Modi risks rending Indian society

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INDIA is the world’s second most populous country with more than 1.3 billion citizens. Some 200 million of them are Muslims. Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s racist government in Myanmar may seek to ethnically cleanse its far smaller Muslim citizenry to the disgust and so far distinctly half-hearted protests of the civilized world but Narendra Modi’s blatantly Hindu nationalist administration is surely risking even greater obloquy as it continues to discriminate against such a significant proportion of its nationals.

India, the world’s largest democracy is in serious danger. Before his triumphant reelection this year Modi had already moved against Muslims in Assam in the northeast of the country and against the predominantly Muslim population of occupied Kashmir. Now he has introduced the Citizens Amendment Act which is a direct challenge to the country’s treasured multi-confessional status. The legislation offers an amnesty to non-Muslim immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and also speeds the citizenship of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian residents in the country. Members of these communities will now only have had to been living or working in India for six years rather than the previous eleven years before they can apply to become Indian citizens.

This move has triggered widespread protests, particularly among students. And the police have responded with considerable violence. Beyond beating protesters and unfortunate bystanders with their vicious lathi canes, they have also been firing live rounds into crowds. This intemperate reaction, which would presumably have been approved by senior officers and government officials, has only served to fuel the fury at this woeful piece of legislation.

Nor can Modi claim that the outcry is coming exclusively from Muslims. In many student protests, often on university campuses with no reputation for militancy, a sizable proportion of the demonstrators have been from other religious communities, including Hindus. There is a widespread recognition that the Citizens Amendment Act is far more than discriminatory against Muslims; it is also a direct threat to the rich and varied tapestry that has underpinned Indian society since the departure of the British in 1947.

So far Modi shows every sign of seeking to tough it out. To back down would dismay his hardline Hindi nationalist supporters who underpin the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Moreover he has another good reason to play this latest nationalist card. It was widely assumed that he would lose this year’s general election because of a tanking economy, the mishandling of remonetization, rising unemployment and ill-advised interference in the running of the constitutionally-independent central bank, the Reserve Bank of India. That he triumphed underlines the spurious fear and high emotions that the BJP played on so shamelessly.

What Modi is trying to do in India is unacceptable. If the rest of the world sits back and does nothing in the same way that is has tried to ignore the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar, China and Sri Lanka, it will be giving a green light for yet further oppression by morally bankrupt regimes. Given the delicate state of India’s economy, Modi could not afford to face economic sanctions, especially if they applied incrementally, each time he refuses to bow to the key principle that has guided his country so successfully for the last 72 years — that all Indians are equal before the law.


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