When will the Muslims leave India?

Domestic conflicts

Thorsten Wojczewski

Thorsten Wojczewski has a doctorate in political science and works as a research fellow at the India Institute, King’s College London. His main research interests are foreign and security policy, Hindu nationalism and populism.

Following the re-election of Prime Minister Modi in May 2019, two constitutional amendments by his government led to nationwide clashes between Hindus and Muslims. In addition, the ethno-political conflicts persist at low intensity, especially the Maoist "People's Liberation War" and the autonomy and secession efforts in the northeast.

Burned out house on a commercial street in Mustafabad / New Dehli. At the end of February 2020, a mob of Hindu nationalists broke into a Muslim-majority neighborhood and attacked the residents and set fire to houses, shops and a mosque. (& copy picture-alliance, ZUMAPRESS.com | Muzamil Mattoo)

Current situation

With the passing of a new citizenship law and the lifting of Kashmir's special status, the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Prime Minister Narendra Modi took further steps in 2019 to undermine India's secular-pluralist state model. The new Citizenship Law, which regulates the status of illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, is the first law to make religion a criterion for Indian citizenship, thus excluding Muslim immigrants. This led to massive protests across the country. During the protests, which were mostly peaceful, there were repeated clashes between opponents and supporters of the new law as well as with the police. In December 2019 alone, around 30 people died and almost a thousand were injured. In particular, militant Hindu nationalist groups used the protests to attack political opponents. In January 2020, around 60 members of the BJP student organization, armed with striking tools and acid, stormed the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and injured over 40 supposedly left-wing students and teachers. In February 2020, street battles broke out between opponents and supporters of the citizenship law after a BJP politician threatened to forcibly clear a peaceful road blockade in northeast Delhi with the help of BJP supporters if necessary. A mob of Hindu nationalists broke into a Muslim-majority neighborhood and attacked the residents and set fire to houses, shops and a mosque. Muslims also attacked Hindus. Over 50 people were killed and hundreds injured during the riots lasting several days. Almost 1,000 Muslims have been evicted from their neighborhoods, at least temporarily.

In 2018, India's most serious internal conflict - the Maoist "People's Liberation War" - saw a slight increase in violence, mainly due to a change in leadership among the Maoists and increased operations by the security forces. The Maoist rebels, known as the Naxalites, control small parts of Indian territory and regularly carry out attacks on security forces, political opponents and the public infrastructure. The federal states in the east of the country are particularly affected. Over 1,000 people have fallen victim to the conflict in the past three years. Although the Indian security forces have largely brought the conflict under control in recent years and the number of rebels is declining, the Naxalites have repeatedly managed to inflict considerable blows on the paramilitary police units.

The third source of conflict is in the northeastern states, especially Assam, Manipur and Nagaland. For decades, conflicts have been simmering here, both between the central government and militant independence / secession movements and between the ethnic groups and tribes living in the region. However, the level of violence has declined in recent years, and there are relatively few fighting and terrorist attacks, as the Indian state has been able to conclude ceasefire or peace agreements with many militant groups. In January 2020, the Indian government signed an agreement with the rebels and parties of the Bodo ethnic group, which provides for the disarmament and social reintegration of the roughly 1,600-strong rebel group as well as a new model of political power-sharing in the state of Assam. Also in January, the Indian government announced a breakthrough in negotiations with representatives of the Naga ethnic groups in the neighboring state of Nagaland on a political solution to the conflict. However, these successes are overshadowed by the passage of the new citizenship law, which has sparked mass protests and unrest in the region. While the protests in the rest of India are directed against discrimination against Muslims, the legalization of the status of illegal immigrants in the north-east of India is meeting with resistance. The tribes and ethnic groups living in the region see the (illegal) immigrants from Bangladesh as a threat to their cultural identity and employment opportunities in many places.

Causes and Background

The religious conflicts have their origins primarily in the struggle for independence. At that time, the Muslim League, founded in 1906 under the leadership of Mohammed Ali Jinnah (1876-1948), campaigned for the creation of an independent state for Muslims. The basis for this demand was the "two-nation theory", according to which Hindus and Muslims cannot live together peacefully and on an equal footing in a state dominated by Hindus. With the violent partition of British India and the founding of Pakistan in 1947, an interstate, military conflict arose, which continues to this day and primarily revolves around Kashmiri affiliation.

With the rise in power politics of the Hindu nationalist BJP, for whom Hinduism forms the cultural and identity-forming foundation of the Indian nation, the conflict has intensified in recent years. Religious minorities, such as Muslims and Christians, whose religions have their origins outside the Indian subcontinent, represent a potential threat to the nation for the Hindu nationalists and become with the oppression of India by Muslim sultanates in the Middle Ages on the one hand and the time of British colonial power on the other associated. Almost 200 million Muslims live in India today. Hindu nationalism, which sees itself as an alternative to the secular nationalism of the Indian founder Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), aims to make India a Hindu nation. The conflict is also promoted by the ongoing economic disadvantage and discrimination of many Muslims as well as the existence of a few Islamist fundamentalist groups in India, which Hindu nationalists often cite as supposed evidence of a danger emanating from all Muslims.

The Maoist Naxalites strive for the forcible establishment of a communist social order. Their guerrilla strategy aims to control the rural population and destroy the central institutions of the state. The Maoists claim to fight on behalf of those parts of the Indian population affected by poverty, exclusion and discrimination. The conflict therefore has a strong socio-economic component and is closely linked to the parallelism of modernization processes and the persistence of patriarchal-feudal structures, which manifest themselves above all in the unequal distribution of arable land.

These problems have existed since British colonial rule and have hardly been resolved to this day. The majority of the inhabitants in the affected areas, who are among the poorest and most backward in India, still have no land use rights and therefore no direct access to the main source of income. At the same time, processes of modernization threaten the traditional way of life of the tribal and rural populations. The extraction of raw materials, the settlement of industries and the creation of special economic zones have forced these population groups to leave their settlement areas in many places. In resisting social and economic injustice and marginalization, the Naxalites have many supporters among the undercastes (Dalits), impoverished farmers and Indian indigenous people (Adivasi). In view of the ongoing and, in the course of neoliberal economic reforms, growing inequality in Indian society, the Maoists also have a small support base and recruitment potential in urban centers.

In the third focus of the conflict in India, the north-east of the country, the disputes over access to land and the distribution of income are primarily of an ethno-political nature. The main causes that go back to the British colonial era are, on the one hand, the economic dependency, backwardness and political marginalization of the region and, on the other hand, the conflicts between the culturally and ethnically very different tribal and population groups. The northeast region is culturally and ethnically very different from the rest of India, with which it is only connected by the 23 km narrow Shiliguri Corridor. During colonial rule, the region was not fully integrated into the state and administrative apparatus of British India and was therefore largely excluded from development and modernization processes. It served primarily as a buffer zone against possible invasions and as an important source of raw materials. Since the British colonial power could not fall back on traditional authorities and administrative structures in many places, officials and experts from Bengal, the then dominant center of British India, took over central positions in the local colonial administration and economy.

To this day, the local population feels cheated of their share of economic and political power. This also explains the resistance to (illegal) immigration from Bangladesh and the new citizenship law. In the creation of the Indian states, too, the interests of the local population and the settlement areas of the different tribes and ethnic groups were not sufficiently taken into account. The Indian government initially responded to the uprisings with a massive military presence. Against this background, the northeast has developed into a breeding ground for separatist efforts and conflicts.

Processing and solution approaches

While troop contingents have traditionally been sent to the conflict areas to suppress the uprisings, a two-pronged strategy has been pursued since the 1980s. It consists of a combination of civil conflict management measures and the deployment of (para-) military units. Peace negotiations began with numerous militant groups. The creation of new states and the granting of greater autonomy have weakened separatist tendencies. In addition, development policy reforms and rehabilitation measures for former combatants are intended to calm the conflicts and overcome them. At the same time, the Indian central government has pushed ahead with the modernization of the police force and the establishment of a paramilitary command at the federal level. The currently ruling BJP has largely continued this strategy and, above all, has strengthened the intelligence coordination between the federal and state governments in conflict management.

Despite advances in counterinsurgency and the decline in violence, significant shortcomings and problems persist:
  • insufficient training and equipment of the paramilitary units,
  • insufficient coordination of the security forces,
  • Deficits in border security and cooperation with neighboring states that are used by rebels as camps and retreats,
  • Ill-treatment and arbitrary shootings and arrests, which are facilitated by special laws for the affected regions, as well
  • the ineffectiveness of development programs.
The new citizenship law and the abolition of Kashmir's special status in the Indian Union have had a negative impact recently. In the conflict areas in northeast India, migration from Bangladesh became a central political issue for mobilization. In addition, Kashmir's special status was seen by many rebel groups as a model for their own aspirations for autonomy, and there are concerns that the BJP government will now show even less willingness to compromise on demands for more independence.

History of the conflict

After the peaceful struggle for independence against British colonial rule, the bloody division of British India, which was accompanied by mass exodus, severe outbreaks of violence and pogroms, showed how difficult it will be to keep the ethnically, religiously, linguistically and socio-economically extremely heterogeneous society together in a nation-state. Interfaith violence continued after the partition between India and Pakistan. Particularly serious, pogrom-like clashes between Hindus and Muslims occurred in 2002 in Gujarat state.

In the 1950s, the independence struggles began in Nagaland, which spread to the entire northeast of India in the following decades. The numerous lines of conflict and militant groups that sometimes fight each other, but have also been cooperating more recently, make sustainable conflict management difficult.

The Naxalite conflict began in the late 1960s as an armed peasant uprising, supported by Indian communists, in the union states of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. The movement is named after the town of Naxalbari in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, where a peasant uprising was put down by the police in 1967.

It is true that the Naxalite movement was crushed by Indian security forces between 1972 and 1977. In the long term, however, their support base has increased as a result of the brutal actions of the security forces. With the amalgamation of different militant groups, the conflict intensified and militarized again in 1998, which peaked between 2005 and 2009. As a result, the Indian central government decided on a national security and development policy action plan to contain the violence. It is true that the Naxalites were pushed back in many places and weakened considerably by the arrest, killing or surrender of leading cadres. However, the causes of the conflict have so far not been adequately addressed.


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Analysis and reports by the International Crisis Group on Kashmir, India and Pakistan

South Asian Terrorism Portal: Background, trends and analyzes of the internal conflicts in South Asia

Information portal on South Asia

Website of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies