India has been called the world’s largest democracy. With its billion-plus citizens, it was founded as a secular democracy to be shared by a multiplicity of groups, languages and religions. But that isn’t how the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sees it.
Instead, BJP and its leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have made it clear that India is a state for Hindus, but Muslims are not welcome.
India has a Muslim population of 182 million people — the third largest Muslim population in the world, just behind Indonesia and Pakistan. Concern over India’s growing discrimination against its Muslim residents has gone so far as to lead the independent, bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to recommend that the State Department designate India as a country of “particular concern” when it comes to religious freedom. That would place the country of Gandhi and Nehru in the same group as such notable dictatorships, theocracies and thugocracies as China, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
BJP’s landslide victory in parliamentary elections last spring accelerated the state’s anti-Muslim activities. For example, Modi’s government passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, to create a fast track for citizenship for migrants from surrounding countries who are already in India — as long as they’re not Muslims.
This came as India’s state of Assam implemented a National Register of Citizens to help identify illegal migrants. Those not included on the list live in fear of “statelessness, deportation or prolonged detention,” according to UN reports. Although originally intended to protect Hindus and weed out Muslims and other “foreigners,” it turned out that some of the 1.9 million residents who were excluded from the Register were Hindus.
BJP officials are, nonetheless, advocating for a nationwide register of citizens. That has generated fear among Muslims that they will be vilified and declared stateless. As if that weren’t enough, there is also the government’s crackdown on the autonomy of the country’s Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir, and the rights of its citizens, including mob lynching and other violence against Muslims.
The Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended that the United States sanction the agencies and officials within India’s government who are responsible for what it finds to be “severe violations of religious freedom.” It calls for U.S. diplomatic missions to work to “build capacity to protect religious minorities.” India is a significant U.S. ally, and has increasingly warmed toward Israel. But Modi’s government has rejected the report, calling it “biased and tendentious.”
The battle lines have been drawn. It is now up to the U.S. government to stand behind its Commission’s findings, and to speak out forcefully against India’s growing government-backed xenophobia and the targeting of the country’s Muslim community. Such a move would, undoubtedly, be a big step for the Trump administration.
But it is a perfect opportunity for the administration to show concern, compassion and leadership in helping guarantee minority rights while supporting a democratic government and strong international relations.