselves.
Last month, four of Zainul’s relatives who work as contractual laborers left for their hometown in West Bengal to hunt for documents as the government announced a Nationwide Register of Citizens.
“Where do we bring the documents from?” Ameena asked. “Every bit of our livelihood was washed away. How could we save the documents?”
Zainul showed me a copy of his ration card, which is almost in shreds, pieced together with tape. He managed to save his ration card but fears it will not be enough. Two months ago, cops from the area rounded up the slum dwellers in Antop Hill, mostly Muslims, and locked them up overnight calling them infiltrators. He and his neighbors bribed the cops with their meager savings and found their way out.
Ameena asked me whether I have seen the detention camp being built in Mumbai to incarcerate all migrants who will fail to prove their citizenship — she was referring to the Modi government’s identification of a land in the suburbs of Mumbai for its first detention center.
Zainul left for his hometown to collect documents that can prove his spouse’s citizenship. Ameena would not let him go, afraid that there could be another midnight knock from the cops and she would have to plead: “I am not a Bangladeshi madam; I am an Indian. My parents have stayed in this country all their lives.”
Ameena is one among the million citizens who fear she will be othered overnight in a country she has always called her own.
During a television debate on Monday, the news anchor asked Sudhanshu Mittal, a BJP spokesman, if he considered Ahmadiyas, who are a persecuted minority in Pakistan, eligible for citizenship. His response: “Ahmadiyas are Muslims, and Pakistan is an Islamic country.”
In the list of neighboring countries whose persecuted citizens minorities will be sheltered in India, the government conveniently chose to ignore Myanmar, whose Rohingya Muslims have suffered state-sponsored persecution. But the Rohingyas do not fit the criteria. They are Muslims, a faith whose adherents are looked at in India as the enemy of the state.
On Twitter, warriors of the BJP are justifying the bill, citing the example of Myanmar that abolished Rohingyas from its country for its “national security.” Aung San Suu Kyi will be appearing at the International Court of Justice on Tuesday as Myanmar faces charges of genocide, but her supporters back home are using it to consolidate and bolster her image as a woman who taught a lesson to the Muslim Rohingyas who conspired to take over their land. Aung San Suu Kyi and Modi supporters are playing by the same rule book of ethnocracy.
As a reporter who has covered Modi’s politics from his term as the provincial head of the state of Gujarat, where a thousand Muslims were butchered during his rule in 2002, I know this is neither the beginning nor the end of Modi’s plans to divide India on sectarian lines. We are now moving closer to Modi’s dream of an India where a Muslim will have to walk the streets of his country with his gaze lowered, where democracy will be a privilege some can’t participate in, and Hindu nationalism will replace secularism in this once-glorious republic. The end is near for Gandhi’s India.
[Rana Ayyub is an Indian Global Opinions contributing writer. She wrote a book named Gujarat Files]