Indonesia’s leadership is tested following India’s anti-Muslim citizenship act

Indian_Prime_Minister_Narendra_Modi_and_Indonesia_President_Joko_Widodo_address_the_media_in_Jakarta,_2018Photo: President of Indonesia

The pressure is mounting on the Indonesian government to take a tougher stance against India over its aggression towards Muslim minorities.


Anti-Muslim violence in India has erupted over sectarian policies introduced by the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Hindu Nationalist mobs reportedly attacked Muslim businesses and homes while chanting Hindu slogans and Prime Minister Modi’s name last month, with Indian police allegedly participating in the violence.

The violence erupted following India’s controversial Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) and claimed dozens of Muslim lives. The Citizenship Amendment Act has been widely considered as being discriminatory towards Muslims. The amendment grants citizenship to religious minorities from neighbouring countries (Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan), but excludes Muslims. The bill was passed in December last year and has since led to massive countrywide protests and violence over the last few months.

Following the announcement, the Indonesian government summoned the Indian ambassador to discuss the issue. The foreign ministry later issued a statement, expressing its confidence that India will be able to ensure harmonious relations between religious groups.

Islamic groups believe the Indonesian government must do more

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, has yet to comment on the issue, and conservative factions are furious.

He has previously accused of not doing enough to help Myanmar’s Rohingya population and the Uyghurs in China. His policy towards the Rohingya has centred on humanitarian assistance while avoiding alienating Myanmar’s government. In the case of China, the Indonesian government stated late last year that it would not meddle in China’s internal affairs. It too had summoned the Chinese ambassador before, but no further action was taken after the meeting.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo
President of Indonesia Joko Widodo.
Photo: Kremlin

According to Slamet Ma’arif from the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a prominent Indonesian Islamist organization, Jokowi should take a tougher stand. The group is calling for the government to lodge a formal protest with the Indian government or even sever diplomatic ties with India.

On March 6, a protest led by 212 Alumni was held in front of the Indian embassy in Jakarta. The group demanded the Indian government revoke the law and end all forms of persecution against Muslims.

The three largest Islamic organizations of Indonesia have also voiced their concern on the issue. The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), Nahdatul Ulama (NU), and Muhammadiyah, have urged the government to do more to protect Indian Muslims.

The hardline groups, in particular the 212 movement and the FPI, have been Jokowi’s loudest critics over religious issues. Jokowi’s failure to effectively confront the current crisis in India could fuel anti-government sentiment, proving ammunition for his detractors and illustrating their assertion that he is anti-Islam.

Additionally, if Jokowi and his administration remain silent and India feels unopposed among the international community, it could feel empowered to escalate its persecution of the Muslim minority.

Economic relations prevent firm action

India is a key Indonesian trading partner. It is one of the largest palm oil export markets, accounting for 4.8 million tons annually. Only China buys more. Taking further action could hurt the thriving economic relationship between the two countries.

Indonesian palm oil exports

Jokowi’s approach towards India follows the same path as his approach to China over its persecution of the Uyghur community in Xinjiang. Out of fear of losing out on Chinese investment, the Indonesian government has been silent on the international stage.

According to Ahmad Heri Firdaus, a researcher from the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance (Indef), Indonesia is treading with caution over the citizenship debate because it needs India to increase the export of its palm oil. The Indian market will be crucial for Indonesia amidst the EU’s plan to ban palm oil imports for biofuels by 2030.

Indonesia will need to increase its palm oil sales to other large importers to compensate for the lost sales in the EU market.

Indonesia could bring the issue in front of the UN

As a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Indonesia could bring the problem to the table at the UN. It could call India to the forum and send a formal protest against the government. In doing so, it would thrust the issue under the international spotlight, which could result in a formal investigation. With the international community united behind the cause, India would have little choice but to fall in line.

However, with China among the five permanent members of the UNSC, this is wishful thinking. China would no doubt oppose any sanctions on India and work to thwart any emergence of a coalition united in opposition to Indian human rights abuses.

This does not absolve the Indonesian government of its responsibilities. The government must continue to denounce Indian anti-Muslim policy and promote religious harmony. With economic relations on the line, Jokowi has to balance his domestic politics with bilateral trade. He cannot afford to stay silent. In this case, Chinese opposition could benefit him at home. Better to shout loud against the wind than do nothing.