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Ramesh Thakur is emeritus professor at the Australian National University and a former United Nations assistant secretary-general.

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A woman shouts slogans from inside a bus after being detained during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act earlier this month.Anupam Nath/The Associated Press

Some of the most ardent nationalist leaders do some of the gravest damage to the countries they imagine – and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi threatens to become the latest to make the tragic mistake.

India represents the most successful example in history of managing the challenge of unity in diversity through a dynamic formula of power sharing and accommodation. This success lies in the three core features of the country’s constitutional structure: democracy, federalism and secularism.

In a country that is 80-per-cent Hindu, at one time, the president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, was a Muslim, the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was a Sikh and the real power behind the administration was an Italian-born Catholic-raised immigrant, Sonia Gandhi.

Muslims now constitute a 180-million strong minority in India. If they become disaffected through state-sponsored policies of exclusion, the country would descend into bloodbath and break apart.

The stakes are high for the world as much as for India.

Muslims and other minorities had begun to feel besieged by the Hindutva agenda – a majoritarian project by hard-line Hindus to transform India into a Hindu Rashtra (country) – in Mr. Modi’s first term. But not wanting to provoke untoward incidents in an increasingly febrile atmosphere, they mostly kept their silence.

The present conflagration has three fuses. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is to be implemented in 2020 and requires people to produce evidence of their Indian citizenship or risk deportation. Introduced in the northeastern state of Assam in 2018, its purpose was to send illegal Muslim migrants back to Bangladesh. But this is in a country where the ownership of citizenship documentation is the exception and not the norm. None of us five siblings, for example, had a birth certificate.

In August, the government also revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state. Finally, in December, Parliament passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). This will permit pre-2014 migrants from the neighbouring Muslim-majority countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who are Hindu, Christian, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh, but not Muslim, to become Indian citizens.

The CAA proved to be the last straw, and protests broke out in Assam and have spread all over the country. The Assamese object to all “migrants” – Hindus from India as much as Muslims from outside. Footage of police attacks on students protesting against the CAA at the Muslim-majority Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University educational institutions vented pent-up fury against the crackdown. The protests have escalated to become the largest in decades and represent the most significant mass mobilization against the Modi government.

India can no longer ignore the gathering hostility in influential U.S. circles to rising Hindu fundamentalism.

In Mr. Modi’s first term, disquiet was whispered by liberals uneasy at signs that religious zealots want to turn India into a “Hindu Pakistan.” The new NRC, annulment of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and now the CAA mean that, as an editorial in The Indian Express put it, “murmurs of concern across the American political spectrum during the first term of the Modi government have turned into vocal objections in the second.”

Still, there are four positive features on which to look forward. First, in testament to the vitality of federalism, several states, including some ruled by allies of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, insist they will refuse to implement the CAA and NRC. Second, the protests have been spearheaded by idealistic students intent on reclaiming the founding idea of India: a pluralistic, secular, tolerant and all-inclusive republic. Third, the protest movement is comprised of students, citizens and political leaders from all religions, with some prominent public intellectuals among those detained by the police, including the noted historian Ramachandra Guha.

Finally, the Muslim students, especially young women, have been most politically savvy in defying Hindutva hardliners. They were brilliantly clever in wearing Muslim dress such as the hijab, but wrapping themselves in the Indian tricolour, chanting the national anthem and reading excerpts from the Indian Constitution.

The message to Mr. Modi is powerful: We are Indians, we are the custodians of constitutional values, we are patriots, and we stand for the unity of India and of all Indians. You, sir, are the threat to all four.

This column originally appeared in the East Asia Forum

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