Anti-Muslim Discrimination Under Modi is Getting Worse
India's nationalist leader has some sympathy on the American right, but his approach to Islam should raise concerns among would-be supporters.
Since the 1947 partition, India has grappled with the issue of sectarianism. Hindus and Muslims enjoy what can best be termed a fractious relationship. The right-wing religious nationalism now dominating Indian politics has created a hierarchical society, making anti-Muslim bias and discrimination commonplace.
Bias against Muslims has been woven into the structure of society as radical Hindu vigilante mobs proliferate, codified into law by India’s ruling nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party whose nationalist policies purposefully ostracize Indian Muslims.
Today, Muslims are treated as second-class citizens both de facto and de jure. Since winning a majority in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower body of Parliament, the BJP has pursued discriminatory policies. One, the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill, fast-tracked citizenship for non-Muslim undocumented immigrants coming from Muslim-majority nations in Southeast Asia.
Now, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Christians benefit from migrating from countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and others, to India. Religion now forms a basis for citizenship in India under law for the first time, and Muslims are specifically excluded from its benefits and protections.
After passing the legislation, Prime Minister Modi said the CAB would make India a safe haven for people facing persecution in neighboring countries—which only served to exacerbate the discrimination against Muslims because of its correlation to the National Registry of Citizens.
The NRC was first implemented in India’s Assam state, on the Bangladeshi border, because thousands of refugees have migrated there over several generations. Many of them are undocumented and Muslim. The registry was first implemented to identify documented citizens in Assam to protect their rights. But Muslims in Assam whose families immigrated generations ago do not have the paperwork now required to prove their citizenship. They were therefore were left off the NRC, depriving them of rights they had previously enjoyed like the ability to own property and to vote.
Whatever the intention, the NRC is now a mechanism for discrimination against Muslims. Currently it has only been utilized in Assam, but Amit Shah, the powerful Indian Home Minister, has plans to implement it across the country in less than five years. In tandem with the CAB, the NRC has significantly undermined Muslims’ rights in India because it makes it more difficult for them to secure citizenship even while it makes it easier for others. Muslims are therefore underrepresented in the Indian political process, putting them at a further disadvantage.
Another incendiary BJP policy is the government’s drive to build a Hindu temple in the city of Ayodhya. In 1992, violent Hindu mobs destroyed a 16th century mosque there, claiming it had been erected on the ruins of a Hindu temple to the deity Ram. Hindus and Muslims have been arguing over the true history of the area for generations, with India’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Hindus earlier this year and giving them license to build a temple on the ruins of the destroyed mosque.
Indian Muslims are also accused of “love jihad” by radical Hindus who assert that Muslim men trick Hindu women into marriage to convert them to Islam. This is a baseless allegation rooted in bigotry. In several cases that ended up in court, no legal basis was established to convict a person based on this charge. The local government in Uttar Pradesh state, however, passed a law carrying a jail sentence of up to 10 years for anyone found guilty of the practice.
Moreover, Muslims accused of “love jihad” have been victimized by radical Hindu mobs in several states throughout India, and dozens have been killed. Critics have noted that the law is an attack on India’s secularism, and that people’s religion should be outside of the government’s purview.
Through all this the United States has been reluctant to give India anything more than a slap on the wrist. In 2005, Narendra Modi, then the Chief Minister of Gujarat, was denied a visa to the United States over his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. The Modi-led Gujarati government was found to have impeded investigations into the sectarian clashes, intimidated whistleblowers, and applied improper pressure on legal officials.
The rejection of Modi’s visa application 15 years ago has to date been the only formal rebuke offered by the United States on India’s discrimination against Muslims. President Trump himself declined to criticize Modi over the Citizenship Amendment Bill during a state visit earlier this year.
In Congress, aggressive lobbying on behalf of the BJP has blocked significant legislation that seeks to censure India. U.S. House members Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Steve Watkins (R-KS) introduced a bipartisan measure to do just that, only to have it pulled from consideration by Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY), who had met with representatives of the Indian government.
The United States government has been reluctant to condemn India’s anti-Muslim bias because of the strategic partnership between the countries formed to fight terrorism. India is regarded as an “indispensable partner” in Southeast Asia, partially because of its ability to offset China’s dominance in the region, leaving American lawmakers willing to overlook violations of Muslim rights in India because of the economic benefits enjoyed by the United States.
Bilateral trade between India and the United States has grown exponentially in recent years, with the flow of goods and services between the countries reaching upward of $130 billion annually. Because of this lucrative partnership, American lawmakers who seek to legitimately criticize India’s Islamophobia face significant impediments.
In India today, Muslims face discrimination in all aspects of society. Whether it be extrajudicial Hindu mobs seeking revenge for the slaughter of cows, or the Bharatiya Janata Party impeding Muslims’ ability to secure Indian citizenship, the bias is evident. Sectarian divisions exacerbated by partition have grown worse in recent years, aided by the rise of the religious-nationalist BJP. Ultimately, Muslims in India have come to be treated as second-class citizens through a mixture of the BJP’s policies and societal bias against them.
Khaled Saffuri, president of the National Interest Foundation, is a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.