For decades India has been heralded as the largest democracy in the world with a pluralist society of tolerance and diversity. But no longer.
The sectarian hatred that prevailed at the time of India’s partition has now been reawakened by political forces bent on making India an exclusivist Hindu country.
Today the rise of fascism in India is inescapable and the silence of the international community is deafening.
Last month India’s parliament passed the Citizen’s Amendment Act (CAA) which has successfully legalised discrimination on the basis of religion, a fundamental right protected by the Indian constitution since its formation. The Act allows those living in India prior to 2014 who are from neighbouring Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to have Indian citizenship, but not if they are Muslim.
This Act was enacted along with another law – the National Register for Citizens, which is in force in the state of Assam and is to be rolled out across the country.
It is widely known that many Indians have unregistered births and others have lost their documents, setting the stage for widespread discrimination against Muslims who do not have the requisite documentation to prove their citizenship. Already 1.9 million residents of Assam, a north-eastern state bordering Bangladesh where a third of the population are Muslim, are at risk of becoming stateless as they have been excluded from the register.
Both of these pieces of legislation have put India’s 200 million Muslims at risk, most particularly of being disenfranchised and rendered stateless.
India’s youth have awakened like a sleeping giant, protesting in country-wide demonstrations against the legislation which will entrench Hindu supremacy which has long been the goal of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The newfound resistance on the part of ordinary people is what activist and author Arundhati Roy says gives her hope for the future of her country.
The response of the Indian security forces to the demonstrations has been heavy-handed and many have been met with brutal force.
Hundreds of people have been detained and arrested, and others have had heavy fines imposed on them. In the state of Uttar Pradesh the radical Hindutva extremist turned Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has vowed to take revenge against the protestors. The state police have also been illegally confiscating Muslim-owned businesses, over 70 so far.
But such discrimination against Muslims under BJP rule has not come out of the blue, but is merely in the ascendancy, pushing India into a state of war against itself. Over the past six years there has been an increase in hate crimes against minorities, Muslims in particular.
Hindutva extremists have lynched Muslims, as was the case with Mohammed Akhlaq who was lynched in 2015 on suspicion of having beef in his fridge at home. A Minister in Modi’s cabinet, Jayant Sinha, honoured those responsible for his death by presenting them with garlands. As if that is not extreme enough, Modi has given his political backing to a Hindutva extremist, Pragya Singh Thakur, who was accused of terrorism to become a member of parliament representing the BJP.
Thakur is charged with plotting the 2008 bomb blast in Malegaon which targeted Muslim pilgrims coming out of Friday prayers, in which eight were killed.
In retrospect, this should not be so surprising considering that Modi was Gujarat state’s Chief Minister in 2002 when thousands of Muslims were beaten, raped and killed, and their properties destroyed. All of the violence took place under Modi’s watch, as has the official violence against Muslims ever since he became Prime Minister.
Such violence has not only included beef lynchings, but honour killings and forced conversion. In many of his election campaigns, Modi has notoriously used anti-Muslim rhetoric, consistently fanning the flames of hatred and sectarianism.
Even in last year’s election campaign right-wing leaders were behind WhatsApp messages and fake news on right-wing websites that stoked fear of Muslims, speaking of the threat of a Muslim takeover by 2050.
It is important to understand the linkage between Modi’s party the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS is a fascist organisation largely considered the political arm of the BJP. The RSS was banned for years after one of its members murdered Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was targeted as he was perceived to have made too many concessions to the Muslim community.
As it turns out, the MP Thakur who was backed by Modi happens to be a fan of the assassin who murdered Gandhi, and considers him a patriot.
Not much has changed in terms of the ideology of the RSS since the time of Gandhi’s assassination. Last October the RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat went on record saying that India is a Hindu Rashtra. Modi’s Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah was also a leader of the RSS, and both he and Modi have bulldozed through the two pieces of legislation that have led to the recent chaos in the country.
The result has not only been the muzzling of dissent, but the jailing of political opponents. It is now the norm for government officials to call those who criticize Modi as ‘anti-national’ – acting against the national interest and national security. It was Modi who previously used the term ‘anti-national’ against Muslim communities.
Modi had been hailed by many in the West as the bold new face of change in India, but over the past year that image has been fast unravelling. India’s risky experiment with demonetisation, its abrogation of Kashmir’s special status in violation of numerous UN resolutions calling for a referendum on self-determination for Kashmiris, the slowest economic growth in years, a banking sector in distress, unemployment at a 46 year high, rising poverty, and the wave of religious intolerance sweeping the country are all threatening India’s stability and growth prospects.
Ian Bremmer, the President of the Eurasia Group, had previously written in Time Magazine that Modi was “India’s best hope for economic reform.” Last month Bremmer wrote again in Time magazine reversing his previous position saying, “Things have changed.”
This week 10 trade unions called on employees to stage protests against what they described as the “anti-people” policies of Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.
India is being torn apart between those who are committed to a pluralist and inclusive society that belongs to all those who live in it, and the right-wing fascist forces that want to entrench Hindu supremacy, and are enacting legislation that will be used to disenfranchise and detain Muslims.
In a country steeped in poverty where many Muslims may be unable to prove their identity and birth in India due to a lack of documentation, they may find themselves detained in the new raft of detention centres that are coming up throughout the country.
The soon-to-be-completed detention centre in Assam will hold 3,000 people with walls 20 feet high. This will be fate of those, particularly Muslims, who cannot prove their birth in India, and they will be stripped of their citizenship and political rights.
This should not only be an affront to all Indians but to all those peace-loving people who believe in human rights and justice, who have an obligation to raise their voices in disgust.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Foreign Editor.