As demonstrations against a divisive new citizenship law roil India, one thing protesters don’t need is support from Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.
The protests erupted four weeks ago with the passage of a law that fast-tracks citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Tens of thousands have marched in mostly peaceful demonstrations against the law and a proposed national database that would list all Indian citizens.
Not all protesters are demonstrating for the same reasons. Troops were called in to pacify aggrieved locals in the Northeastern state of Assam who fault the citizenship law for being too lax. They want to keep out all Bengali-speaking migrants, regardless of religion. But the majority of the protests are composed of a broad coalition of idealistic university students, secular liberal activists, and Muslims worried about becoming second-class citizens. Their aim is to protect Indian secularism, and Mr. Khan’s support is no help.
Last week, Mr. Khan tweeted a video that supposedly showed police brutality against Muslim protesters in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. He deleted it after people pointed out the cops in the video wore Bangladeshi uniforms. That digital faux pas hasn’t made Mr. Khan tone down his rhetoric about what he calls the “fascist Modi Govt’s ethnic cleansing agenda.”
As a cricket superstar in the 1980s and ’90s, Mr. Khan enjoyed broad appeal in both India and Pakistan. Indian advertisers paid him to flog tea, soap and sodas. Today many Indians view Mr. Khan as a military puppet soft on Islamists and hostile to India—and not without cause. Few things could damage the protesters’ cause more than being seen on the same side as the Pakistani leader.
Consider the backdrop. Over the past year, India-Pakistan ties have deteriorated to arguably their worst since a 1999 miniwar in the Himalayas. In February a Kashmiri man claiming allegiance to the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed killed 40 Indian paramilitary troops in a suicide car bombing of a convoy. Since then we’ve seen tit-for-tat airstrikes, the brief capture of an Indian fighter pilot by Pakistan after it shot down his MiG-21, frequent artillery barrages across the de facto border in the disputed territory of Kashmir, and increasingly jingoistic rhetoric from hyperventilating TV anchors in both countries.
The confrontation helped Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi win re-election emphatically in May by burnishing his image as a strong leader. In August Mr. Modi scrapped autonomy for India’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, and split it into two federally administered territories. Pakistan responded by snapping trade links, expelling the Indian ambassador, blocking Bollywood movies from theaters, and increasingly railing against India at international forums such as the United Nations and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
Mr. Khan’s support for the protesters helps the Modi government portray the demonstrations as narrowly Muslim. At a state election rally last month, Mr. Modi said you could “tell by their clothes” who was causing trouble, an apparent reference to Muslim skullcaps. The BJP has also framed opposition to the law as opposition to granting citizenship to persecuted Hindus and Sikhs. The party’s well-oiled propaganda machine of BJP-affiliated WhatsApp groups and friendly media outlets uses stray clips of violence, or isolated posters calling to “free Kashmir,” as evidence of a sinister plot against India.
In reality, Indian Muslims are only protesting for equal treatment. Many have draped themselves in the national tricolor, publicly chanted the preamble of the constitution promising secularism, and sung the national anthem in full-throated unison.
Most protesters have two primary objections to the law: First, it undermines India’s secular constitution by introducing, for the first time, a de facto religious test for citizenship. The law notably excludes violently persecuted Muslim groups such as Pakistan’s Shiite Hazara and Ahmadiyya Muslims, belying the claim that the six faiths it welcomes were chosen for their suffering.
The second objection is that the citizenship law, combined with a proposed database known as the National Register of Citizens, could lead to the harassment and disenfranchisement of Muslims deemed to lack appropriate documentation. The government denies this, and has recently backpedaled on its intentions to set up the database.
Indian Muslims have eschewed sectarian appeals despite bearing the brunt of government violence. In BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, headed by a Hindu monk known for violent antipathy to Muslims and Christians, eyewitnesses say police killed 15 Muslim protesters, 14 of whom were shot. Police deny firing their weapons. In some parts of the state, instead of protecting Muslim homes, the cops have reportedly ransacked them.
Mr. Khan’s ill-advised broadsides do India’s protesters no favors. He heads a country with an official state religion, the death penalty for blasphemy and one of the world’s poorest records on minority rights. Mr. Khan has repeatedly attacked his own country’s beleaguered liberals as “scum.” If India’s protesters want one thing, it’s this: to stop their country from becoming more like a Hindu version of Mr. Khan’s Pakistan.
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