If the public fallout of the Citizenship Amendment Act in the north-east is proving difficult to contain, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah could hardly have expected its huge after-shocks internationally.
After the constitutional recalibration of the status of Kashmir had raised critical media responses, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar observed that India’s reputation is not decided by “a newspaper in New York”. Since that statement, the number gone up. The Modi government is being dubbed Hindu Supremacist in international media and of making India a very difficult place for religious minorities, especially Muslims.
New Delhi is unable to welcome Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, in Guwahati as scheduled, because of disturbed conditions in Assam. Bangladesh is angry that India is repeatedly referring to mistreatment of its Hindu minority to justify the legislation. Two of its senior ministers, Foreign Minister K Abdul Momen and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan have cancelled scheduled official visits to India. The US, United Kingdom, France and Israel have issued advisories to their citizens about visiting northeast India.
The most damning indictment of the Modi government over the discriminatory terms of the Citizenship Amendment Act, has come from the US. The Trump administration has urged India to “protect the rights of its religious minorities” in keeping with its “Constitution and democratic values.” This chastisement -- from the highest level in the US government – reminds the Modi government that “respect for religious freedom and equal treatment under the law are fundamental principles of our two democracies.” The statement comes days before Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh are to meet with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark T Esper for the high level “2+2” dialogue.
The Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Congress has expressed its disapproval of the new law saying, “Religious pluralism is central to the foundation of both India and the United States and is one of our core shared values. Any religious test for citizenship undermines this basic democratic tenet.” US Congressman Andre Carson, one of the four Muslim members of Congress, has condemned the new legislation saying it “effectively reduces Muslims in India to second-class citizens.”
A spokesperson for UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterras, has said that the UN is “closely analysing the possible consequences” of the amended citizenship law. The UN High Commission for Human Rights has said that it is “concerned” that India’s new Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 is “fundamentally discriminatory in nature” and appears to “undermine the commitment to equality.”
In an episode of the “Amanpour” show on CNN, popular news host, Christiane Amanpour, interviewed Dexter Filkins whose wrote critically of Prime Minister Modi in The New Yorker. He observed that Modi was recasting the character of the Indian nation from “accommodating a uniquely diverse population to that of a Hindu nation that dominates its minorities, especially the country’s 200 million Muslims.” Amanpour and Filkins were on the same page in the 12 minute TV segment on CNN, describing the government as a “Hindu Supremacist” and “Hindu nationalist” government persecuting Muslims.
Developments in Kashmir were referred to by Filkins as “Exhibit A” to prove his case. He tellingly compared being Muslim in India and episodes of Muslim lynching to being black in the white supremacist American South during the Civil War and the following ‘Reconstruction’ period, from 1865-1877. The Modi-Shah duo can move against Indian media– something noted by the Amanpour show -- but it is doubtful whether they can mute CNN.
Protestors hold placards against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), in Ahmedabad, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019 | Photo: PTI
Growing international criticism is especially significant because it comes from an international community wiser after the ravages of Fascism which grew in Europe after World War-I. The world is well aware of its dangers and appears to feel the need to red-flag its possible resurfacing in India. The narrative of creating a “homeland” for persecuted minorities does not wash with the international community. They recognise that the thrust of India’s new citizenship law is to structurally subordinate its minorities as lesser citizens in a Hindu majoritarian state. It counters the image India had acquired of being an extraordinarily successful experiment in inclusive democracy, a model to be emulated by other culturally and religiously diverse societies the world over.
Foreign minister, S Jaishanker has tried to put a spin on the cultural specificities of Indian nationalism, which should not be judged through a Western lens. He argues that Indian politics is moving towards a style more suited to India, and that the West’s criticism is rooted in ‘Liberal fundamentalism’. A dangerous and exclusionary system is being thus defended as a product of India’s unique culture.
India has also hired lobbying firm Cornerstone Government Affairs, for three months at a monthly fee of USD 40,000 in Washington DC to contain adverse narratives about its policies in the US administration. This incidentally, is in addition to another lobbying firm, BGR Government Affairs, already on the rolls of the Indian government in the US.
The most immediate impact of changes in the citizenship law however will be felt in India’s immediate neighbourhood. In South Asia, India will lose the moral stature it had acquired as a tolerant secular democracy
its neighbours were envious of. The anger of Bangladesh, which is consciously tolerant of its religious minorities, is most palpable. Bangladeshi nationalism primarily defined itself culturally and linguistically when it broke away from Pakistan’s religiously defined nationhood. Southeast Asian countries which are themselves multi-cultural are likely to be suspicious of developments in India. The Modi government’s much touted “Act East” policy cannot be operationalized as long as India’s north-eastern states remain disturbed.
Foreign investment will also be affected by internal disturbances. It was its socio-political stability as much as its large market that attracted investment to India. Once stability is uncertain, foreign investors are likely to have a rethink.
The Modi government in its second-term has thus embarked on a policy that has not only brought it up against its own citizens but also against liberal democratic nations internationally.