by Debashish Roy Chowdhury
Unlike the BJP, which sees Muslims as the outsider, Assam and the rest of the region fear being overrun by outsiders – both Hindu and Muslim.
From Germany to Chile and South Africa, nations have had to endure painful reconciliation processes to heal themselves, put the past behind them, and draw lessons from violent brushes with history to prevent their recurrence. India has chosen to beat a reverse path. Tired of the country’s stable democracy, preserved for seven decades after a blood-soaked independence, its muscular new caretakers are urgently poking old wounds in the hope of stirring up India’s demons to take it down the same road to perdition it long ago escaped.
Despite being born in a frenzy of religious violence accompanying the partition of independent India into a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan in 1947 – which left up to 2 million dead and 14 million displaced – the new Indian nation chose to become a secular republic in which people of all religions would have just as much right as Hindus. This idea of India ran up against the country’s increasingly assertive majoritarian politics this week, and came up short on the floor of its House. But the resultant friction between the two ideas of India has jolted the foundational arrangement of a complex nation, triggering panic and protests nationwide, in what could well be a prolonged period of social and political unrest.
Amid opposition protests and marathon debates, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) this week pushed through a bill in parliament that will give Indian citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, or CAB, which became an act on Thursday with the president’s assent after it was cleared by both Houses of Parliament, allows for the first time in constitutionally secular India a citizenship provision based on religion. Modi himself was conspicuously absent throughout the House debates and let his closest aide and Home Minister Amit Shah lead the government side in piloting the bill.
On its own, the CAB can appear to be an innocuous, almost altruistic, piece of legislation. The bill’s diabolical genius lies in what it does not mention. For example, it does not specifically say Muslims need not apply. Instead, it lists all the other communities who stand to gain from its apparently inclusive ambit – the Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsees and Christians, who are persecuted in those countries. The rationale is, Muslims cannot be persecuted in Islamic states, and hence a Muslim fleeing Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan cannot be a refugee.
Apart from the dubious assumption that Muslims are not persecuted in Islamic countries – many groups such as Pakistan’s Ahmadiyyas are, and religion is not the only basis of persecution – this arbitrary list of countries of origin is striking in what it leaves out. Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and China are also India’s neighbours, but find no mention. Sri Lanka and Myanmar are particularly stark omissions because of the many Tamil refugees who have come to India in the past and the exodus of the Rohingya after massacres in Rakhine.
The choice of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan fits the Hindu nationalist narrative of a tolerant Hindu India where Muslims flourish vis-à-vis rogue Islamist neighbours that oppress their Hindu populations. This is not an entirely unsubstantiated claim, but in this telling, there’s no such thing as a Muslim victim. The Muslim is the oppressor. This is why the Rohingya Muslims, some of whom managed to find their way to India from Bangladesh, are demonised by Hindu activists despite the painful circumstances of their arrival in India. India has taken hundreds of thousands of refugees from the region, but the Modi government has been trying to evict the Rohingya from Indian soil.
The government has taken pains to stress that the new law is not discriminatory and is meant only to help refugees, not discriminate against India’s own Muslim population. Not many are buying the assurances. The provision, which clashes with the articles 14 and 15 of the Indian constitution that guarantee the right to equality and non-discrimination, has already been challenged in the Supreme Court by two political parties and is likely to face more legal challenges.
The US government’s Commission for International Religious Freedom calls it “a dangerous turn in the wrong direction” as it runs “counter to India’s rich history of secular pluralism and the Indian Constitution, which guarantees equality before the law regardless of faith”. The US State department on Thursday said: “Respect for religious freedom and equal treatment under the law are fundamental principles of our two democracies. The US urges India to protect the rights of its religious minorities in keeping with India’s Constitution and democratic values.”
Anxiety over the new law goes far beyond the ideological re-imagination of Indian citizenship along majoritarian lines. Its real, immediate threat is evident when seen in conjunction with another major initiative of the Modi government – a pan-India citizen verification process known as the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Originally meant only for the northeastern state of Assam, where 1.9 million people have just been left disenfranchised by the process, it will now be extended to all of India.
The decade-long NRC exercise in Assam was marked by the untold misery of people struggling to establish their ancestry. In thousands of families, one or two members failed to make the list while others did. Still others lost their lives’ savings in litigation to prove themselves Indian. More than a thousand people have been rotting away in jail for years merely on suspicion of dubious citizenship, 28 people have died in detention, and many have committed suicide over fear and shame of losing citizenship or ending up in detention.
Replicated across the nation, such an exercise can only scale up the sufferings witnessed in Assam. And, conducted by a Hindu hardline dispensation, which nurses historical grievances against Muslims that it does not even try to hide, a nationwide NRC is justifiably feared for its potential to be weaponised for disenfranchising millions of Indian Muslims. BJP leaders like Shah openly use dehumanising terms like “termites” and “vermin” to describe “illegal migrants”, which they use as a code for Muslims.
Under the NRC, all 1.35 billion Indians would be automatically considered outsiders, the onus being on individuals to prove they are not. But with the new citizenship law, everybody gets a free pass except Muslims. The optics of Muslims having to plead and grovel to prove their Indianness reinforces the Hindu nationalist notion of the Muslims as the outsider. And, to have them thrown into jail is the stuff of extreme right-wing dreams, which now looks tantalisingly within reach. India is building scores of new detention centres. The federal government has asked all states to set up at least one detention centre with “modern amenities”. According to Indian media reports, it has even issued an 11-page “2019 Model Detention Manual” to help state governments with the process.
It’s not for nothing that parallels are being drawn with Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Race Laws on citizenship that would provide the legal framework for the systematic persecution of Jews leading to the Holocaust. Only people of “German or kindred blood” were decreed to be allowed as citizens of Germany. The Ahnenpass (ancestor pass) issued to those determined to be of “Aryan blood” recorded the “family tree” of individuals, not very different from the way the Assamese have had to establish their lineage to pass the Indian test. A closer and more recent parallel to mass statelessness was the 1982 mass disenfranchisement of the Rohingya in Myanmar, before their massacre years later that triggered their exodus in 2017.
The citizenship law has been greeted by protests and calls for civil disobedience. Three states – Punjab, Bengal and Kerala – have refused to apply the law. Much of northeastern India has erupted in violence. Unlike the BJP, which sees Muslims as the outsider, Assam and the rest of the region fear being overrun by outsiders – both Hindu and Muslim. The new law, it is feared, will legitimise the millions of Bengali speakers who live in the region and open the floodgates for more migration from Bangladesh.
The BJP tried to pass the law once before, in January, but had to drop it in the face of similar protests all over the northeast. This time it kept the tribal belts of the region out of the CAB’s ambit but it still didn’t help. Two people have died in police firing on protesters in Assam’s Guwahati, just days before Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was scheduled to meet with Modi there. Shillong in neighbouring Meghalaya state is under curfew. The internet has been shut down in three states and the army deployed in much of the region. Paramilitary troops are being moved from Kashmir to Assam in a special train.
Curiously, India has chosen to go to war with itself just when it desperately needs reconstruction as the economy tanks after years of mismanagement.
The country is facing one of its severest slowdowns in recent decades in the wake of poorly considered policy decisions, especially Modi’s surprise ban of high-denomination notes in 2016 followed by a shoddily implemented nationwide goods and services tax.
Consumer spending has fallen for the first time in more than four decades. The unemployment rate is the highest in 45 years. The economic growth rate has declined for six straight quarters, the longest slowdown in 23 years. From its once-mighty double-digit growth, the Indian economy is currently chugging along at a mere 4.5 per cent. Standard & Poor Global Ratings this week said it would downgrade India’s sovereign rating to junk grade if growth does not pick up. The federal government is so short of cash that it cannot pay states their dues.
Not to mention the chronic problems of agrarian distress, poor health care, hunger and poverty. These are not of Modi’s making, but they have seen no improvement under him either. India saw 31 farmer suicides every day in 2016. The country ranks 102 out of the 117 countries in the 2019 Global Hunger Index report, behind Pakistan (94), Bangladesh (88), Sri Lanka (66), Nepal (73) and China (25). It is among the three countries where child wasting – an indicator of malnutrition – is most prevalent, along with Yemen and Djibouti, as more than 90 per cent of Indian children between 6 and 23 months do not get fed a minimum acceptable diet.
In short, the government has far bigger fish to fry than dabble in socially explosive policy changes for which there is no pressing need. Partition and the Bangladesh war took place a long time ago, refugees are not beating down the doors any more. Hindu lawmakers in Pakistan are in fact fuming at the way the BJP government is characterising the state of their community. “By dragging Pakistan’s Hindus into the issue, India has interfered in our internal matters,” one of them, Sachanand Lakhwani, told The Times of India .
It took about US$225 million to conduct the NRC in Assam. The government has now inexplicably scrapped the result of that entire exercise because it says it was a failure, but wants to do it across the country anyway, which will probably cost about US$30 billion. None of which makes any sense, but as the BJP slogan goes, Modi hain to mumkin hain – with Modi, everything is possible.
Article first published in South China Morning Post.
Debasish Roy Chowdhury is Senior Research Fellow at the Sydney Democracy Network, The University of Sydney.