Posted by: John Elliott | December 10, 2019

India’s government launches anti-Muslim citizenship legislation

Coincides with failure to tackle declining economic growth

Follows removal of Muslim Kashmir’s special status   

The Narendra Modi government’s relentless drive to turn India into a Hindu-dominant country has been given fresh impetus with the introduction of a parliamentary Bill that discriminates against illegal Muslim immigrants over their rights to citizenship, while favouring people from other religions.

The highly divisive Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which is creating concern among India’s 200m Muslims about their future, was passed by the Lok Sabha late last night, having been launched earlier in the day by Amit Shah, the arch Hindu-nationalist home minister and president of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Amit_Shah_PTIShah revealed his party’s religion-based aims and its angst about India’s history when he angrily shouted, to roars of approval from BJP MPs (left), that the Bill “would not have been needed if the Congress had not allowed partition on basis of religion” – a reference to the creation of Muslim Pakistan when India became independent in 1947 under a Congress government.

The proposed legislation follows repressive action over the past four months in Muslim-dominated Kashmir where the (widely supported) removal on August 5 of the state’s special status under Article 370 of the constitution was accompanied by a massive security clampdown that has still not completely ended.

It also follows another Hindu nationalist victory when the supreme court last month cleared the way for the construction of a Hindu temple on the highly controversial and contested site of a mosque at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh that was demolished in 1992.

These and other actions are revealing an authoritarian and sometimes brutal side of India, which is losing its image internationally as a tolerant, all-embracing and welcoming society. This is lowering the attractiveness of the country as a business and tourist destination and could also affect its international standing.

Focus on Hinduvta not economy

There is criticism that Modi has focussed government attention on the Hindutva political agenda, ignoring till recently the signs of a slowing growth rate. Consequently, the government failed to act early enough to arrest a decline in the country’s economic growth rate, which has slumped over the past 18 months from around 8% to 4.5%, despite recent policy initiatives. During the general election campaign, Modi diverted voters’ attention from the economy by focussing on the risks of terror attacks emanating from Pakistan.

Raghuram-Rajan-1Raghuram Rajan, a recognised international economist (left) who has become one of the government’s sternest critics since he was not reappointed in 2016 for a second term as governor of the Reserve Bank of India, attributes part of the problem to Modi’s centralised rule.

“Not just decision-making but also ideas and plans emanate from a small set of personalities around the Prime Minister…..That works well for the party’s political and social agenda….which is well laid out, and where all these individuals have domain expertise,” he wrote recently in India Today magazine.

“It works less well for economic reforms, where there is less of a coherent articulated agenda at the top, and less domain knowledge of how the economy works”.

The developing economic crisis has also brought out the authoritarian side of a government that regards any criticism as anti-national and lacking in patriotism.

Rahul Bajaj, the 81-year old doyen of India’s industrialists and the chairman of Bajaj Auto, a leading two wheeler manufacturer, was quickly rebuked by Nirmala Sitharaman, the finance minister, after he criticised the government for creating an “atmosphere of fear” that silenced critics and deterred investment.

Amith Shah, who was at the event where Bajaj was speaking, said the government was open to all views, but Sitharaman declared such public criticism, “can hurt the national interest”.

Bajaj has been known for years for his unguarded public statements and what he said would have quickly vanished from the headlines but for Sitharaman’s criticism that helped to trigger a storm of claims and counter-claims. Sitharaman was appointed after the election and is reported to take policy orders from Modi’s prime minister’s office (PMO).

National Register of Citizens

The citizenship bill provides for the creation of a National Register of Citizens (NRC). All India’s 1.3bn people having to produce documentary evidence that they are legitimate Indian citizens before the next general election due in 2024.

The fear is that the BJP would use the survey needed to set up the register to harass Muslims across India. Many of the country’s poor do not have adequate proof of their birth and ancestors, and there is a serious risk that Hindu nationalist extremists would use the legislation to create communal unrest.

The existing citizenship law prohibits illegal migrants from becoming citizens, but the new legislation would grant Indian citizenship to Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis and Jains who sought refuge in India before 2015 from persecution in predominantly Muslim Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Opponents criticise the Bill for aiming to marginalise Muslims by breaching India’s constitutional requirement that there should be no discrimination against any citizens.

Yesterday Shah stressed the positive side of the legislation, claiming it “does justice” to the six religious minorities in the three countries by offering them sanctuary in India.

Bangladeshi “termites”

Earlier this year however he referred to Bangladeshi (Muslim) immigrants as “intruders” and “termites” and has promised that, once the national register is set up, “every infiltrator in India will be shown the door”,

The development of the legislation began earlier this year in Assam, where there were mass demonstrations yesterday because of a fear that large numbers of refugees from neighbouring Bangladesh will be allowed citizenship.

The government failed to implement the legislation before the recent general election. The Lok Sabha, parliament’s lower house, cleared the bill last night with a large majority of 311 for and 80 against. It will need backing from other parties to build a majority in the Rajya Sabha, which it will probably manage within the next couple of days.

The fate of this legislation, and the way that Shah implements it, will have a significant impact on how the Hindu nationalist agenda plays out in the next four or five years.

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