Democracy under siegeIndia's Citizenship Amendment Act reinforces and celebrates the idea of religious persecution and discrimination.
Swagat Raj Pandey
Democracy, if turned into the tyranny of the majority, is just another form of autocracy which negates equality and reinforces the cycle of dehumanisation, subjugation and oppression. The ‘largest democracy’ in the world, India, is definitely becoming larger by the day; but at the cost of eroding democratic ethos, values and principles. The current developments in India is a demonstration of an elected autocracy that is contributing to the quick, sad and perilous decline of democracy.
Following up on its promises made during the 2014 election, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government amended the Citizenship Act that allows ‘any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who entered into India on or before December 31, 2014 and facing/fearing religious persecution’ to gain Indian citizenship. In doing so, it has systematically omitted the Muslim population and institutionalised a state-sponsored religious divide. This is more concerning given that the oppression of Muslims in India is increasingly becoming systemic in nature.
While the Indian government claims that this act will safeguard around 30,000 current illegal immigrants within the country, the passage of the act has seen widespread criticism primarily for being discriminatory against Muslims and institutionalising discrimination on the basis of religious belief. These protests have turned violent with police brutality displaying the state’s position to curb dissenting voices with force. In countries where civic space is more open, the state enables and safeguards the enjoyment of such a space. The role of the police, in such instances, is to protect protestors for full enjoyment of their right to freedom of peaceful assembly. On the contrary, the brutality used to suppress the protests, particularly within educational institutions such as Jamia Millia Islamia University, exhibits and demonstrates the closing of open space in India.
To view this as a one-off amendment in the citizenship act would be missing out on the larger politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party to push forward the Hindutva ideology that impinges on religious tolerance, regional harmony and democracy in South Asia. This Citizenship Amendment Act follows up on the Indian government’s earlier action of shutting down the return of Jammu and Kashmir residents who had migrated to Pakistan using the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act 2019.
Viewed within the larger scheme of Bharatiya Janata Party politics, it is stepping towards turning India into Hindustan—the land of Hindus. Through the amendment of the Citizenship Act and omission of Muslims, it acknowledges and provides acceptance to the persecution of religious minorities. Rather than embracing and accommodating global citizenship, the act reinforces and celebrates the idea of religious persecution and discrimination. By virtue of omission of Islam purposively from the act, it supports the idea of persecution of minorities on the basis of religion or any other categories of division.
More importantly, it institutionalises the practice of discrimination on the basis of religious belief which is fundamentally against the values of secularism. This gives continuity to the construction of the ‘other’ and increases the mistrust and friction between Muslims and non-Muslims for generations to come. It reignites the fire and resurfaces the pathologies of partition and pushes forward religious fundamentalism. It applauds the Hindutva ideology and audaciously positions the Indian state as anti-Islamic. It aims to turn India into ‘the land of non-Muslims’ which is divisive and detrimental, not only for India but for South Asia as a whole.
Furthermore, the act, on the conceptual level, stands with the actions perpetrated by its neighbours in the region, namely Bhutanese persecution of its Nepali-speaking population, ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar, and oppression of Sri Lankan Tamils by the Sinhalese majority. The Indian Union Home Minister said that the act would not have any direct effect on Nepali nationals. However, given the propensity of the act and the malicious intentions, Nepal should not just look at it from that angle. As a country standing for democracy, secularism and constitutionalism, it should take a stand against the act that undermines and threatens the values of secularism and basic tenets of democracy. By standing with this act of the Indian government, we not only consent to this action of religious discrimination but also stand validating the actions of Bhutanese persecution of the Nepali-speaking population, ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims and Sinhalese oppression of Sri Lankan Tamils.
Increasing anti-immigrant, ultra-nationalist, and ‘anti’-politics is shaping the political balance and electoral politics all over the world. This shift in the world order that is being determined by illiberal values is a threat to liberal democracies everywhere. The immediate effect of the amendment act and the National Register of Citizens may seem trivial against the larger geopolitical interests, however, its repercussion, in the long run, is scary. The Nepali polity is quick to learn from its southern neighbour, and what is petrifying is the emulation of the populist majoritarianism. The two-thirds majority government has already shown signs, in the garb of nationalism, of illiberal and parochial tendencies with its attempts to curtail freedom of expression and constrict the functioning of civil society organisations. One can only hope that ultra-nationalism and intolerant politics does not become the norm of Nepali politics.
There isn’t much to expect from Nepali lawmakers, eclipsed as they are with their own racist and misogynistic values on Nepal’s own Citizenship Amendment Bill, to speak on the specificities of the Indian Citizenship Amendment Act. However, it wouldn’t be much of an ask from the current chair of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to stand up for the basic tenets of human rights. What else could be a better time to reinvigorate the ‘dead’ SAARC? If one stays silent during these times, not only does one justify the actions, but also stands with them. It is without any condition that we should stand against such acts that are against the basic values of democracy and humanity. It would be a shame if it shies away from the moral obligation to stand against injustice. As Martin Luther King Jr used to constantly remind us, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’
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