I became internet famous in India when a freshman parliamentarian there named Mahua Moitra was falsely accused of plagiarizing a piece I had written for the Washington Monthly on the 12 Early Signs of Fascism. I had responded at the time that “right-wing a**holes seem to be similar in every country.” What I meant is that the right in India attacked this parliamentarian with the same lazy and disingenuous kind of attack we see here in the United States every day. I wasn’t really trying to weigh in on the underlying argument she had been trying to make, which was that the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is demonstating many early signs of fascism. My initial concern was only to correct the record. She had not plagiarized me.
But I think she was definitely on to something.
India took a major step toward the official marginalization of Muslims on Monday, as Parliament opened debate on a bill that would establish a religious test for migrants’ eligibility to become citizens, solidifying Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist agenda.
The bill, which is expected to easily pass the lower house of Parliament, would give migrants of all of South Asia’s major religions — except Islam — a clear path to Indian citizenship. It is the most significant move yet to profoundly alter India’s secular nature enshrined by its founding leaders when the country gained independence in 1947.
Muslim Indians are deeply unsettled. They see the new measure, called the Citizenship Amendment Bill, as the first step by the governing party to make second-class citizens of India’s 200 million Muslims, one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, and render many of them stateless.
“We are heading toward totalitarianism, a fascist state,” said Asaduddin Owaisi, a Muslim lawmaker, who on Monday dramatically tore up a copy of the bill while giving a speech in Parliament. “We are making India a theocratic country.”
India is a much different country than America, but there are some similarities. One is that we’re both very pluralistic and officially secular. Another is that we are both in the grip of a xenophobic nationalist movement that is hostile to Muslims. A third is that both countries are seeing longstanding norms upended by their ruling party.
What saddens me most about what is happening in India is that it is becoming the mirror image of Pakistan. Pakistan is not a successful country, and it has never been pluralistic or secular. I don’t know why India wants to be the Hindu version of Pakistan, but that’s where it is headed. America is also headed in the wrong direction, but I think our prospects are a little better for correcting our course before we become a totalitarian fascist state. I think India’s ship may have already sailed, and it should deeply concern everyone who values civil rights, religious tolerance, and representative government. India is the biggest democracy in the world, and it will have major consequences if it becomes a country just for its majority Hindu population.