The Sunday Magazine

Do the Delhi riots spell the end of India's secular identity?

Forty-six people have died since riots began between Muslims and Hindus in the Indian capital in late February.
Demonstrators hold the national flag of India as they attend a protest against a new citizenship law, after Friday prayers at Jama Masjid in the old quarters of Delhi, India, December 20, 2019. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

Scenes of burnt-out storefronts, battered mosques and bloodied teenagers have consumed India's capital these last few weeks. The violent drama began to unfold in December, when thousands took to the streets of Delhi to protest a new Indian law that will fast-track the citizenship process for immigrants belonging to religious minorities, excluding Muslims. 

Holding signs that read, "India is a secular state" and "Don't divide India on the basis of religion," protesters blocked roads and set empty buses ablaze.

By late February, tensions between the predominantly Muslim demonstrators and mobs of Hindu nationalists supporting the law reached a breaking point. Rioting ensued, while police looked the other way. Since February 23, 46 people have been killed in the violence — most of them Muslims. 

For Anglo-Indian political columnist and writer Kapil Komireddi, the riots in Delhi signal the demise of India's long-standing political secularism and the collapse of the country's fragile harmony between religions. Komireddi's new book Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India explores how India reached this religious boiling point. 

Komireddi spoke with The Sunday Edition's guest host Peter Armstrong about the country's current political climate. Here are some highlights from his interview. His comments have been edited for clarity and condensed.

Impact of the Citizenship Amendment Act

It's a welcome law in so many ways. It fast-tracks citizenship for people who arrived in India before 2015 and are members of six religious minorities: Sikhs, Christians, Zoroastrians, Buddhists and Hindus, and have arrived from any one of three countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The state religion of each of those countries is Islam and therefore these minorities would be considered second-tier citizens. Where the objection arises is the introduction of the religious element. 

This law introduces a stealthy religious test of citizenship and that is a violation of the Indian Constitution.- Kapil Komireddi


I don't understand why the Indian government must say that Muslims will be excluded from this law because Muslims are also persecuted. This law introduces a stealthy religious test of citizenship and that is a violation of the Indian Constitution. What is surprising to me is that the Supreme Court of India hasn't intervened and asked parliament to revoke this law.

Why this law will affect Indian Muslims who are not immigrants

What has really riled people up in India is the government's threat to introduce something called a National Register of Citizens. That would create a database of everyone in India and invite them to prove their nationality. You would have to submit paperwork proving that you are a citizen of India, proving that your grandparents were Indians. Most Indians do not have that paperwork. 

If you are Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist covered by the new citizenship law, you can then invoke that law to evade the national register and ask for citizenship on that basis. But if you're a Muslim, you're not covered by the law. Therefore you will be sent to a detention camp.

Historical tension between India's Hindu majority and Muslim minority

I always ask people to consider history from the perspective of a Hindu who's become newly politically conscious. When that Hindu surveys the past, he looks at a history in which his sacred geography is repeatedly ravaged by Islamic invaders. The entire Buddhist-Hindu heritage of northern India is wiped out and India's welcome to Islam is repaid by the partition of India to create a Muslim homeland called Pakistan.

History unresolved will always demand resolution.- Kapil Komireddi


In spite of that, India decided to become a secular state, which to these politically-conscious Hindus felt like a betrayal of everything that they endured. The Indian curriculum doesn't really deal honestly with that history. Instead of teaching people authentic history, it teaches them fables that Muslims and Hindus got along beautifully and that the British then arrived and destroyed this wonderful Eden. That wasn't the case. 

History unresolved will always demand resolution. But the arena for that resolution must be textbooks. If it's not in the textbook, blood will spill on the streets, as we're witnessing now. If we dealt maturely with our past, it might have provoked a detachment from the grievances it incubated in the past.

Modi's complicity

Modi is a man who grew up in an organization that believes that Muslims are alien marauders. A clinically, trained psychologist, Ashis Nandy, who is one of India's most distinguished sociologists, interviewed Modi when he was merely a campaign foot soldier in the Hindu nationalist movement and Nandy came out of that interview shaken. He said, "I think I've just met a fascist or a prospective mass murderer." Well, most Indians knew what kind of a man Modi was, but people in the intelligentsia hurled themselves into the task of cleansing his image.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has insisted the new law is '1,000 per cent correct.' (Manish Swarup/Associated Press)

They said, "We have two choices here. Either we can continue to harp on about secularism, or we can elect a man who is going to improve the economy and create jobs." Modi promised Indians that he was going to clean up the Ganges, the holy river of the Hindus. He said he was going to build smart cities, create 10 million jobs and bring back all the proceeds of corruption stashed in foreign banks and put it in the bank accounts of every single Indian. None of that has happened. Instead what we are seeing is bloodshed on the streets of Delhi.

Can India recover its secular harmony?

India has demonstrated a tremendous capacity for recovery in the past. In the 1980s, the secular Congress party presided over horrors beyond description against the Sikh community in Punjab, after Indira Gandhi's assassination. Today, Punjab is ruled by Congress and that government is headed by a Sikh. India has demonstrated it can recover in this case.

However, there are 200 million Muslims in India. Sikhs only constitute two per cent of the population. And there is always the provocation from Pakistan. So the window for open and honest discussion may have closed. Rescuing India now is the work of future generations. At some future point, Indians will have to set aside the facile descriptions of the past and actually deal honestly with their history. Right now may not be the time for it, but I think a window might open up in the future, provided we get rid of this ethno-religious nationalist movement that has overtaken India at the moment.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.


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