As I recently visited New Delhi, which was my second trip to the South Asian country in less than a year, I couldn't help but notice that India had changed a lot since my first visit.
This time around, there was an air of uncertainty in the country, with everyone discussing the idea of patriotism in relation to religion and secularism.
A number of controversial decisions by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the past year has caused much polarization in the country. In August 2019, the central government in New Delhi scrapped Jammu and Kashmir's semi-autonomous status, angering many people in the Himalayan region. The Kashmir decision was followed by the introduction of the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA), which allegedly discriminates against Muslims. There is also a talk of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which would require all citizens to prove their right to citizenship to authorities.
Many Indian Muslims look at these measures with suspicion. Liberal groups claim that Modi's Hindu nationalist government is violating the constitution and damaging the country's secular foundations. Indian civil society is showing a remarkable resistance against these moves. Protests against the BJP's policies have erupted across the country, especially in the capital New Delhi. Jamia Millia Islamia University and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) are at the forefront of these protests.
Suspicion and mistrust
I was traveling to Amritsar from New Delhi on a train, which gave me a chance to interact with some passengers. Learning that I have a Pakistani background, people became instantly curious about me. One Hindu passenger, who assumed that I migrated to India from Pakistan, asked me, "Have you converted to Hinduism?" — a possible reference to CAA that fast-tracks Indian citizenship to religious minorities living in India's neighboring countries. He spoke at length about the plight of Hindus in Pakistan and the communal tensions in India.
In Jaipur city, a Muslim community leader told me that Muslims are currently facing a tough time in India. Unlike my previous India visit, this time I witnessed more uncertainty and fear among Indian Muslims.
The recent events in India have prompted many people in Pakistan to claim that the creation of a separate country for Indian Muslims in 1947 was a good idea. These people point to the BJP's alleged anti-Muslim policies to justify Pakistan founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah's "Two nations theory," which stipulates that Hindus and Muslims are two different nations that cannot live together in harmony.
The secular constitution of India has always been a beacon of hope for Pakistani liberals, who look up to India for its protection of religious minorities. But the rise of Hindu nationalism under the leadership of PM Modi has dented India's secular image.
In Amritsar, I visited the Partition Museum, which showcases rare video clips, testimonies and pictures of the violent division of the Indian subcontinent, when hundreds of thousands lost their lives and millions were displaced. The museum reminded me how important it is to uphold secular values so that the partition's bloody history is not repeated.
Shrinking space for dissent in India
The positive sign is that Indian civil society is putting up a fight against divisive measures. But the space for dissent has considerably shrunk in the country, with those opposing the BJP's controversial policies being labeled "anti-national." The main question is for how long Indian secular activists can continue their struggle and resist right-wing elements?
The BJP secured a landslide victory in the 2019 parliamentary elections. The Congress party and other opposition groups do not have the power to confront the ruling party in the legislature. Therefore, Indian activists opposing the BJP are in a vulnerable position.
If India's secular forces fail to sustain and strengthen their movement, the polarization among Hindus and Muslims will likely grow, resulting in mistrust, hatred and hostilities in the years to come. India can't afford it.