India's new anti-Muslim law shows the broad allure of right-wing Islamophobic policies

Narendra Modi's government has said that India's Muslims must prove their Indianness because their faith renders it suspect. The world cannot ignore this.
Image: A protester wears an anti-CAB t-shirt
A protester wears an anti-Citizenship Bill T-shirt during a demonstration against CAB, which grants Indian citizenship to non-Muslims of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, in Kolkata, India, on Jan. 9, 2020.Avishek Das / SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
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By Arsalan Iftikhar, international human rights lawyer

Although India is the largest democracy in the world, the rise of right-wing ethnonationalism under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is slowly unraveling the secular democratic fabric of Mahatma Gandhi’s homeland. Just like millions of Donald Trump supporters howl about building border walls to keep so-called illegal immigrants out of America, right-wing Hindu nationalists in India, proponents of the Hindutva ideology, have alleged for decades that there are millions of illegal Muslim economic migrants (predominantly of Bangladeshi origin) living and working across India.

This issue has been a constant source of political tension in the northeastern Indian states bordering Bangladesh — especially in the state of Assam, which has been registering "Indian" citizens since the country's 1951 census and fighting to marginalize and expel any so-called Muslim foreigners ever since.

And now, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to take Assam's decades-long campaign of anti-Muslim discrimination disguised as a populist project nationwide, requiring over 200 million Indian Muslims to prove their Indianness or face being rendered stateless.

At the behest of Modi and his conservative Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, India's Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill in December 2019 to allow any Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Christian or Parsi immigrant who came into India from Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan before 2015 to legally become a citizen. It was marketed as a way of simply expanding the 1951 National Register of Citizens , which had until recently been limited to the state of Assam. Unsurprisingly, the only major religion that this expansion left out was Islam — the second largest religion in India today with over 200 million followers.

Modi’s government justified this glaring omission by claiming that, since Muslims are majority populations in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, they are simply trying to assist non-Muslims who face religious persecution in those countries by allowing them to remain. "Not one refugee will have to leave. And we will not allow even one infiltrator to stay back," Indian Home Minister Amit Shah, Modi's closest aide, declared in October 2019; the "infiltrators" he referenced were, it was clear to his audience, millions of Muslims the original National Register of Citizens and its apparent expansion targeted.

Shah has, in the past, promised to remove Muslim “infiltrators” whom he has also previously described as “termites” in overtly genocidal terms, in addition to vowing during a political rally to throw them into the Bay of Bengal.

Here is the problem with expanding Assam's National Register of Citizens to every other Muslim in India: In order to qualify for inclusion in the official NRC registry in Assam, all Muslim residents had to provide the government with evidence that their families had migrated to India before 1971 (which is when Bangladesh declared its independence from Pakistan, in a bloody conflict that created a refugee crisis). That requirement placed the onus on generations of Indian Muslims who were born and raised in India to provide their grandparents' legal documents — most of which did not exist anymore — to ensure their right to remain in the country of their birth.

Were this law to be implemented on a nationwide basis, these onerous legal requirements could mean that over 1.9 million Muslims might not possess the correct papers to validate their existence as Indians and could be stripped of citizenship.

There is regional precedent for this sort of mass invalidation of national identity based on religious faith. This controversial Indian bill is eerily similar to neighboring Myanmar’s own 1982 anti-Muslim citizenship law which recognized eight different races and 130 official minority groups, yet somehow omitted recognition of the country’s 1 million Rohingya Muslims, preventing them from gaining legal citizenship.

Similar to Modi’s right-wing Hindutva supporters inside India, generations of right-wing Buddhists inside Myanmar have always viewed the impoverished Rohingya people as Muslim interlopers brought in by British colonialists from modern-day Bangladesh. The decades of official statelessness they've experienced as a result has contributed to the decades of state-supported violence to which they've also been subjected.

It does not seem to be the only regional anti-Muslim effort that Modi has plans to emulate. The Indian government also seems intent on copying China’s use of internment camps for over 1 million Uighur Muslims, according to official United Nations estimates. According to the Hindi-language news network NDTV India, Modi's government is building India’s first detention center (which looks suspiciously like an internment camp) for Muslims who were declared “foreigners” after the publication of the contentious expansion of the Assam National Register of Citizens in late 2019. According to the report, this massive internment camp can house over 3,000 people and will be about the “size of seven soccer fields.”

Regardless of where we live — in the United States or halfway around the world — no one should be complacent about normalizing “internment camps” as we enter a new decade. Whether it is separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border or ambivalent European governments letting children drown on their shores as they try to escape to freedom, the global demonization of human beings based on religion and ethnicity is empowering right-wing ethnonationalists around the world to implement genocidal policies against minority demographic groups.

Though we have witnessed the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and are witnessing Uighur Muslims housed inside Chinese internment camps, let us not also allow Modi’s ethnonationalist right-wing government in India seek to erase the rights of millions of Muslims from his country, as well.