New Law in India May Signal a Fundamental Change

Critics say citizenship legislation undermines nation's policy of secularism
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 12, 2019 8:16 AM CST
New Law in India May Signal a Fundamental Change
Smoke from burning tires is seen as protesters defy a curfew in Gauhati, India, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.   (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

A new citizenship bill is causing mass protests in India, and a big concern of critics is that India is on the path to abandoning its status as a secular nation because of the pro-Hindu policies put forward by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Coverage:

  • Controversial law: The Citizenship Amendment Bill, expected to be signed into law this week, provides a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country—with the exception of Muslims, reports CNN. The legislation fast-tracks the process for those who came to India from three neighboring nations, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as long as they are not Muslim.
  • The explanation: It's not discrimination, says Home Minister Amit Shah, reports Bloomberg. He says the legislation is designed to protect persecuted religious minorities, and Muslims are not minorities in those three nations. "There is a difference between infiltrators and refugees." Muslims make up about 14% of India's population of 1.3 billion.

  • Earlier policy: Modi and his ruling BJP party also recently implemented a National Register of Citizens, reports NPR. The stated purpose is to weed out undocumented immigrants by requiring strict documentation, and Muslims, even those whose families have been in the nation for years, are being particularly hard hit. So far, the register has been implemented only in the state of Assam, but it's expected to be phased in elsewhere.
  • Big picture: When the partitioning of India and Pakistan took place in 1947, India chose a secular path. "There was at the time, this idea of a two-nation theory, that you would have Pakistan for the Muslims, you'd have India for the Hindus," an expert from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's South Asia program tells NPR. But "India's founders really rejected that notion, saying, 'Well, you can go ahead and create an Islamic homeland, but we're not going to create the mirror image on the side.'" Now there's a growing sense that might change, with support for the idea that "Indian culture and Hindu culture are roughly synonymous."
  • A critical take: In an essay at Foreign Policy, Sumit Ganguly doesn't buy the government's explanation that the new citizenship law is about providing a safe haven for persecuted minorities. "Sadly, it appears that the BJP leadership has tapped into certain deep-seated anxieties of the majority population—nearly 81 percent of Indians are Hindu—which despite its entrenched privileges is seeking scapegoats for any number of failures of public policy," he writes. The new law could well be "a death knell for Indian secularism."
(More India stories.)

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