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Waxing Right-Wing Nationalism in India

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs U.S. President Donald Trump as they give joint statements in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 26, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque – RC1CDEF75340

I don’t know about you, but I find that America’s descent into ethnonationalism tends to occupy so much of my mental bandwidth that I have trouble keeping up with similar developments elsewhere. One of those “elsewheres” is India, where the BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has turned to the aggressive promotion of Hindu nationalism.

At Foreign Policy, Kathryn Salam provides a quick overview of Modi’s policies toward Jammu and Kashmir, which some describe as turning the region into a giant prison camp. More recently, the government enacted a new citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims, which in turn has produced ongoing, sometimes deadly, protests.

Modi claims that the law is merely intended to help refugees facing persecution in neighboring Muslim-majority countries. But the law is clearly discriminatory and, worse, threatens to strip many Indian Muslims of their citizenship.

BJP leaders justify excluding Muslims, countering that the goal is to aid victims of religious persecution in their home countries. A government official noted that Muslims in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh cannot, by definition, face persecution because these are Muslim-majority countries.

Domestic critics challenge this claim on multiple grounds. The government has provided no explanation for singling out migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, given that the country receives more migrants from other neighboring nations.

Besides Afghanistan, asylum seekers in India typically are Tibetans from China, Tamils from Sri Lanka and Rohingya from Myanmar, so if the government intended to aid victims of religious persecution, these countries also would be included in the law. It overlooks, too, persecution that certain Muslim sects, such as the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan, face even within Muslim-majority countries.

While the roots of Hindu nationalism are very deep – the RSS, the BJP’s “ideological parent“, emerged during the global flowering of fascist movements in the 1920s – American and Europeans will recognize the basic contours of the rhetoric coming from high-level BJP officials.

Now some Muslims worry that the current citizenship measure is only the first step of a larger project. Shah, Modi’s lieutenant, has repeatedly stated that the government intends to launch a nationwide registry in which all Indians will be required to prove their citizenship, patterned on the exercise recently carried out in Assam. The opaque and complex process was riddled with errors and forced residents to provide ancestral documents going back decades.

Shah’s repeated references to migrants as “termites” and “infiltrators” who represent a security threat is coded language to refer to Muslims, critics say. Although Shah has said that Indian Muslims have nothing to fear, many worry they would be the target of a nationwide citizenship registry.

There have been BJP governments in India before, but none enjoyed Modi’s mandate and none have pushed the ethnonationalist agenda as far. It would be a mistake to reduce developments in Indian politics to an effect of a global right-wing wave, but they certainly contribute to that wave.

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