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Delhi’s communal riots in context of Modi’s Indian remodelling

Earlier this week, with Indian Prime Minster, Narendra Modi welcoming Donald Trump for a 2 day visit to cement India-US ties, communal rioting broke out in North-Eastern Delhi, leading to at least 40 deaths und hundreds wounded with fighting having broken out between Hindu and Muslim groups, where the former attacked and burned Mosques as well as Muslim-run businesses in the district. Whilst last week’s violence has subsided, it comes in the wake of a rising aggressive push by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Hindu-nationalist Government, to remodel India, following their re-election in last year’s Indian Parliamentary elections.


This has included the introduction into law last year of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), allowing a path to Indian citizenship for religious minorities who had sought refuge in India and could justify that they were fleeing persecution from either Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh, on the proviso that they had entered India prior to December 2014. However, the law only allowed the pathway to citizenship for Christians, Parsi, Jain, Sikh, Buddhist and Hindus and did not offer this opportunity for Muslims from those countries fleeing persecution and seeking refuge in India. There were big protests against the CAA, late last year, with demonstrators, including younger, educated members of the growing Indian middle class, taking to the streets to denounce the new laws, which demonstrators saw as deliberately being anti-Muslim.


These provisions went hand-in-hand with the implementation of the National Register of Citizens, where people living in India would need to demonstrate their Indian citizenship in order to qualify as being Indian. This has already been implemented in the North-eastern state of Assam since 2013, where supporters argue that it would help stem the flow of irregular migrants, in particular from Bangladesh. However, since the publication of the Assam register last year close to 1.9m people in Assam (including many Hindus) found themselves not on the register, leading to fears that this could lead to mass deportations. The BJP Government has stated that it is their intention to roll-out the national register of citizens throughout the rest of India in 2020, there are concerns that it could be used to de-Indianise the country’s Muslim population. Indeed, Bloomberg reported last week that millions of Indians could end up in detention centres being set up by the Government around the country, in order to process those alleged to be in the country illegally.


In addition, earlier to this, in August last year, the Modi Government took the decision to take away the special status of Kashmir, the only majority-Muslim state in India. This decision led to street protests and rioting against the Government in Kashmir, where in turn the Government put the state of lockdown, blocking social media access and restricting freedom of movement within the state. Critics of Kashmir’s special status argued that it was an unfair anomaly in India’s state system - where Modi’s Government took the decision to divide it into two Union territories – Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh - both of which to be ruled directly by Delhi.


The issue of citizenship will remain topical in India, where, next year is a census year in India and with the Muslim population of the country growing at a faster rate , albeit with Hindus vastly out-numbering Muslims it is to be seen if/whether the Modi Government makes a political point of the census results. At the last census in 2011, of a then-population of 1.2bn, of the main religions, 966m were classified as Hindu, 172m as Muslim (the highest proportion ever in the history of post-colonial India) with just under 28m as Christian, just under 21m as Sikh, 8.5m as Buddhist and 4.4m as Jain.


Whilst India is a secular, pluralistic state, non-Hindus have risen to take leading positions in politics including one Sikh Prime Minister (Manmoham Singh, PM 2004-2014) as well as four Muslim Presidents (Zakir Husain, 1967 to 1969, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, 1974-77, Zail Singh, 1982-87 and APJ Abdul Kalam, 2002 – 2007). In other parts of society, too, non-Hindus have made it to the very top, One only has to think of one of its all-time famous Bollywood stars, Shah Rukh Khan or the tennis doubles-player Sania Mirza (both Muslims). Moreover, India is a country which has always prided itself on its secularism and being tolerant of all religions and having a pluralistic society. After all, this is not a country based on religion, in the way that its Muslim-state neighbours Pakistan or Bangladesh are, or indeed its northerly neighbour, Nepal was, where Hinduism was until 2008, the state religion.


With the recent Delhi riots, Despite Prime Minister Modi having called for calm, this is not the first time that communal violence has broken out on bis watch. In 2002 when Modi was Chief Minister of the western state of Gujarat, communal riots between Muslims and Hindus broke out, leading to over 1000 deaths in the state, where Modi himself - although later cleared of any wrong-doing by the Indian Supreme Court - was accused at the time of having done little to help the situation.


At the electoral level, despite the direction being taken by Modi’s Government, recent state elections in Delhi saw the anti-corruption Aam Admi Party win the state legislature for a second time in a back-to-back landslide, taking 62 of the 70 seats, with the BJP taking only 7. The Aam Admi Party is Delhi-based and the election result cannot be seen as a bell-weather for India as a whole. State elections in the eastern states of Bihar later this year, where the BJP are a minority coalition partner in Government and also in West Bengal next year, which returns the 3rdhighest number of MPs to the Lok Sabha (Indian lower house) and where in last year’s general election, the BJP did make inroads, in a state otherwise controlled by the Trinamool Congress (which broke away from the Main Congress party over 20 years ago) might be more indicative as regards the direction of travel India will be taking in the coming years. The next general election in India is not scheduled until the first half of 2024.

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