Protests against the Indian national government have roiled major cities for weeks. At the heart of the demonstrators’ anger is a law passed by Parliament last month that offers a preferential path to resettlement in India for six religious groups—Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsees and Christians—who have fled neighboring Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, author Tunku Varadarajan writes in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal.
Of note: Afghanistan and Pakistan are Islamic republics where religious minorities face persecution. Bangladesh is also a Muslim-majority country, and Islam is enshrined as the state religion. But Bangladesh is constitutionally secular, and religious minorities fare immeasurably better there than they do in the other two.
Imagine for a moment a law passed by the U.S. Congress that fast-tracked refugees from all religions except Islam, as New Delhi’s Citizenship Amendment Act does. In India, the exclusion is particularly noteworthy: Islam has had a presence on the Indian subcontinent since the seventh century. Today there are some 200 million Indian Muslims, almost 15% of the population.
Under the new law, a persecuted Ahmadi Muslim from Pakistan, whose sect is heretical under Pakistani law, would be treated differently from a Pakistani Hindu. As would a Hindu fleeing Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, an Indian neighbor whose minorities are not singled out for protection. As for a Rohingya Muslim fleeing Buddhist-majority Myanmar, with which India shares a border—not a prayer! As an excluded Muslim from a country beyond the scope of the act, he’d fail on two counts.
The Indian government has resorted to specious explanations for why this ostensibly humanitarian law wouldn’t protect people from all religions fleeing persecution. “There is no country in the world for the Hindus,” Nitin Gadkari, a senior minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said on TV recently. “Where will the Hindus, Sikhs go? For Muslims there are several Muslim nations where they can get citizenship.”
In other words, persecuted Muslims aren’t included in the law because they aren’t defenseless. Persecuted Hindus are. Mr. Gadkari’s argument, as read in the context of the new legislation, further suggests that persecuted Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsees, or Christians are defenseless too—provided their ill-treatment occurs in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Bangladesh.
This argument of course is laughable. Any statement that there is “no country in the world for the Hindus” ignores the significant Hindu populations in most advanced Western countries, all of which have refugee laws based on universal principles. And the argument that “there are several Muslim nations where they can get citizenship” applies to Christians and Buddhists. Yet these two groups benefit from the new system.
More important, the argument is a dangerous, unapologetic attempt to refashion India as a Hindu state. The Hinduization of India has been the political project of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, whose “Hindutva,” or Hinduist, ideology has grown more unrestrained since Mr. Modi won his second consecutive national election in 2019. Although he has a history of Hinduist chauvinism, Mr. Modi had campaigned in his first term in the language of economic reform. Today, talk of reform has fallen by the parochial wayside.
India is the world’s largest democracy, with secularism enshrined in its 70-year-old constitution. While around 80% of its 1.35 billion population is Hindu, India is not a Hindu state in the way that Israel is a Jewish one or Pakistan Islamic. The Citizenship Amendment Act violates the constitution in its exclusion of Muslims from a benefit accorded to aliens of other faiths, and it already has been challenged in the courts. But the recent contentious ruling of the Indian Supreme Court—which granted title to land on which a razed mosque stood to Hindu religious groups—does not fill secular Indians with optimism.