December 17, 2019

INDIA: Riots Have Broken Out Across India By Muslims And Others Angry At A New Law That Would Grant Citizenship To Persecuted Religious Minorities From Pakistan, Bangladesh And Afghanistan.

The Wall Street Journal
written by Eric Bellman
Wednesday December 11, 2019

NEW DELHI—India’s legislature established a path to citizenship that excludes Muslim illegal immigrants, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi leverages his re-election victory to push through contentious policies that Hindu nationalists have pursued for decades.

A bill passed by the lower house of Parliament on Tuesday and ushered toward law by the upper house on Wednesday eases citizenship for persecuted religious groups from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, but only if they aren’t Muslim.

Some opponents of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which now goes to the president to sign it into law, see it as a threat to Muslims in India and to Indian values of secularism and diversity.

The Modi administration says the law is intended to help illegal immigrants, including those who are already in India, and was created to make it easier to naturalize refugees. Muslims don’t need special support from India because they aren’t minorities in its Muslim-majority neighbors, the government says.

“There is no need for any worry for the Muslims in this country,” said Home Minister Amit Shah, an ally of Mr. Modi. “They are citizens of India now, and will always remain. They should live fearlessly,” he said after introducing the bill in the upper house on Wednesday.

Opponents of the law said the exclusion of Muslims was another step in a push by Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which is rooted in the Hindu-nationalist movement, to marginalize Muslims, who make up about 14% of India’s population. The BJP doesn’t control a majority of seats in the upper house, but its influence there has grown this year.

The ruling coalition this year also banned a method of divorce allowed under Muslim religious law. In August it ended the special treatment and extra autonomy allowed India’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir. In November, the Supreme Court ruled that Hindu groups could build a temple in the city of Ayodhya on a site where Muslim groups want to rebuild a mosque torn down by a Hindu mob in 1992.

The series of steps are the culmination of decades of effort by the BJP, which has moved from the fringes of India’s politics to the center, led by Mr. Modi, whose career has been steeped in the Hindu-nationalist cause.

Since its dominant performance in elections that concluded in May, the BJP has moved quickly to implement long-sought, sometimes controversial measures. The abolition of the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and desire to build a temple in Ayodhya have been part of the BJP’s core agenda from its beginning.

The BJP has also sought a civil code that is the same for all Indians—instead of allowing differences in areas of family law such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, as Muslims are allowed under Shariah law.

“It was an agenda which was there for the party to implement,” that has existed as long as the BJP, said Praveen Rai, political analyst for New Delhi think tank Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “And they are doing it.”

The citizenship bill is already roiling communal tensions in some parts of India. In Assam, a state in India’s northeast that has experienced some of the worst anti-immigrant violence in the past, the army was mobilized to contain thousands of protesters who want the law to be more restrictive—to expel all illegal immigrants regardless of religion or ethnicity.

India plans to create a national registry of citizens, for which many in India may lack the documentation to prove their citizenship. The new law would allow non-Muslims to protect themselves by saying they are minority refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan or Afghanistan.

Muslims would have to produce documents to prove they are Indian citizens, at the risk of becoming stateless. That would be difficult for many Indians to do, including many poor Muslims, even if they and their families have been living in India for generations.

Muslims in India say they feel increasingly targeted and vulnerable. Videos of mobs harassing Muslims have left many frightened.

“We are treated as second-class citizens,” said Farhan Bhuyan, a journalist from Assam who said neighbors and officials have become more likely to label Muslims as immigrants from Bangladesh. “It feels like living in a foreign land,” he said.

Critics argue that the BJP is undermining the secular trust and cross-community ties that hold the country together and have made India one of the few countries to emerge from colonialism as a strong and stable democracy.

Supporters of the party say it is trying to address longstanding sectarian animosity by creating an India where no group gets special treatment.

The BJP has been building toward the recent legislative push since it was founded in 1980 with the backing of Hindu-nationalist groups. Redesigning the government and society to emphasize ancient Hindu roots has been a main goal of the party.

The party’s fortunes started to gain momentum in the mid-1980s as it backed a national movement to build a Hindu temple at the site in Ayodhya where a mosque stood.

The party formed its first government in 1999, but it wasn’t until Mr. Modi, after more than a decade as the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, became the face of the BJP that the party really took off. After its second consecutive landslide victory in May, the party now has 303 seats in Parliament’s 545-seat lower house, up from 119 seats 10 years ago, and 83 of 240 upper-house seats.

The BJP’s moves to achieve its goals this year are also creating challenges as communal discord increases, the economy slows and India draws international criticism.

The construction of a Hindu temple in Ayodhya following the recent Supreme Court ruling could fuel sectarian tensions across India. In Kashmir, authorities have kept a lid on unrest by holding more than 500 people under “preventive detention,” including elected opposition politicians under house arrest, and restricting movement and communications in some parts of the state.

Such restrictions have drawn criticism from the United Nations and U.S. Congress. But easing such measures could result in a flare-up in protests—while insurgent attacks could spark tensions in the region and between India and Pakistan.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom this week said the government should consider imposing sanctions on Indian leaders in response to the citizenship bill, calling it “a dangerous turn in the wrong direction.”

The legislation “runs counter to India’s rich history of secular pluralism and the Indian Constitution, which guarantees equality before the law regardless of faith,” said the federal commission, which makes policy recommendations to the president and U.S. government.

Mr. Modi’s measures have also inspired opposition parties to work together. The BJP lost control of the western state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is the capital, after its ally switched sides to form a government last month.

After this year’s elections, some economists, investors and executives hoped Mr. Modi would use his mandate to impose unpopular economic overhauls such as loosening restrictions on land and labor. Instead, New Delhi has focused on the BJP’s to-do list, while economic growth has slowed to a six-year low.

“The challenges before the BJP should have been the issues of the economy, the issues of education, the issues of health,” said Aditya Mukherjee, a historian at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “Instead they are busy pushing Hindu communalism.”

—Vibhuti Agarwal and Krishna Pokharel contributed to this article.

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