There was a rich irony in the selling of US president Donald Trump's visit to India last month – streets lined with posters declaring the "world's oldest democracy meets the world's largest democracy". Both Trump and India's Hindu-nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, are archetypes of the strongman, autocratic leaders whose rise over the last decade has led to fears that seemingly embedded democratic values are on the retreat.
Since the passage in December of the Citizenship Amendment Act, India has been torn by riots, some brutally put down by the police, and by rising sectarian tensions. These have been fanned by Modi's ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its sinister affiliate, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), enforcers of their own version of Hindu orthodoxy and exceptionalism. Their attempt, through control of government and the streets, to define "Indianness" in strictly religious, anti-Muslim terms is casting increasing doubt on the secular foundations of the state.
The controversial Act provides a fast track to citizenship for refugees fleeing into India from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Refugees of every south Asian faith are eligible – every faith, that is, except Islam. Observers worry the policies will disenfranchise India's 200 million Muslims, 14 per cent of the population. And last August, the government scrapped the statehood of India's only Muslim-majority state of Kashmir and locked up hundreds of its politicians and activists without charge. That crackdown and the new law have seen an upswelling of protest unlike any other during Modi's two terms as prime minister, millions on the streets, a final-straw response to his increasingly confident implementation of his Hindu supremacist agenda.
Energetic foreign policy
Back in 2014, campaigning for his first term, Modi played down that agenda and when elected threw himself into an energetic foreign policy and alliance-building. Domestically, he focused on development and economic reforms. He promoted himself as a globaliser and unifier.
Concern at the legislation has been widespread internationally, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights unusually filing a petition last week in India's Supreme Court alleging the law violates India's international obligations. It is, many believe, an existential threat to India and its extraordinary democracy. "This is still," writer Samanth Subramanian argues, "as it was in 1947, a land teeming with so many identities – plotted multi-dimensionally along the axes of caste, gender, class, religion, language and ethnicity – that the only way to make it work is to accept that everyone belongs equally to India".
“This egalitarian principle, therefore, has not been just an ideal; it has been a compact necessary for India’s survival.”