By: Prema Rahman, MPAC Policy Analyst, and Amine Ben Naceur, MPAC Non-Resident Senior Policy Fellow
On September 23, 2021, a video of a photojournalist trampling a dead man shot by police in the state of Assam went viral on Twitter.
The video, posted by an Indian journalist, shows a group of police officers shooting a man running towards them with a baton. After being shot several times in the abdomen, the man collapses, falls and remains motionless while a journalist jumps on him several times. The video was taken on the sidelines of the violence that took place during a demonstration by Muslims in Bengal against an “expulsion campaign” ordered by the Assam government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In this wave of evictions, more than 800 families were forcibly removed from their land and their houses destroyed by Assam security forces. The residents, however, told the Indian media that they had bought the land years ago and had gone to the local court to oppose the eviction campaign. In this context, the BJP has been accused by human rights activists in India of exploiting the ethnic and religious fault lines in Assam for electoral purposes and of waging a hate campaign against Muslims.
This smear campaign was initiated with the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed in December 2019, which grants citizenship to refugees from six religious minority communities, except Muslims. For the latter, the CAA provides for a more rigid procedure that requires applicants for citizenship to produce additional evidence that is often difficult to gather in a country where a huge number of poor people have no identification, including many Muslims.
For Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s party, this citizen census operation is bearing fruit, since at the end of the census for the state of Assam, the authorities published a list indicating that about 1.9 million people were unable to prove their citizenship. This witch hunt is the pure product of Modi’s commitment to Hindu nationalism, which sees the Muslim population as alien to the country. While the campaign initiated by the introduction of the CAA refers only to irregular migrants, the fact that many Indian Muslims are unable to prove their identity suggests that this campaign is about the more than 200 million Muslims in India, who represent 14% of the population.
Modi was elected in 2014 on the promise that he would bring to the national forefront his “Gujarat model,” characterized by high growth rates driven by private sector-led manufacturing. At the same time, a return to this model also meant the promotion of populist politics aimed at creating and nurturing a Hindu majority within a socially and economically diverse population in order to form an electoral bloc for the BJP. Part of this strategy involved creating a common enemy with Muslims first and secular liberals second. The use of violence to polarize communities in areas where the BJP faced the strongest electoral competition, including areas with high Muslim populations, is not new for Narendra Modi.
Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat during the infamous 2002 anti-Muslim riots there, which claimed the lives of hundreds of Muslims and rendered thousands homeless. While the now PM has successfully avoided being directly implicated for inciting the violence, it is widely understood that he enabled the religious pogroms and that officials under him obstructed subsequent efforts for justice. The United States, in fact, had denied him visa entry for his failure to stop the bloodshed in Gujarat and only allowed him entry upon his election as PM of India.
The blatant Hindu-first policies of the Modi government have completely destroyed the foundations of the historically secular republic of India, and replaced it with a pro-Hindu nationalist state whose islamophobic actions are increasingly worrying. Indeed, Muslims have been targeted for lynching by Hindu militants in the name of protecting cows, a longstanding Hindu nationalist concern. University students, activists, opposition politicians and protesters who defy the government have been charged with sedition or inciting violence.
In the United States, reactions are scarce. The last two administrations have shown a rather positive attitude towards Modi, especially since India is an important ally for the United States in the region for security and trade reasons. Apart from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom have been outspoken critics of the Modi regime, the American political class has shown little interest in denouncing the excesses of the Indian nationalists. It seems that with the new administration, things are not getting any better, as the Biden administration has insisted on the importance of expanding the U.S. presence in the region, particularly to counter the growing influence of China. Despite India’s recent $5.5 billion arms deal with Russia, two U.S. Senators have urged President Biden to waive sanctions against India, which would directly violate a 2017 law whereby any country that engages with Russia’s defense and intelligence fields could face American sanctions. Our continued inaction and apathy toward the Modi government’s abuse of religious freedom and flagrant disregard for American allyship sets a dangerous precedent for how we conduct foreign relations.
India’s decline in civil rights is real, as evidenced by Freedom House’s downgrading of the country from “free” to “partly free”. More than civil rights, it is a life and death threat to tens of millions of people, given the increasing persecution of Indian Muslims and other minorities, such as mobs lynching, social boycotts, and widespread discrimination sanctioned by both dominant groups in society and the state. As evidenced by the recent surge of communal tensions in the neighboring country of Bangladesh, the unchecked growth the Hindu versus Muslim rhetoric risks ushering in a regional destabilization. And that will inevitably impact the millions of South Asians living in the U.S. and further discredit America’s promise to promote religious freedom through its foreign policy.
As an organization representing American Muslims, MPAC is concerned about this rise in violence and calls on our government to unilaterally condemn the actions of Indian authorities to deprive some citizens of their civil rights. Furthermore, we call on our leaders to denounce the outbreak of Islamophobia in India that is being exploited by the powers that be, endangering tens of millions of lives in the region. Finally, in the face of the rise in Islamophobic acts and policies we see in India and its neighbors, we call on our leaders to recall the values of tolerance and respect for human rights that the United States of America upholds and promotes.