A Flawed Citizenship Law Divides India Once Again

WHEN THE SUPREME COURT judgement on the Ayodhya dispute went the ruling BJP way, many wondered about the next populist/divisive issue the Hindu nationalist party was going to raise since it had made the temple vs mosque dispute the fulcrum of their political and ideological movement for the past three decades.

With Kashmir’s special status removed, triple talaq abolished and Ayodhya accomplished, it was just a matter of time before the BJP came up with another emotive issue. And the 1955 Citizenship Bill, which was amended by parliamentary majority to become law on December 12 midnight, came in handy.

The BJP maintains the new citizenship law, that for the first time allows citizenship on the basis of religion to six communities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. is not against any religion, but merely a belated attempt to set right the wrongs of Partition of the Subcontinent on religious lines, which it alleges was the Congress party’s doing. Persecuted minorities in these Muslim nations – Hindus and smaller minorities like Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, Jews Parsis and Jains – had, according to it, nowhere else to go and had been leading a refugee-like illegal existence in India in settlement camps.

There will be no citizenship for persecuted Islamic sects, like the Ahmadiyyas and Shias, because the BJP, in its fallacious thinking, says these sects “have not been persecuted on the basis of religion.

Should we make the Muslims coming from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan citizens of the country?” Shah asked in Parliament where the contentious bill sailed through both houses riding on majority votes of BJP and allies.

What do you want – that we give every Muslim coming from anywhere in world citizenship? What he did not say was that in an India that was becoming increasingly ‘Hinduised’ because of the growing political vocalisation of its 82% Hindu population, more Muslim immigration would not be accepted, even though there are nearly 200 million Indian Muslims who comprise 14% of its 1.3 billion population and comprise one of the largest Muslim populations in the world. Shah also declared, somewhat patronisingly, that Muslims who are Indian citizens – or who can prove themselves to be when the National Register of Citizens (NRC) becomes a nationwide operation – “would continue to live with full dignity” in India.

Many have said that the Act is a step towards India becoming a “Hindu Rashtra (nation)” which went against the secular vision of its founding fathers. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, had said that the “moment you talk of Hindu Rashtra was to speak in a language which no country other than Pakistan would understand because they are familiar with this concept”. Hindu Rashtra, said Nehru forebodingly in 1951, can only mean one thing, and that is “to leave the modern way and get into the narrow old-fashioned way of thinking and fragment India into pieces”.

The Supreme Court has declared that secularism is a part of the basic structure of the Constitution and Parliament has no power to dilute or erode it in any way. But the fact remains that Modi-Shah duo may not be so worried if the top court invalidates the new citizenship law. For them, the Act is yet another issue they have found to polarise the country emotionally and will rally nationalist sentiments in support of it. An indication of this thinking was available when Modi while addressing members of his party in Parliament, said that the Opposition was speaking the “language of Pakistan” in opposing the Bill, an echo of his campaign rhetoric that sought to project those who oppose the BJP’s line of thinking as enemies of the nation.

It is intriguing that both proponents and opponents of Hindu nationalism, Modi and Nehru respectively, cited Pakistan, though in different times, in support of their ideological positions. India has always stood out as a uniquely open society, welcoming to all religions and persecuted minorities that were protected by its secular values. By making this distinction in the name of faith, India is not only fragmenting itself socially – as witnessed in the restive Northeast – but sending a signal to the world that it is now a different country, where people who are not part of the majority may have to settle for being second-class citizens, tolerated by the dominant community and subject to their desires and sentiments.

And this division can only come at a considerable cost to the future of a nation whose plural society and syncretic traditions had been the envy of other nations. As Richard Haas, former senior US administration official, said in a tweet: “India has done well, in no small part b/c of its secular democratic nature (sic).” And this action “risks creating a serious problem where little or none exists”. Possibly, BJP might want to answer that poser!

— Tarun Basu/New Delhi

(The writer is President. SPS)

(This article has been reproduced here in arrangement with the South Asia Monitor. It can be accessed at https://southasiamonitor.org)

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