DEFENDING A new citizenship law in India that has sparked protests by tens of thousands who believe it discriminates against Muslims, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday pointed to the demonstrators as the problem. Masses of people have taken to the streets for two weeks, defying a ban on gatherings, Internet shutdowns and closures of public transit. Mr. Modi complained they were in a “conspiracy to malign the country around the world” and “have an illicit intention of destroying the country.” Far from it, Mr. Modi. Pushback is democracy in action.
Rather than respond with force and epithets, as he has so far, Mr. Modi would do well to abandon this misguided project of Hindu nationalism, long sought by the prime minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The legislation would create an easier path to citizenship for people of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsee and Christian faiths — but not for Muslims. It was designed to help minority groups who have come to India from majority-Muslim states such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Approved by Parliament on Dec. 11, the law faces more than 50 legal challenges before India’s high court, which is expected to begin hearing them in late January.
The law has rightly alarmed India’s Muslims, who make up about 200 million of the country’s 1.35 billion people. They fear that Mr. Modi, reelected in May, is attempting to turn secular India into a Hindu state in which Muslims are considered second-class. They are especially worried about plans for a nationwide citizenship registry, which was tested in the BJP-ruled Assam state and required people to prove their citizenship based on records. That resulted in the exclusion of 1.9 million of the state’s 33 million people, many of them Muslims now at risk of becoming stateless or of being sent to detention centers.
Mr. Modi denied it, but local news reports describe construction of a detention center in Assam the size of seven soccer fields. The home minister, Amit Shah, Mr. Modi’s closest aide, has declared that after the citizenship law, the national registry would be implemented “to flush out the infiltrators from our country.” No wonder Muslims are unnerved. They have also seen Muslims lynched by Hindu mobs and the government strip the only majority-Muslim state, Jammu and Kashmir, of its autonomy.
Mr. Modi’s methods of trying to silence the protests by closing streets and Internet connections will serve only to undermine India’s democracy. Nor will it help that police have reportedly responded with excessive force in the large northern state of Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere.
Peaceful protests against the citizenship law, led by students and citizens of all faiths, should be regarded as a moment of truth for Mr. Modi and his party. They should admit the discriminatory citizenship law was a mistake and junk it. More broadly, they should listen to the voices in the streets. They are the world’s largest democracy talking.