The violence turns the stomach and harrows the mind. The protests, though—they’ve become the brightest moment for Indian democracy in years.
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The immediate cue for these events was the passage of a new law. On December 11, India’s Parliament decided that persecuted minorities fleeing three nations in the neighborhood—Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan—will be fast-tracked into citizenship. The minorities were punctiliously listed: “Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians”—members of every major faith in South Asia except Muslims. The law was framed as an act of benevolence. In fact, it was an act of pointed exclusion, an explicit announcement of who belongs in India and who does not. Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has never hidden its first order of business: to turn India from a secular state into a Hindu nation. In practice, that has translated into an overt loathing for 182 million Muslims, the country’s largest religious minority. This citizenship law, enshrining discrimination, gave that hatred flesh and form.
Around the world, advocates for the liberal order find ourselves in a moment when every crisis feels existential, bound either to preserve or destroy our various republics. In some cases, perhaps that is an overheated fear. Not in India. The BJP’s bigotry imperils the Indian constitution—not just the document that defines India’s soul, but the very substance of its demography. The party is daring Indians to choose what they want India to be.
One answer to this question was agreed upon soon after India rid itself of the British in 1947. The first generation of Indian leaders wanted their country to be a liberal democracy, in which a person’s faith—or language, or caste, or gender—didn’t earn her better or worse treatment by the state. The ambition of this project has always been evident. To knit an enormous, poor, multireligious, polyglot territory into a modern nation required near-reckless trust in the strength of the liberal ideal. It was as if the tailor of the very first parachute had resolved to test it by stepping out of a plane at 60,000 feet. Not surprisingly, there were occasions when the experiment felt too huge, too unviable. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, harbored the anxiety that the country would turn fissile and balkanize. B. R. Ambedkar, the chief drafter of the constitution, worried that “saturating” India with constitutional morality would prove too difficult. In a land full of inequities, this species of morality wasn’t a natural sentiment, he believed. “Our people have yet to learn it,” Ambedkar once said. “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.”
Improbably, the sapling took root in this soil and, for decades, seemed to hold together. To be sure, Indian democracy suffered its imperfections. Parties carved up the electorate along the axes of religion and caste, playing severe games of identity politics. India held itself together with violence, repressing dissidence in Kashmir or the northeast or tribal territories. The political culture grew corrupt. Once, in 1975, a declared emergency suspended democracy for two years. Time after time, religious riots tore gashes in the fabric of the nation. But despite it all, the basic compact of 1947—that India would be a country that accommodated everyone without prejudice—appeared to endure.