In recent days, India has seen much violent protest and communal unrest in view of reaction to the provisions of the Citizenship Amendment Act adopted on December 11 by its Parliament. Designed to offer citizenship for religious minorities fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, the Act seeks to benefit Buddhist, Christian, Jain, Hindu, Parsi, and Sikh immigrants — to the exclusion of Muslims.
Throughout India’s history, and following Arab migrations after the death of the Prophet in 632 A.D., there have been various Muslim empires established in South Asia — Ghaznavids, Turks, Afghans, and then the Mughals in 1526. Hindu–Muslim unrest, or communalism as it is known, has had deadly consequences over the years since partition in 1947.
India has about 200 million Muslims, which represent 14 percent of its population. The Hindu–Muslim divide is a major fault line in the country, and it can be potentially exploited by Al-Qaeda, as well as by ISIS, which earlier this year declared it had established a “province” in Jammu and Kashmir, and by other terrorist cells and jihadists operating on Indian soil.
The Hindustan Times, one of the country’s most respected journals, reports that protests occurred in 56 cities of 24 states and Union Territories on December 19. Further, the government of India has invoked legal provisions to limit public assembly, and there were reports of telecommunications and internet suspension. Thousands are reported to have been detained, and there has been a rising death toll.
This Act of Parliament follows tensions created when the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir having a Muslim majority was brought under direct rule of New Delhi in August, ending its status of autonomy regarding internal affairs granted by the Constitution adopted in 1949. While there was outcry at the time, it largely subsided and this may have given impetus to creating further restrictions of the Act.
In addition, a November ruling by the Supreme Court of India declared an ancient site disputed between Hindus and Muslims in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, to belong to a Hindu trust, with land also given to Muslims for the construction of a mosque. The site is said to be the birthplace of Rama or Ramachandra, one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu and the hero of one of India’s major epics. The Supreme Court is known for its probity and independence, but Ayodhya is as much a national security issue as a legal and religious one.
The government of India has affirmed that there is no discrimination against Muslims. Quoted in the December 20 edition of the Wall Street Journal, India’s Home Minister, Amit Shah, indicated that recent actions of the government are designed to end the type of “appeasement” that has prevented Jammu and Kashmir from completely integrating into the Indian Union.
This internal conflict comes at a time when the India economy is performing at an all-time low in recent memory. For years, the country reported high-single-digit GDP increases, but now the rate is running at 4.5 percent, following general decline. While this may sound attractive to industrial nations, it is insufficient to absorb the World Bank’s estimated need for 8.1 million new non-agricultural jobs every year — although some estimates are considerably higher.
In particular, farm income in India is depressed for a variety of well-known factors, ranging from industrialization, fragmentation of holdings, and depleted aquifers — and a general loss of national focus. Agriculture is underperforming and needs a transformation like that achieved decades ago during the Green Revolution. The sector employs 47 percent of the work force but represents 15 percent of GDP by one recent estimate from the CIA World FactBook.
As I have written for Gateway House of Mumbai, a leading Indian think tank, India offers a platform for enhanced governance and leadership for genetically modified seeds, a controversial issue both there and in the West. Nonetheless this is seen by proponents as an important means of benefiting Indian agriculture.
Doubtless morale is now low in India, a principal American ally viewed, among other things, as capable of raising the cost of Chinese aggression. India’s recent announcement that it will procure the sophisticated S-400 Russian air defense system under a $5 billion contract is of concern to the Trump administration, which has not yet decided whether to impose sanctions.
India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is masterful as a communicator and at branding his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, as well as himself. He is also known to be supportive of free markets and to be skilled at implementation of policy, dating to his days as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat. The prime minister will need his communication skills and his economic and management acumen to deliver some good news.
Frank Schell is a business strategy consultant and former senior vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago. He was a lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago, and is a contributor of opinion pieces to various journals.