NEW YORK - India is, and has been since independence in 1947, a liberal secular democracy. Its first generation of leaders resolutely refused to accept the argument of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, that the Hindus and the Muslims of the subcontinent represented two different nations. Thus, while Pakistan became a Muslim homeland, India insisted it was a state for citizens of all creeds. Whatever else might have changed in the seven decades since, that much has remained true.
Until now. For the first time, India’s leaders have sought to redefine the country effectively as a home for South Asians who aren’t Muslims — and they’re enshrining the distinction into law.
That’s the underlying message of a bill that was passed last week by the lower house of India’s Parliament, in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has a majority.
The new law amends the religion-blind Citizenship Act written in the early years of Indian independence “to facilitate acquisition of citizenship by six identified minority communities namely Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.” Calling them “persecuted migrants,” the government minister who introduced the amendment said “they have nowhere to go but India.”
Sadly, that may well be true. Many of India’s neighbors have a far worse record dealing with their religious minorities than India has with its own. And India must certainly welcome them.
Yet, in spite of its claims, India’s government is not in fact acting purely on humanitarian impulses. After all, at the moment the most persecuted minority on India’s borders are the Rohingya who have fled Myanmar; being Muslim, they’re very obviously not welcome. Neither are the Shiites and Ahmadis who are the focus of everyday violence in Pakistan — or, for that matter, the atheist bloggers of Bangladesh who have been threatened by machete-wielding extremists. As one commentator put it, the amendment could be summed up in one phrase: “No Muslims please, this is India.”
Not surprisingly, electoral politics — and the complex history of India’s eastern states — are also playing a role. The state of Assam has been convulsed in the past by violence supposedly directed at migrants from next-door Bangladesh, but in fact targeting anyone of Bengali ethnicity regardless of national or religious background.
A decades-old accord set the date beyond which cross-border migration became illegal at 1971, the same year Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan. Now the government is demanding people prove they or their parents arrived before then — an absurd process that, if carried to its logical end, would require India to set up internment camps for literally hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people. (Some camps have already been built.) The government hopes, through the new citizenship rules, to ensure that no non-Muslims are caught up in this sweep of “foreigners.”
Assam’s sub-nationalists are furious: They don’t want to welcome any outsiders, Hindus included. Yet the government is facing a tight re-election later this year, and at least some BJP strategists appear to hope that anti-Muslim sentiment will serve as a wedge issue elsewhere in India — especially in nearby West Bengal state.
Personally, I doubt that will work; like Assam, West Bengal is one of those parts of India where ethnicity has traditionally counted for more than religion. In the religiously polarized north and west of India, however, the law might help the BJP mobilize a few million extra voters.
Surely even a few million votes aren’t worth allowing India to lose a seven-decade-old argument and accept that Jinnah’s “two-nation theory” was correct after all? Is an election victory worth making India’s 170 million Muslims feel unwelcome in their own country?
I would argue that, for the BJP, it isn’t just about the votes. It’s precisely about changing what India has represented for 70 years. That’s why the party has repeatedly invoked the memory of Partition when discussing the new law. The BJP’s most popular leader in Assam called Assam’s Muslims “Jinnahs.”
Modi himself put things bluntly: The new law, he said, was meant as penance for errors committed at the time of Partition. Contrary to the official histories of India, many in the BJP don’t believe dividing the subcontinent in 1947 was a tragic error. Modi told a Muslim journalist in 2012: “You people find your mouth watering because you think by combining India, Pakistan and Bangladesh … the country would have a lot of Muslims.”
In India, disputes over decades-old history can still determine elections. But, the country has held together and stayed largely peaceful precisely because the muddled secular liberalism that united most of India’s founding generation was enshrined in its laws. If India abandons those principles, it will become a darker and more dangerous place.
Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.”