Neighbourhood Watch

From Indian to Hindu nationalism: Why the Modi government commented on a communal riot in Bangladesh

Hindus, even if not born or living within India, now have a claim on the country.

On November 10, a Hindu village was attacked in Bangladesh over a rumoured Facebook post, with more than 30 homes destroyed. The Bangladesh police reacted to the attack by opening fire on the mob, shooting dead one attacker. In addition, 53 people were arrested for the violence.

Yet, Bangladeshi authorities aren’t the only ones reacting to the attack. On November 12, the Indian Union minister for external affairs said Bangladesh had assured India that the victims of the attack would be compensated. On November 13, the Indian assistant high commissioner even visited the village that was attacked.

India has long been a close ally of Bangladesh. Yet, this is unprecedented given that the attack occurred on Bangladeshi soil and both the attackers as well as the victims were Bangladeshi citizens. Why then did the Indian government choose to involve itself in an affair that did not concern India?

Blood or soil

An explanation of the Indian government’s concern for Bangladeshi citizens might lie in how the conception of Indian citizenship is itself changing. Broadly, there are two sorts of citizenship active in the world. Jus soli – literally, the right of the soil – awards a country’s citizenship to anyone born within its borders. The United States is the most famous example of such a country and its laws have even given rise to “birth tourism”, with heavily pregnant Chinese women visiting the US in the hope that they would give birth in the country and their child would be eligible for American citizenship.

The other sort of citizenship is jus sanguinis – literally, right of blood – which places emphasis on the identity of the parents. Jus sanguinis citizenship requires either the parents to be citizens or for the child to belong to a certain ethnic group. Till 1999, for example, Germany relied purely on jus sanguinis to award citizenship. So a person of German ethnicity born outside Germany would still be eligible for citizenship.

India has seen a move from jus soli to jus sanguinis. Formerly, it meant that anyone born within the borders of British India would automatically be Indian. Yet, with the rise of Hindutva and a shift towards Hindu nationalism, jus sanguinis gained favour.

Changing norms

Till 1986, India recognised jus soli citizenship. Anyone born in India was Indian. Since 1986, however, as per new laws framed by Parliament, jus soli would not only apply to children born in India. After 1986, a new principle would apply: jus sanguinis, right of blood. One needed to have Indian parents to be Indian. Simply being born within the borders of India would not do.

The year 2003 saw this principle strengthened: an amendment in the Citizenship Act created the concept of an “overseas citizen”. From now on, a person born in India might not qualify to be an Indian citizen, but a person who was born outside, might. It all depended on whom you were descended from, not where you were born.

In September 2015, the principle of jus sanguinis was strengthened even further. In September 2015, the Modi government made asylum in India contingent on religion. Unless the asylum seekers happened to be Muslim he or she would effectively be allowed shelter in India even if they had entered the country illegally.

Hindu homeland

The shift towards jus sanguinis does not arise from a vacuum. This is the legal outcome around the politics that seeks to paint India as a country of Hindus underpinned by Hindu nationalism or Hindutva. The clearest example of this politics is the fact that Narendra Modi, after assuming office as prime minister, went on a tour where he specifically reached out to the Indian diaspora. This was a remarkable sight given that the Indian prime minister was taking time out to create a media spectacle addressing crowds of foreign citizens, who, however, happened to be mostly Hindu by faith.

This is, of course, exactly the same phenomenon driving the Modi government’s unprecedented step of sending an official to check on violence within Bangladesh (even while the Indian government would, for instance, bristle at the United States commenting on communal violence within India).

Since the victims in the Friday attack were Hindu, there were, by the standards of Hindutva, de facto Indians. This was a significant escalation in the evolution of the principle of jus sanguinis and of India’s increasing identification with a nationalism based not on land but on Hindu identity.

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