India's Deadly Mix of Nationalism and Religion
In 2001, the state of Gujarat swore in a new Chief Minister. His name was Narendra Modi and he's now the Prime Minister of India, possibly the country's strongest leader in a generation. Evidence was very clear that poverty had declined very sharply during Mr. Modi's tenure in Gujarat. This was of course the result of a number of initiatives that he had taken economy-wide. But his rise didn't come without problems.
In 2002, over the course of three days, deadly riots by Hindus targeting Muslims spread across Gujarat. According to official figures, over 1000 people were killed, 223 people reported missing, and another 2,500 were injured. Everybody attacked us. Even the police. They poured kerosene and acid on us and set us on fire. A narrative has been sought to be spun, trying to paint Prime Minister Modi and the BJP in a negative light.
Critics say that the buck stopped with him. The local law enforcement was his responsibility and he let things go out of hand. But the Supreme Court has absolved him of all charges. But the violence in Gujarat was not an isolated incident that only happened under Modi's leadership. It's one of many religiously charged riots over the years, mainly targeting India's Muslim minority, which makes up roughly 14% of the nation's population.
And it continues to this day. Whether it is riots where it has involved Muslims, or Hindus, or Sikhs, or anybody else, the denunciation is extremely explicit by Prime Minister Modi and by the BJP. But some leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, have also explicitly promoted India as a Hindu nation rather than a secular one. Critics accuse them of emphasizing identity issues, while turning a blind eye to increasingly bolder Hindu groups.
All these things emboldened the Hindu nationalists, the fringe elements, and they're the ones who undertake large-scale rioting and lynching. The popularity of Modi has given allied politicians the courage to enact new laws around the country that explicitly discriminate against Muslims, most of whom don't support the BJP. I strongly feel that the government is sending the message that Muslims do not belong to this country.
Now some observers warn that the BJP-led government may seek to exploit religious divisions to consolidate power, at the expense of India's minorities. The fear it has created among the community is actually the main monster, which is driving the people to suicide, to depression, almost everyone is affected. Although tensions between Indian Hindus and Muslims existed for centuries, they more or less lived and worked side by side.
If you go back and read the history, I mean, the divisions were there, but they were not explicit or they will not cause for any friction amongst the population. But the British Raj had a strategy that firmly separated them into groups. It was called 'divide and rule'. How do you control this massive population? You divide them along religious lines, the caste lines. Policies, including a separate electorate for Muslims, led to rigid religious identities.
This also allowed the British to pit groups against each other and consolidate their own power. It was essentially to continue ruling over this large population and large landmass, and an area which was really pretty productive, rich, and helped the British Empire back home. On August 15, 1947, the great symbol of the British Empire came down for the last time, to be replaced by the banner of the new Indian government. But in 1947, when Great Britain decided it could no longer afford to be in India, it decided to partition the subcontinent into two independent dominions. Pakistan, which also included modern-day Bangladesh, was designated as a Muslim majority area and India was designated as Hindu.
The result was an unprecedented migration of 15 million people, which historians say claimed between half a million and 2 million lives in the bloodshed that followed. I guess the contours of that agreement was possibly the biggest tragedy in India's history because it led to the largest migration of population and it was pretty violent and bloody, so thousands and thousands of people lost their lives. Hindus who moved from Pakistan into India and Muslims who opted for Pakistan as their homeland in 1947. The violent nature of the partition created an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan that still exists. It also influences the relationship between India's Hindu majority and members of its Muslim minority who didn't flee to Pakistan during the partition. It's very difficult for a certain set of people to forget that event.
You know, the Hindus accused Muslims of doing it, Muslims accused Hindus of doing it. So, I mean, those divisions have continued till this day. But there were attempts by early leaders to reverse this trend. When India became independent, the leading Congress Party that included India's founding fathers, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, wanted a secular country. They had envisioned a secular state, where everyone is treated equally, irrespective of caste, creed, religion, gender. Others disagreed.
Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 by a former member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS. A secretive, all-male society founded in 1925 that promotes India as a Hindu nation. They are one of the biggest organizations in terms of sheer numbers. I mean, I would say they're present in almost every district, if not every village in India.
A young teenager named Narendra Modi was a member of the RSS, but later shifted to the BJP, which is inspired by RSS ideology, as a political organizer. The way the RSS works is that RSS loans or lends, one of its key members or leaders to the political party. They generally have a fair idea of the political lay of the land. So they guide the Bharatiya Janata Party in a sense. Modi moved rapidly through the BJP hierarchy in his home state of Gujarat and became the state's Chief Minister in 2001. According to my research, Gujarat had done the best actually among all the large states of India.
You know, when he became Chief Minister, Gujarat was ranked sixth, by per capita GDP. By 2006, Gujarat was already number three. But a year after becoming Chief Minister, the deadly religious riots occurred. Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, has now given out an interview in which he has said he has done absolutely the right thing in 2002 when the state was hit by riots. Modi led Gujarat for 13 years before turning to national politics.
Running against a Congress Party increasingly seen as corrupt and ineffective by citizens. At that time, it certainly looked like the congress-led coalition government was not very likely to return, but issue of course was whether BJP could emerge as an alternative, and that required decisive leadership. That is when the then Chief Minister, Modi, decided to enter the fray.
Modi capitalized on his image as a strong leader to win the election. He made bold promises that appealed to the masses, including bringing toilets to all rural areas and bank accounts to all. I was sort of taken aback that, "Is he going to be able to do it?" But successfully he did it. There was one week in which he opened so many bank accounts that it got into the Guinness Book of Records.
Despite some unpopular and highly criticized economic decisions, other major reforms remain popular among average Indians, whether they're Hindu nationalists or not. They want a very strong leader. They want faster growth.
They want somebody who takes quick decisions, a government that's nimble. But Covid-19 triggered an economic slowdown, as it did in most places, and that required a non-economic strategy to consolidate power. Modi and his closest aide, Amit Shah, pursued a strategy of uniting voters by stressing a Hindu identity instead of one divided by castes. An idea that could unite all the caste-based voters, creating a new majority that rules India for decades to come. Modi's even bigger re-election victory in 2019 showed his ability to appeal to the masses.
We are a party and we are a government for every Indian and the constitution grants every Indian, irrespective of religion, equal rights. After Modi's re-election, the government scrapped seven decades of autonomy for the contested region of Kashmir, the only part of India with a Muslim majority. The state of Jammu and Kashmir was the only article in the Indian constitution which had the word temporary in front of it. Every political party, including the Congress, including others have repeatedly said in parliament and are on the record saying that this temporary condition should go and it took Prime Minister Modi and the BJP to have the political will to make that happen.
And over in Assam, his allied political leaders are introducing new reforms that seemingly single out the large population of Muslims that live there. They were brought to Assam from today's Bangladesh by British colonizers, to work in the agriculture field to grow more food. There was a section who do not welcome these people for them, they thought that this is a threat to their language and culture. They persuaded the colonial administration, that there should be a demarcated area, and this Muslim peasant settled either in river island or in riverbank areas. When the partition happened, they didn't go back to Pakistan because they were already integrated to the society.
They felt that this is their land, and they were also very much with the Indian nationalist movement, which is very secular under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru. Assam, which is led by the BJP, compiled the final list of the National Register of Citizens or NRC in 2019. By verifying people's documents the act aims to separate genuine citizens from illegal immigrants.
Proving citizenship is difficult for two reasons. One is that there are many people, those who do not have proper documents. And the number two is these documents are not appreciated. The NRC, a key feature of the BJP's election manifesto, threatens to render 1.9 million people stateless overnight. Most of whom are Muslim.
Although the NRC has affected other Indian minorities, as well as some Hindus, non-Muslims have recently been given a path to citizenship. It's called the Citizenship Amendment Act, and it was passed by parliament in December 2019. It prioritizes citizenship for undocumented Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians from the neighboring Muslim-majority countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The government describes these groups as persecuted minorities.
India has an obligation, has a moral obligation and a legal obligation to provide shelter to the minorities of these newly created nations because their original homeland was India. Critics point out that persecuted Muslim minorities don't qualify for citizenship under this act. If they're coming to India, if they are not Muslim, then the government will give them citizenship.
But if that person is Muslim, then that option is not available under this new Citizenship Amendment Act. So this is a clear violation of Indian constitution. Indian constitution is a secular constitution. The NRC, along with the Citizenship Amendment Act, has only fueled concerns that Modi's party is using the measure to advance a hardline Hindu agenda. To deal with the people rendered stateless by the new laws, Modi has begun the construction of camps. With the largest one in Assam, which will be able to hold 3,000 people found to be foreigners by the new registry law.
So far, five other facilities have been constructed with a push to build more. To make matters worse, the climate crisis has caused some rivers to rise in recent years, making many of the Muslims who have inhabited those areas for generations homeless. When they get displaced, normally government has to provide them compensation but because of the societal and political divide, these people they are not getting any kind of compensation or rehabilitation from the government. Now this government saying that you are illegal and crosser, and these Muslims in a large number, they have been evicted from their home. But events in Assam seem to reflect a nationwide trend. Hindu nationalists are building a temple in Ayodhya on the site of a mosque destroyed by Hindu activists in 1992, an event that triggered deadly riots and remains sensitive for Muslims.
It was a mosque and the court has accepted that the demolition was illegal, but the same court has given the land to construct a temple. Modi laid the first brick on August 5, 2020. There have also been reports of vigilante mobs attacking people transporting cows, which many devout Hindus consider sacred, and new laws prohibit the consumption of beef. What I feel is that this actually gives some sort of license to the vigilante groups to carry out the crime like lynching. We have already come across cases where Muslim men are harassed because of carrying beef.
And the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, led a campaign that accused Muslim youths of seducing Hindu women to convert them to Islam. This law prohibits inter-religion marries between Hindus and Muslims, especially Hindu women marrying Muslim men. These marriages are now made illegal and the allegation is that these Muslim men marry Hindu women to convert them to Islam.
This is ridiculous. At least one marriage was ordered to be annulled by a court. But support for the Hindu Nationalism cause is far from uniform across India's Hindu majority. After the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed, protesters of all faiths took to the streets across the country. That gave actually some sort of hope that there are people in the society from the Hindu community who are against this brutal violation of Indian constitution. Other critics also include some of the country's most influential billionaires, as well as the Indian diaspora in Silicon Valley.
Freedom House, a US-based advocacy group, said that among the world's major democracies, India suffered the steepest declines in civil and political liberties in recent years. There has been some sort of resistance and resilience among the community as well. There are people within the community, those who are supporting the victims, especially those who are facing this problem of citizenship contestation. We also see that, people within the community, they have started speaking out about this issues. So I think, along with this, we have some sort of positive story as well.
Although Modi remains popular, India's democracy still allows for citizens to voice their opinions and make a difference. The backlash the government faced after CAA led to them developing cold feet and they've kept the National Register for Citizens or National Citizenship Register on the back burner. The chief ministers of several states said they would not implement the Citizenship Amendment Act, and nearly 2,000 academics and professionals signed a statement condemning the law for violating the spirit of the constitution. While Modi still remains popular, the negative reactions to the new restrictions seem to have given his government pause.
There are numbers of religious minorities who are facing terrible assault and attacks and rapes, and murders and genocide who continue to seek shelter in India. So there is a demand that we must do something about them, give them shelter, but as far as the CAA act that you're referring to, which was passed in parliament two years ago, some people have already started getting the benefit of citizenship. And those who are eligible that is till 2014, who have come across as refugees will get it.