India’s capital New Delhi has been convulsed this week by the worst sectarian violence the city has seen in decades, with at least 38 people killed and over 200 injured, as rioters ransacked homes, shops, cars, and mosques in several of the city’s Muslim neighborhoods. Most of the victims were Muslim — many of them shot by police — though Hindus are also among those who were killed, injured, or had their property damaged.
The violence began on Sunday, one day before President Donald Trump arrived there on his first state visit to India. The conflict that led to the riots centers on a new citizenship law championed by the Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi and passed by India’s Parliament in December, which is viewed as discriminatory toward Muslims. The precipitating event for this week’s chaos was a rally held in New Delhi by Kapil Mishra, an MP from the Hindu nationalist BJP party, in support of the law.
The law in question, the Citizenship Amendment Act, is nominally intended to create a path to citizenship for people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan who migrated to India illegally prior to 2014. However, that right only applies to Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and adherents of several smaller religions, but not to Muslims. Millions of Muslims in the Indian states bordering Bangladesh fear that the CAA will render them stateless —and that this is precisely the point. Even if they have lived in India for decades, or were born there, many of these people lack the documentation the government is asking for and are not confident that they will be allowed to remain even if they do. The government has also announced plans to expand the National Register of Citizens — currently only maintained in the northeastern state of Assam and already described by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom as “a targeted mechanism to disenfranchise Assam’s Bengali Muslim community” — to all of India, further exacerbating these fears.
The government’s stated rationale for excluding Muslims from the CAA is that the bill is intended to protect victims of religious persecution and that since the three countries identified in the bill are Muslim countries, Muslims can’t claim to be persecuted there. Deflating this logic, the law’s critics point out that most of India’s asylum seekers today come from China, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, while it includes no protections for Muslim minority sects that do face persecution in its Muslim-majority neighbors. Additionally, critics argue, the CAA violates India’s constitution, which defines the country as a secular republic and guarantees equality under the law, by creating an implicit religious test for citizenship.
The government’s claim that the CAA is purely an act of benevolence is further undercut by the tendency of BJP politicians to refer to Muslim migrants as “infiltrators” and “termites,” the open contempt for Muslims shown by Modi and other members of his party, and by other actions his government has taken recently — like revoking the autonomy of the disputed territory of Kashmir and declining to investigate lynchings of Muslims. Dilip Ghosh, the BJP’s leader in West Bengal, said the quiet part out loud last month, when he said that his party was intent on “throwing out” 10 million Bangladeshi Muslim “infiltrators” from the state and denouncing those opposing the law as traitors. Meanwhile, India is building mass detention centers for the Muslims it is already stripping of citizenship in Assam.
Modi cemented his hold on power when the BJP expanded its majority in Parliament in last year’s national election, following a campaign in which the prime minister let his religious-nationalist flag fly. The citizenship law, along with the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy, is a centerpiece of his second-term agenda. The BJP’s evocative nationalist language, describing Muslims as “infiltrators,” reflects an ideological belief that Indian identity is inextricable from Hinduism and that Muslims in particular cannot be full participants in Indian society because they have conflicting loyalties.
The Hindu-nationalist movement under Modi cannot be understood outside the unique context of the Indian subcontinent: its historical domination by various empires, culminating in the British Raj; the trauma of partition; and the resulting, unresolved conflict between India and Pakistan, with its deep religious overtones. At the same time, however, Modi is striking in his similarity to other nationalists who have come to power around the world over the past decade.
Compare the BJP’s rhetoric about Muslim infiltrators to the way the European fa -right talks about Middle Eastern refugees, or the way Trump and his supporters talk about Mexicans — or Muslims, or immigrants in general. Infiltration, cultural dilution, replacement theory: These xenophobic concepts are a universal language among right-wing nationalists today, be they Indian, Russian, Chinese, German, or American. The intersection of religion and national identity is another touchstone of this global movement, which invokes a dire cultural threat from religious minorities, particularly Muslims, while espousing a vision of “religious freedom” that really means the freedom of the religious majority to impose its values on society.
These ideas lead inexorably to violence. The cruelty, to borrow a phrase sadly emblematic of our times, is the point. The sectarian clashes in New Delhi, fueled by anti-Muslim government rhetoric, are of a piece with the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, last year, the rising tide of right-wing terrorism in Germany, and the multiple attacks on synagogues by domestic terrorists over the past two years, as well as myriad incidents of vandalism and threats against mosques here in the U.S. The mass detention centers in Assam evoke the horrors China is visiting on its Uighur Muslim population as the world stands by; the citizenship law brings to mind some even darker historical precedents.
Meanwhile, although this week’s violence had nothing to do with Trump’s visit, the timing of these events ended up illustrating how Trump and Modi are cut from the same cloth. On Tuesday, while mosques were being set on fire and Muslims were being shot and beaten, Trump — who is viewed positively in India, particularly among BJP voters — was just a few miles away, concluding his two-day visit with a press conference in which he gave Modi some remarkably ill-timed praise.
Asked about the citizenship law, Trump sidestepped the issue, saying he had “heard about” it and that it was “up to India” what to do about it. Trump did say he had discussed the issue in his meeting with Modi, however, bizarrely commenting: “He wants people to have religious freedom, and very strongly. They have really worked hard on religious freedom. We talked about it for a long time and I really believe that’s what he wants.”
“We talked about religious liberty for a long period of time in front of a lot of people. And I had a very, very powerful answer,” Trump went on to say. “And as far as Muslims are concerned, as he told me, I guess they have 200 million Muslims in India. And a fairly short while ago they had 14 million. And he said that they are very — working very closely with the Muslim community.”
Trump appears to have been taken in by a bit of Modi’s propaganda. While there are indeed about 200 million Muslims in India, the notion that this number has increased from 14 million in a “fairly short while” is not just false but absurd — yet it fits neatly into the Hindu nationalist narrative that India is under threat from tens of millions of Muslim “infiltrators.” Whether Trump misremembered precisely what he heard or got the numbers wrong doesn’t matter: He was clearly fed a line about a rapid influx of undesirable foreigners, which fit neatly with his own rhetoric on immigration, so he bought it.
Never mind that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom condemned the violence, or that members of Congress from both parties are deeply concerned about the situation of religious minorities in India. As usual in the Trump administration, the head talks with no sense of what the hands are doing. Trump may not have a deep ideological commitment to supporting Modi’s effort to disenfranchise India’s Muslims, but he doesn’t really seem to see what’s wrong with it, either. In any case, this trip offered him a chance to speak out in defense of fundamental American principles and hold an ally accountable, and he blew it. And he didn’t even get a trade deal out of it.