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What India stands to lose

By: Amman Bari

With a population of 201 million Muslims, 28 million Christians and 24 million Sikhs, India can boast of a religious diversity that far outstrips Pakistan’s. But in its annual report released at the beginning of this year, the USCRIF (United States Commission on International Religious Freedom) discussed how this pluralism and multiculturalism is being threatened by an ‘increasingly exclusionary conception of national identity based on religion’.

These words seem practically prophetic in wake of India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and citizenship test. The Citizenship Amendment Act fast-tracks the citizenship of illegal immigrants from neighbouring countries, as long as they’re not Muslim. Putting this religious standard in place defies India’s secular ethos. For the citizenship test, people from Assam whose names do not appear on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) have to prove, via extensive documentation, that they are Indian citizens – a tall order when a quarter of Assam’s population is unable to read. These citizens – the poor, the rural and the vulnerable – are in danger of being declared stateless. Those who aren’t Muslim can apply for citizenship, a process that will be expedited due to CAA. But for the newly stateless Muslims, detention camps are being built. In November, the home minister Amit Shah said that there were plans to conduct another citizenship test, this time nation-wide – which would endanger every Muslim in India. With these threats on the horizon, and the Kashmir crisis fresh in their minds, Indian Muslims are terrified.

Protestors, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, have taken to the streets to protest the use of authoritarian tactics in what is supposed to be the world’s largest democracy. There have been anti-Modi protests before, but these protests are on a much larger scale than what Modi has had to contend with in the past. The rise of anti-Muslim sentiments in India, seen in sectarian conflicts and Muslim lynchings, has been a matter of concern for progressive Indians but the brazen discrimination of this new bill has caused them to rally as never before. Hindu nationalists may constitute many of Modi’s supporters, but there are also many Hindus who want to protect the secular identity of their nation – the secularism that Gandhi fought for.

Massive protests in Assam resulted in a curfew being enforced and internet shutdowns, a strategy bitterly familiar to the Indians who protested the brutality in Kashmir. However, some of the protests there are of a different nature: many of the indigenous people of Assam are concerned about large numbers of immigrants being granted citizenship. For them, it is a matter of preserving that region’s culture and  ethnic configuration. They do not want Bangladeshi refugees of any religion in Assam.

In various regions around the nation, including the entire state of Uttar Pradesh (with its 200-million-plus population), gatherings of more than four people have been banned, but the people are determined to assert their democratic right to peacefully protest this divisive bill. Students at Jamat Milia Islamia University in Delhi (a predominantly Muslim institution) who had gathered to voice their anger at the CAA were accosted by the police with tear gas, rubber bullets and batons. But the campaign still continues, with university students from different institutions around the country at the frontline.

Protestors are afraid that Modi’s policy of religious polarisation will only encourage radical Hindu groups. As Pakistan can testify, when religious extremism grips a nation, it is hard to root out. They are worried that India, like Kashmir, will become the site of an enormous humanitarian crisis.

Furthermore, India has long enjoyed an international reputation as a spiritual country. Many Western tourists come with that image of India fixed firmly in their minds. With this sharp rise in anti-Muslim sentiments, India is attacking the religious pluralism that is responsible in no small part for its booming tourism industry.

As protestors (amongst them influential icons such as Arundhati Roy) are pointing out, urgent action needs to be taken to protect the country’s secular identity, its religious diversity, its reputation and above all, the lives of its people.

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