What next for India's Muslims? More suffering and a further crackdown on their rights by the Modi government

If identity documents are lost – including in attacks such as those seen in Delhi – it is not difficult to envisage a scenario in which a proportion of  the country’s Muslims are moved to detention centres

Gareth Price
Monday 02 March 2020 17:43
Scuffle in Indian parliament as MPs protest against government over Delhi riots inaction

In his second term, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s government has expedited efforts to undermine India’s Muslims. While Muslims are widely accepted to be India’s poorest community by religion (in part a statistical quirk given that much of the Muslim middle class moved to Pakistan at partition) the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) believes that for decades other parties – notably the once dominant Congress – have prioritised Muslims over Hindus.

First to go was the “special status” granted to India’s only Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir. Amongst the provisions removed was that on “outsiders” buying land in the state. This, according to the government, had harmed economic development. Curiously, the government has no plans to remove similar protection granted to several areas of north east India.

Next was a double whammy of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The government has suggested that the NRC – a measure intended to identify illegal immigrants in Assam – should be rolled out nationwide and reportedly instructed India’s states to start constructing detention centres.

Now, proving citizenship in a country in which 38 per cent of under-fives lack birth certificates is likely to prove trickier than the government suggests. And those who may struggle are unlikely to be just Muslims. This is where the CAA comes in, making those who practise five religions “indigenous” to India – namely Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis – along with Christians, eligible for Indian citizenship. The measure applies to those escaping persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan (though how people unable to prove they are Indian would be able to prove they came from somewhere else is anyone’s guess). Undocumented Muslims are notably not eligible for citizenship.

Various ministers have reiterated that Indian Muslims have nothing to fear. But if angry mobs start attacking Muslims and burning their homes – as happened in Delhi last week – one outcome could be that any documentation is destroyed. So despite the government’s assurances, it is not difficult to envisage a scenario in which some proportion of India’s Muslims are moved to detention centres.

It’s also worth noting that India would be far from the first country in its neighbourhood to do this to a Muslim minority. Around one million Uighurs are thought to be in re-education and internment camps in China while Myanmar’s Rohingayas were first moved into camps before they fled into Bangladesh.

Next up may well be the introduction of a uniform civil code. Since Independence, each religion has its own personal law (relating to marriage and divorce, for instance). Replacing it with a uniform code would be far from unjustifiable, not least on the grounds that the current system can be seen to discriminate against Muslim women.

Once Muslims’ rights have finished being reduced their secondary status will presumably be apparent.

What next? Indian Muslims’ relative immunity from radicalisation seems likely to be sorely tested. Historically, terrorist attacks against India have been blamed on Pakistan-connected groups. “Home grown” terrorism could well provide justification for a further crackdown by the government.

Social dynamics also imply that the violence in Delhi may well be a harbinger of what’s to come. Youth unemployment stands at around 10 per cent according to the International Labour Organisation, though some studies put the figure substantially higher. Equally troubling is the societal implications of the highly skewed male-female ratio in India (along with China) resulting from female infanticide. The existence of these “bare branches”, noted a prescient article from 2004, is likely to aggravate “societal instability, violent crime and gang formation”.

As Donald Trump put it during his recent visit, India “has always been admired around the Earth as the place where millions upon millions of Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs and Jains, Buddhists, Christians, and Jews worship side by side in harmony”. If India continues on its current pathway, this harmony may well become more difficult to discern.

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