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Citizenship law sparks fear and anger among India’s Muslims

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Via Financial Times

Mohammad Aslam Khan always dreamt of returning to India to start a business and a family after a decade working at a Saudi Arabian supermarket.

Now, standing between piles of jeans and T-shirts at his clothes shop in the teeming Mumbai slum of Dharavi, the 34-year-old wonders whether he made the right choice.

“I want to live in my own country, that’s why I came back,” Mr Khan said. “But I might not have come back if I’d known all this would happen.”

Mr Khan, one of 200m Muslims living in India, is referring to the new citizenship law introduced by Narendra Modi, the prime minister, and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata party that critics say discriminates against followers of Islam.

Massive demonstrations erupted across the country after parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, which gives non-Muslims from India’s Muslim-majority neighbours, such as Pakistan, a fast-track to citizenship.

Mohammad Aslam Khan at his clothing shop in Dharavi © Benjamin Parkin/FT

Mr Modi has insisted that the new law will help persecuted religious minorities. But it has sparked outrage among many in India, including moderate Hindus, who argue it weakens India’s secular foundations. Many in India’s Muslim minority, which make up about 14 per cent of the population, view it as a potential existential threat.

They fear the law, coupled with a planned nationwide citizenship register that the BJP insists will weed out illegal migrants, could end up stripping many Muslims of their Indian citizenship. Providing documentation to verify your family’s roots can be a significant challenge in India, a country where many people lack proper records.

“This is my country,” Mr Khan said. “If this happens, then everything will go haywire. I’m really worried about my children and how I’m going to earn a living.”

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The BJP, whose core ideology holds that India is a Hindu nation, has long battled accusations that it is driven by an anti-Muslim agenda.

Mr Modi himself was accused of complicity in religious rioting in 2002, when he was chief minister of Gujarat state, which killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. He has denied the accusations.

Dharavi too witnessed brutal religious rioting in 1992 in one of Mumbai’s numerous episodes of scarring sectarian violence. So far, the protests that have swept India and claimed more than 20 lives have been peaceful in Mumbai, but Mr Khan and other residents said they were concerned.

Many Muslims view the new citizenship law as the gravest threat they have faced since the BJP stormed to power in 2014. Muslims “are now faced with a policy that affects them directly, enshrined in Indian law”, said Amitabh Dubey, an analyst at research firm TS Lombard. “There is a feeling that the shackles have come off on the Hindu nationalist agenda.”

In diverse communities such as Dharavi, home to as many as 1m people both Muslim and Hindu, the law has left residents feeling tense.

Ram Lakhan, a 60-year-old tobacco vendor, said there had been a fall in business at his stall, which he put down to people being worried and staying at home. “I’m feeling bad for Muslims,” Mr Lakhan, who is Hindu, said. “People are scared.”

But Ramesh Singh Rajpurohit, a 28-year-old running a jewellery shop in Dharavi, said concerns about the law were overblown. He blamed the backlash on misinformation spread by the opposition Congress party, and was planning to attend a rally in support of the BJP’s agenda.

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“The people who are scared have been incited by the opposition,” he said. “People who live in India, and are Indians, shouldn’t have a problem.”

The protests have had a secular tone, involving Muslims, lower-caste Hindu activists and students. In north-east India, they have been driven instead by wariness of outside migrants.

But analysts said Mr Modi had played to his support base by portraying the demonstrations in partisan, religious terms. He has blamed the opposition and suggested that the demonstrators could be “identified by their clothes”, a comment widely interpreted as a reference to Muslims.

Tobacconist Ram Lakhan said a fall in business at his stall was down to people being worried and staying at home © Benjamin Parkin/FT

The protests are being “depicted as a sectarian war”, said Kapil Komireddi, author of Malevolent Republic, a book about Indian politics. “The imagery is designed to depict that Muslims will never be happy, they’ll never accept the law of the land.”

Mr Modi suggested on Sunday that the government was not planning a national register of citizens. But the party has made emphatic statements to the contrary, vowing to complete such a register by 2024. The government did not clarify the apparent contradiction.

In a mostly Muslim slum near Mumbai’s dockyards, residents are also on edge. Hamida, a 20-year-old with an infant, has a range of government-issued IDs but still fears she does not have enough documentation to prove her nationality. “This is our country, so where will we go? We were born and brought up here,” she said.

Her 25-year-old neighbour Masuma, both of whom did not want to give their full names out of fear of repercussions, said she was fed up. “We Muslims haven’t done anything wrong that we should be scared about. We can’t take this,” she said.

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Additional reporting by Zahra Zaveri

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