It’s the world’s largest democracy, but a proposed new law threatens to dangerously divide the nation down communal lines. Foreign Editor David Pratt examines the growing opposition to what many see as government efforts to marginalise Muslims.

Every day more and more people pour onto the streets, for they know what’s at stake.

The world’s biggest democracy is awakening, fearful of bigotry stoked by an increasingly authoritarian government so at odds with India’s founding principles.

“You just needed a trigger,” said Jasbir Singh, a Sikh information technology worker who joined the protests in Bangalore this past week. “In India, religion never decided your citizenship, and it should not in the future,” he told the New York Times, expressing the concerns of a growing number of Indians.

That, unfortunately, is not how the Hindu nationalist government of prime minister Narendra Modi sees it. Ever since coming into power in 2014, Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has persistently introduced measures to further marginalise the country’s Muslim population.

To an increasing number of Indians such moves, they warn, are part of an unspoken agenda to divide the country along communal lines.

“It is not a fight only for Muslims,” Mohammad Hamza, an 18-year-old university student was quoted by the Washington Post as saying. “It is a fight to save our country. Modi is trying to break us.”

At the heart of these potentially incendiary moves by the government lies a new citizenship law.

It was on December 11 that India’s parliament passed an amendment to its Citizenship Act (CCA) of 1955, which sets out guidelines for becoming a citizen in the country.

The CAA that was then signed into law by India’s president allows persecuted minorities a fast-track route to Indian citizenship. The law applies to immigrants from nearby Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who are Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Jain, Zoroastrian, or Buddhist.

Muslims, however, are not included even if they are Ahmadis, members of a sect of Islam that Pakistan considers heretical.

The law also ignores what the UN has deemed the world’s most persecuted minority, the Rohingya Muslims, who suffered ethnic and religious cleansing at the hands of the Burmese military in Myanmar. The authorities in India have reportedly pledged to deport the estimated 40,000 Rohingya refugees residing in the country, even though they’re thought to face danger in their home state.

Those opposed to the law say the exclusion of Muslims betrays a deep-seated bias against the community, which makes up 14% of the country’s 1.3 billion people. They argue rightly that the new law would violate Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, which promises equality as a fundamental right. In prior cases, the Indian Supreme Court has ruled that such fundamental rights are not subject to parliamentary amendment.

These opponents are now taking a stand and making their rejection of the law clear. On the streets of 56 cities across 24 states, students supported by ordinary citizens came out in huge numbers to protest. Most were undeterred by a brutal police response that took the lives of protesters in the state of Assam, and the cities of Lucknow and Mangalore. At least 14 people have been killed in violent clashes and the seriousness of the situation was underlined on Friday when six people died and dozens were injured in Uttar Pradesh.

In recent days, India’s government has sought to clamp down on the protests. Yesterday, in response to the escalating crisis, Modi called a meeting with his council of ministers to discuss security measures. Previously, in an attempt to reassure citizens, Modi had taken to social media to deliver his message.

“I want to assure my brothers and sisters of Assam that they have nothing to worry after the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill. I want to assure them – no-one can take away your rights, unique identity and beautiful culture. It will continue to flourish and grow,” Modi tweeted on December 12 amid violent protests in the north-eastern state following the passing of the bill.

The only problem in delivering such a message was that the internet was shut down in Assam that day, making it unclear just how many citizens would have had the opportunity to read Modi’s rather duplicitous reassurance.

Time and again as part of its security crackdown the government has arbitrarily turned off the internet across wide swathes of India.

Muslim-majority Kashmir has been offline since August, when the Indian government universally revoked Article 370 of India’s constitution that guaranteed special rights to the Muslim-majority state, including the right to its own constitution and autonomy to make laws on all matters except defence, communications and foreign affairs.

In all, the latest internet shutdown last week marked the 95th time the it had been shut down in India this year, a measure of Modi’s increasingly authoritarian rule. In many states and cities, gatherings of four or more people have been prohibited – these include parts of Delhi, the software hub of Bengaluru, and the entire state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 200 million people.

Hundreds have been arbitrarily detained, including some of India’s prominent public intellectuals.

“This piece of legislation strikes at the heart of the Constitution, seeking to make India another country altogether,” prominent historian Ramachandra Guha wrote in an Indian newspaper, The Telegraph.

“It is thus that so many people from so many different walks of life have raised their voices against it,” he added. Guha made his comments just after his release from police custody after being detained for protesting against the law in the southern city of Bengaluru.

Given the prevailing uneasiness that has existed over some of Modi’s policies for some time, just why did he decide to introduce such controversial and provocative legislation right now?

According to Sumit Ganguly, professor of political science at Indiana University and a specialist on India, the answer is more complex than it might first appear.

Superficially he says it can be argued that the BJP, as a right-wing Hindu nationalist party with a clear-cut parliamentary majority, is simply implementing its ideological agenda and enacting the very proposals it included in its campaign manifesto.

But this, Ganguly adds, fails to fully recognise the extent to which the party has evolved into “a radical entity bent on transforming the ideological foundations of the Indian state”.

“After five years in office as a majority party from 2014 to 2019, it has promoted the steady rise of a virulent, all-consuming variant of Hindu zealotry in its midst,” Ganguly observed, writing recently for the US based magazine Foreign Policy

“This has taken place under the tutelage of Modi and his ideological alter ego Amit Shah, the current minister of home affairs and the principal architect of the citizenship amendment bill,” he added.

There’s no doubt that time and again the top leaders of the BJP have made clear their determination to crack down on Muslim immigrants as part of their wider strategy of discrimination.

“A Bharatiya Janata Party government will pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal,” Amit Shah is reported to have said in a speech in April, referring to Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh as “termites”.

Speaking just this month he repeated such threats, saying: “I assure you that before the national election in 2024, I will throw them all out.”

One of many tools at the government’s disposal to act on such threats is the National Register of Citizens (NRC). In September, 1.9 million residents of north-eastern Assam state learned their names were excluded from the register, putting them at risk of becoming stateless.

The NRC is meant to track Indian nationals living in Assam, which experienced waves of mass migration in 1947 when India became independent and in 1971 when East Pakistan became Bangladesh.

Many of those excluded from Assam’s register were Hindus. But as journalist and writer Ravi Agrawal, author of India Connected recently pointed out, with the new citizenship act Hindus can potentially claim they are immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan and gain a route to citizenship.

Muslims, on the other hand, could be at risk of being declared foreigners if they can’t produce documentation.

Not surprisingly, such blatantly discriminatory moves have created the current backlash against Modi’s government and BJP rule even if the party continues to have substantial support across India.

Faced with the escalating unrest, some politicians have begun distancing themselves from the next part of the government’s agenda.

The governing parties in two Indian states which both voted in favour of the citizenship law have since indicated that they will not implement a national register of citizens in their states.

The government should “pause, take corrective measures and retract” in light of public anger, Pavan Varma, a spokesman for a regional party in the state of Bihar and an ally of Modi’s ruling BJP told the Washington Post.

While in the past right-wing ideologues have gleefully declared that Modi’s party had “demolished the theory of a Muslim veto” on who ruled in India, backtracking like this suggests attitudes might just be changing.

It was bestselling Indian author and columnist Chetan Bhagat, once a staunch supporter of Modi’s government who perhaps best caught the current shifting mood when he wrote on Twitter recently: “Those who fantasise about India with a Hindu king and his subservient subjects, remember this  ... you can’t wish 200m Muslims away.” Last week, following the escalating protests, Bhagat was even more succinct: “Looks like Revolution 2020 is coming after all.”

Both Modi and Shah, however, are unlikely to cower in the face of such dissent. But while the government for now shows few signs of compromising let alone giving way, analysts say the current protests remain unparalleled in recent Indian history and therefore continue to pose a real political challenge.

“This is the first time we have such widespread, nationwide protests that are not against corruption, but essentially protests against discrimination,” said Zoya Hasan, a retired political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

For Muslims, the citizenship law is “the thin edge of the wedge”, Hasan told the Washington Post. “This is the first time that they think they are actually being subordinated.”

So what then is likely to happen next? No official public opinion polls have been carried out on the citizenship law, which makes it difficult to gauge just how much support there actually is for the measure.

In addition Modi’s support base should never be underestimated given that he was returned with a landslide majority for another five-year term just last May.

That said, there is little doubt that the citizenship law has rankled many Indians even among his supporters.

Recently, Neerja Chowdhury, a political commentator and regular columnist for The Times of India, perhaps spoke for many Indians when she observed that “one gets the sense that Modi, in his second term, is overreaching in some way”.

While petitions challenging the new citizenship act have already been filed in India’s Supreme Court, it may take months before hearings begin, and it’s anyone’s guess which way the court may rule.

Meantime, Modi’s hold on power remains firm, but the protests at home and abroad have demonstrated limits to how far Indians will allow him to go in pursuit of his Hindu-nationalist agenda.

At the moment the most pressing question is the extent and for how long protesters will continues to risk their lives and livelihoods to demonstrate against the law.

Many, however, remain convinced that what is happening on the streets from the city of Srinagar in the north to Thiruvananthapuram on India’s southern tip marks a political watershed.

“These protests represent a turning point in the Indian public’s relationship with the Modi regime,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political scientist at Ashoka University, told the Financial Times on Friday as unrest flared.

“Up until now it oscillated between aggressive adulation or frankly fear. The protests have broken that fear.”

India, it seems, has at last woken up to the threat posed by the government of Narendra Modi.

In the best tradition of its founders, Indians today, it seems, will not rest easy until they know that the democratic values held dear remain secure.