India’s New Citizenship Law and Creeping Hindu Nationalism

India’s new citizenship law is another step in the BJP’s Hindu Nationalist agenda, which threatens its democracy and its economy.

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Britain’s 1947 partition of its Indian territories into Hindu and Muslim countries gave rise to modern India as we know it. Though the ensuing mass migration of Hindus to India and Muslims to Pakistan caused a devastating loss of life, India still retained a sizeable Muslim minority. Accordingly, the country’s 1949 constitution created, in essence, a secular democracy, guaranteeing basic rights like freedom of speech and freedom of religion. But the new country was confronted with a plethora of issues: the legacy of the caste system, tensions with neighboring Pakistan and four consequent wars, an extremely underdeveloped economy, and of course, religious tensions.

It is against this backdrop that India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a majority in Parliament in 2014 with only eight percent of the Muslim vote. The party certainly made some economic progress, such as electrification, the improvement of infrastructure, and the increased ease of doing business. But since then, the party has also been responsible for a disquieting trend, one that threatens to erode Indian national unity and democracy: a growing sentiment of Hindu nationalism. Rather than focusing on much-needed reforms to stimulate India's underdeveloped economy, the BJP has turned to the pursuit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda.

Five months ago, the Muslim-majority Kashmir state on the Pakistani border was stripped of its autonomous status. This revocation was then followed by a crackdown, internet blackouts, and the detention of politicians and opposition activists in the area. Around the same time, the government began a new program in the state of Assam, whereby all residents were required to provide documents proving they were Indian citizens. They planned to expand the program nationally and create a National Register of Citizens (NRC)—measures intended to root out illegal immigrants coming from neighboring Bangladesh. There was one problem, though: a considerable portion of those who could not turn up documents were Hindus.

That's where the BJP’s new citizenship law, passed several weeks ago, comes into play. It allows illegal immigrants who entered before 2015 and are religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, or Pakistan to easily apply for Indian citizenship. Proponents of the bill argue that it is merely an attempt to protect religious minorities from those countries who fled persecution. But upon further scrutiny, this argument does not hold. While the bill includes Hindus, Christians, and other groups, it excludes Muslim groups who are persecuted in their countries, such as the Ahmadis in Pakistan. The bill is thus a plain attempt to provide cover for Hindu illegal immigrants while barring Muslims, another step in Modi's Hindu nationalist agenda.

Protests quickly erupted over the law’s passage, claiming dozens of lives, and they have not stopped since. The protestors are primarily defenders of a secular India, as well as Muslims who see their citizenship as being threatened. If a National Registry of Citizens were to be implemented, many Indians might struggle to turn up physical documents proving their citizenship. But of these individuals, only those of the Muslim faith would risk being sent to detention centers and deported, since the new citizenship law allows those of other faiths who are unable to turn up documents to easily apply for citizenship.

The new law, then, makes the government’s defense of the NRC as protecting against illegal immigration especially flawed because in practice, it does the very opposite for non-Muslim immigrants. In fact, the law would do little more than prevent the illegal immigration of Muslims and threaten the citizenship of Muslims who are native Indians.

The BJP’s focus on marginalizing Muslims is detrimental to not only Muslims, but also the nation at large; it risks diverting attention from pressing economic woes that the country faces. India’s GDP per capita (average yearly income of a single person) is the equivalent of just $7100. And more importantly, India’s population is still increasing rapidly. Without economic growth commensurate with its population growth, the country must suffer increasing unemployment. In fact, that’s exactly what has happened over the past few years: GDP growth has plunged by half since 2016, and unemployment is at its highest level since 1972.

The government has made efforts to address the crisis by cutting taxes, but this surface-level solution does not address the country’s structural economic issues that impede long-term growth. And instead of taking the politically daunting path of implementing reforms—such as expanding free trade, loosening labor laws, and privatizing state-owned businesses—the BJP has tried to distract Indians from the failing economy by stoking sectarian tensions. The party is well-aware that the nation’s slowing economy could spell electoral disaster, seeing as they campaigned on a promise to promote economic growth. In fact, the party’s concern has led to its attempted suppression of recent reports that indicate record levels of unemployment. It is also the primary reason that the government turned toward stoking Hindu nationalism in the run-up to their re-election victory last year—a trend that has not stopped since. As a result, all Indians will suffer.

But concern for India’s rising Hindu nationalism shouldn’t just be limited to those directly affected by it—it should extend globally. Because in today’s globalized economy, India’s slow growth will serve as an international impediment, leaving no country unharmed. And as India stagnates economically, it will serve as less of an economic and geopolitical counterweight to China. The potential costs thus necessitate action by the international community. And though the extent to which we may spur India to change course is limited, American companies and investors must make it clear that increased Hindu nationalism will discourage investment. Further, the U.S. government should refrain from striking any trade deals with India until the BJP stops pushing its Hindu nationalist agenda and begins working toward a better India for all Indians—and, by extension, the world at large.