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Modi Pushes India Into Revolt

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For the past week, Indians have flooded the streets in cities and towns across the country to protest a controversial new citizenship law. They have marched in droves despite the imposition of colonial-era prohibitory orders to prevent public assembly. The agitation started in dozens of universities across India, provoking a violent crackdown by the government and the detention of thousands. But demonstrations still spread to give rise to one of the largest pan-India protest movements the country has seen in several decades. Though it has resorted to shutting down Internet and mobile service in several areas (including in New Delhi), the government has not been able to contain the sheer scale of the protest.

Since its reelection in May, the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pursued a more strident and divisive series of policy measures, including stripping Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status. Modi’s government has also become more authoritarian, leading even India’s normally reticent business community to complain of a contentious and toxic atmosphere brewing in the country. But the seemingly benign Citizenship Amendment Act, passed by the Indian Parliament on December 11, was one step too far.

According to the new law, members of minority groups—Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, and Parsis—from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who came to India illegally will be granted a fast track to Indian citizenship. But through this simple provision, the government has also redefined Indian national identity in terms of religion and spawned a crisis for India’s secular constitution. In conjunction with the proposed nationwide extension of the National Register for Citizens—a survey of the citizenship status of all individuals in India that until now has only been implemented in the state of Assam—the citizenship law has created a pervasive sense of fear. In turn, the ensuing protests have sparked the most potent challenge to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to date.

The Citizenship Amendment Act is a challenge to India’s secularism. Yes, the groups named in the act should have the ability to become naturalized citizens. And yes, any country can choose to prioritize which refugees or illegal migrants it will naturalize based on a variety of factors: risk assessment, the demands of international law, historical ties, and the practical realities of migration. But for the first time since India’s constitution was adopted in 1949, Parliament has explicitly linked religious identity to citizenship.

The government insists that these minorities are at risk in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan and are also unlikely to find refuge elsewhere. But this is an argument in bad faith twice over.........

© Foreign Affairs