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Seeking re-election, the ruling party demonizes migrants from Bangladesh.
Will India remain a secular state committed to treating all faiths equally, or will it morph into an explicitly Hindu nation whose Muslim minority is kept in its place? A debate about migrants will help settle this fraught question.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party wants to fast-track Indian citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from neighboring countries while pointedly excluding Muslims. This foolish idea may win the BJP votes in the current election, but at the cost of undermining interfaith harmony, seeding long-term domestic instability, and tarnishing India’s reputation for tolerance.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government failed to pass a proposed law that would make it easier for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian and Christian migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to become Indian citizens. But as India’s six-week-long election grinds on, the issue has returned to center stage as part of a broader bid by the BJP to consolidate Hindu votes by raising the pitch of anti-Muslim rhetoric.
At a campaign rally in West Bengal last week, BJP President Amit Shah likened Muslim migrants from Bangladesh to “termites” who “are eating the grain that should go to the poor.” He promised that a BJP government would toss out all “infiltrators,” except for Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs.
A promise to welcome oppressed religious minorities is hardly objectionable. Hindus and Sikhs who happened to find themselves stranded in Islamic Pakistan after it was carved out of British India in 1947, and to a lesser extent Hindus and Buddhists in Bangladesh, have long faced persecution. In both countries, the proportion of non-Muslims has declined precipitously since partition, to under 4% in Pakistan and about 10% in Bangladesh. If India won’t throw these people a lifeline, who will?
Moreover, nobody can seriously argue that majority Sunni Muslims face persecution for their faith in Pakistan or Bangladesh. Even if they did, India could not realistically be expected to throw open its doors to hundreds of millions of people.
But it’s one thing to welcome persecuted Hindus and Sikhs to their historic homeland, and quite another explicitly to reject persecuted Muslims merely for their faith. In a constitutionally secular, multireligious nation like India, upholding the principle of nondiscrimination matters.
Mr. Shah’s remarks may apply only to illegal migrants, but they end up legitimizing a combustible idea: that only followers of so-called Indic religions can be truly Indian. This echoes the hard-line Hindu nationalist view that the country’s 172 million Muslims and 28 million Christians live in India only on sufferance.
This idea is morally repugnant and wildly impractical. Like many countries, India faces a challenge in integrating its Muslim minority and curbing fundamentalist strains of the faith that sometimes act as a conveyor belt to terrorism. This entails pushing back against radical Islam, the interpretation of the faith that seeks to order all aspects of modern life by medieval Islamic precepts. But it also requires reassuring the moderate majority of Muslims that India will treat them fairly.
It’s no coincidence that the BJP targets its incendiary message toward parts of the country where some Hindus already feel threatened by demographic change. According to the 2011 census, Muslims account for about a third of the population of Assam. The state is in the midst of a messy attempt to identify migrants who settled there after 1971. In West Bengal, where Mr. Shah made his comments, more than a quarter of the population is Muslim.
Yet outside the fevered imagination of Hindu chauvinists, India is not being overrun by migrants. According to the Pew Research Center, foreign-born people in India account for less than 1% of the population. By contrast, the foreign-born account for 15% of the population in Germany, 14% in the U.S. and 12% in France.
Instead of fanning ethnic tensions, a wiser approach would embrace the words of the 19th-century Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda, who declared that he was “proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth.” In South Asia today this would include groups such as Pakistan’s beleaguered Shiite Hazara Muslims. A bomb blast in Quetta last week killed at least 20 of them. Bangladesh’s brave atheist and secularist bloggers, hunted down for their views by machete-wielding Islamic fundamentalists, also deserve consideration.
India continues to tilt dangerously away from its pluralistic ethos toward Hindu chauvinism. On Wednesday the BJP nominated a militant female ascetic on trial for bomb blasts targeting Muslims to run for Parliament. A smart country would pick Vivekananda’s expansive vision over Mr. Shah’s cramped one. The alternative: eroding the secular compact that holds 1.3 billion people together.
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