Has India’s Narendra Modi gone too far?
“In the north, they believe the bill has gone too far and the amnesty will allow too much immigration,” Milan Vaishnav, director and senior fellow of the South Asia Program in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told CNN.
The new law will make it more difficult for Muslim migrants to get Indian citizenship. And critics are worried it might pave the way for nationwide citizenship tests, stripping the rights of Muslims who have lived in India for generations but cannot prove their family’s lineage — turning countless people stateless.
Modi tried to reassure the public on Monday, saying on Twitter that the new law “does not affect any citizen of India of any religion.” And that “no Indian has anything to worry” about.
What is at stake is “the future of liberal democracy in India,” Vaishnav said. “And it looks like a side, which has been asleep or at least silent, has really woken up and made sure that their voices are being heard.”
The protests are sure to have caught Modi — who has developed a reputation for being a Teflon premier — somewhat off guard. The leader has enjoyed widespread support, even when his public initiatives have hurt citizens — and the economy.
Critics are worried the party is using its stronger mandate to redefine India — home to the world’s second largest Muslim population — as a religious state and a Hindu homeland.
Progressive Indians watched in horror as Modi stripped Jammu and Kashmir — India’s only Muslim-majority state — of its partial autonomy in August. Yet “very few people stormed the streets,” Vaishnav said.
This, in part, may explain why the government failed to anticipate the potential backlash to the citizenship bill. As protests roiled the country over the weekend, the government shut down the internet in several affected states in a bid to maintain law and order.
“The BJP have been adept at using their grassroots presence to build support for their policies and have been effective at sidelining institutions such as parts of the media,” Champa Patel, head of the Asia-Pacific program at the UK-based Chatham House think tank, told CNN.
But they “have been backfooted by the scale of resistance to (the law),” Patel said. “The question now is how will they respond because it’s the first real test that they have faced.”
World is watching
India’s government says the law is a humanitarian measure to help persecuted religious minorities from its three neighbouring countries — Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
And as protests continued in the capital New Delhi on Tuesday, Modi accused political rivals of fomenting dissent and encouraging the discontent.
But in spite of mounting grievances, analysts think it is unlikely that the BJP will scrap the law. “Modi still remains, head and shoulders, the most popular politician in India,” Vaishnav said.
The BJP has a wide mandate since their second consecutive win in the general election, a race fought on a cultural agenda that appealed to their hard-line base. “And I don’t think they are going to deviate from it,” Vaishnav added.
In the meantime, India lacks a foreplan for what comes next. Its detention centers do not have the capacity needed to house “millions of people that could potentially be caught up,” if a nationwide citizenship check is rolled out, Vaishnav said.
And there appears to be no existing talks with neighboring countries, like Bangladesh, on the issue of deportation, Patel, from Chatham House, added.
As concerns mount, India watchers say Western governments have taken too soft a touch with the country — widely seen as a potential democratic counterpoint to neighboring China.
“I think what that does is turn a blind eye to just how authoritarian the BJP has been within India,” Patel said.
The foreign community “is waiting and watching to see how the (law) will be implemented,” Vaishnav added.
“Are you going to see large numbers of Muslims detained or lose their citizenship? It is a game of wait and see.”