Patrick Flannery| Indo-Pacific Fellow
As people around the world brought in the New Year, groups across India held ‘protest parties’ to rally against a controversial new citizenship law. Protests in the country have flared since December 4 but have spread and intensified since the bill was passed on December 11. Approximately 27 people have been killed and over 1000 arrested. With protests igniting across the globe, it becomes easy to tune out these persistent mass movements.
Below are three reasons why the Indian protests are important.
I. THE CAA CONTINUES A WORRYING TRAJECTORY
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have pursued a Hindu nationalist agenda and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is merely the latest in a series of measures seen to disenfranchise India’s Muslim population. In August 2019, Modi and the BJP annulled the autonomous status of Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority region. The region is still subject to an economically destructive lockdown.
The CAA fast tracks citizenship applications for refugees from Pakistan Afghanistan and Bangladesh that are Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Parsi or Jain. Glaringly, this list excludes Muslims, India’s largest minority group. This law, coupled with a proposed national register of citizens (NRC), is predicted to leave tens of thousands of Muslims stateless. Detention centres popping up in a number of provinces indicate what their fate may be.
The BJP and its ideological brother, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), support the idea of ‘Hindu Rashtra’, or a ‘Hindu Nation’. Many, such as Indian historian Ramachandra Guha, see this ideal as rejecting the principle of religious pluralism espoused by Gandhi and Nehru. Despite this, Modi enjoys enormous public support domestically. The highest percentage of Hindus yet—at 44 per cent—voted for the BJP in the most recent election. Public opinion surveys conducted from 2016 to 2018 found that a majority of Hindus now support some of the BJP’s most important Hindu nationalist policies.
Some think Modi has used Hindu nationalism in order to distract from a lack of economic growth. His 2014 platform of economic development gave way to a decidedly nationalistic one in 2019 following a poor performance economically. However, the ‘Hindu-first’ agenda is also one of the few policies that the BJP is united behind, making it easier to push. Economic measures do not enjoy such a consensus.
Regardless of motivation, political Hindutva ideology is redefining what it means to be Indian. If Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda proceeds in the same fashion, secular India may become an ethno-religious state with a minority religion underclass. To erode religious and racial pluralism runs counter to the principles established in India’s past and Constitution, which is precisely why many protesters are angry.
II. THE STATE USE OF TECHNOLOGY TO SUPRESS DISSENT
Additionally, the Indian government’s increased use and denial of technology sets an ominous precedent for future government crackdowns. In the past weeks, authorities have utilised facial recognition technology and drones to identify and photograph protestors and employed their favoured tactic of shutting off the Internet.
A lack of laws and regulations governing the use of these technologies are cause for concern. India’s facial recognition system is set to be the largest in the world and, despite being touted as way to find missing children and catch criminals, its use during the protests reveal its potential as a means of societal control. A similar lack of regulations and frequent violations applies to the use of drones.
Political theorist and legal scholar Madhav Khosla notes that this under-regulated modern technology in the hands of a powerful executive places India at an unprecedented juncture.
III. A BLOW FOR MODI’S ‘HUG DIPLOMACY’?
While he will not alienate his domestic base, Modi could suffer costs internationally. India does not possess the capacity—as China does—to economically punish states that speak out against it. Instead, Modi has cultivated his image using so-called ‘hug diplomacy’. Over his first five years in office, the globetrotting leader has made 93 overseas trips. But the CAA protests could undermine his hard work.
So far, the international reaction to the protests has been muted. India’s importance to the US and smaller nations in the Indo-Pacific as a balancing force against China may go some way to explaining this. However, relations are deteriorating with India’s neighbours, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Both are named in the CAA, making a clear statement that minorities face persecution in those countries. In response, Bangladesh’s foreign and home ministers have cancelled trips to India. If India alienates these neighbours, they may very well be pushed ‘into China’s arms’ by forcing amicable leaders to take a hard line or causing them to cede power to those that will.
Considering these three points, Modi’s reaction to the protests should be watched intently. They represent a challenge to the BJP’s Hindu nationalism at a time when Modi commands a historic mandate and possesses the use of under-regulated technologies. India’s overconfidence could very well lead to repercussions in the region.
Patrick Flannery is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.