Modi's Blatant Attempt To Communalize A State - By Mani Shankar Aiyar

Published: May 28, 2018 15:06 IST
While the nation's attention has been riveted on the Modi-Shah shenanigans in Karnataka, inadequate attention has been paid to the excesses they are committing at the other end of the country in the North-East where a massive public agitation has been spurred by the proposed amendment to the Citizenship Act of 1955 aimed, in effect, at providing non-Muslims immigrants from Bangladesh with the right to citizenship, but denying this to those who profess the Muslim religion.

This blatantly communal amendment is entirely in keeping with the Sangh Parivar's conception of India as a Hindu, not a secular state, and in line with Modi's love for Israel that is giving Hindus anywhere in the world a "Right to Return" to India while denying this to Indians of other religions, similar to the Zionist principle of Jews anywhere having a "Right to Return" to Israel, while Palestinians are denied the right to return to the hearths and homes from which they have been ousted.

It is almost impossible to imagine that the Supreme Court would uphold any such amendment that, on the face of it, viciously violates the fundamental principle enunciated in Article 14 that expressly forbids discrimination by the State on grounds of religion. 

But then Modi and his ilk have been brought up in the belief that since India has the Manusmriti, what need is there of a Constitution (pace the position taken by the Sangh Parivar's mouthpiece, Organiser when Dr. Ambedkar presented his draft Constitution to the Constituent Assembly, a House to which a sensible and sensitive India had elected no representative of the Parivar ?

The Bill has been circulated in fulfillment of an election pledge made by Modi during the Assam elections when he thundered: "We have a responsibility towards Hindus who are harassed and suffer in other countries. India is the only place for them. We will have to accommodate them here."

This is a ridiculous argument. We certainly have a responsibility towards all who are "harassed and suffer in other countries". That, of course, includes Hindus but in Modi's "New India", such compassion extends only to Hindus and not to those of other communities. And that explains the shocking indifference and even callousness being displayed towards the Rohingya Muslim seeking refuge in India from persecution in Myanmar. It was compassion in this millennial Indian tradition that Nehru displayed when he agreed to "accommodate" the Tibetans who had flooded into India for refuge from Chinese persecution. 

It is this compassion that Indira Gandhi displayed when she agreed to "accommodate" in India ten million East Pakistanis fleeing persecution by Yahya Khan's minions in 1971, with no questions being asked about their religious antecedents. After the liberation of Bangladesh, they were sent back to their original homes, again with no questions being asked about whether they were Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Buddhist.

 It is the same humanitarian considerations that informed her accommodating Afghans fleeing from persecution in their country - without asking whether these refugees were Muslim, Sikh or Hindu. It was similar humane concerns that motivated Rajiv Gandhi to open wide the gates to Tamil refugees - Christian, Muslim and Hindu - from Sinhala persecution in the '80s. Modi now wants to throw that great tradition of ' vasudhaiva kutumbakam ' to the winds, holding that his ' kutumb' has place only for Hindus and not for all of creation. What a totally bogus parody of Hinduism his 'Hindutva' is!

Modi does not seem to understand the distinction between "refugee" and "migrant". We must, of course, afford refuge to those who are escaping physical intimidation, injury, or elimination. At that point, the refugee is a refugee, defined by his condition, not by his religion. Equally, any "migrant" who seeks to voluntarily give up his native citizenship to become a citizen of India - whether he is a hippie, a seeker of spiritual solace, an artiste, a businessman or a refugee seeking to change his status from "refugee" to "migrant" - needs to undergo a process of securing citizenship that is the same for everyone, whatever his or her religion. 

That is how the 1955 Citizenship Act was conceived: a complicated and time-consuming procedure that would establish the genuineness of the desire to become Indian, and not just an entitlement given to someone who shares our majority religion but is denied to those who belong to our minority religions or are atheists.

Modi's new citizenship philosophy is based on two questionable premises: one, that India is the natural home of the Hindu; and, two, that the fact of being a Hindu establishes a person's right to be an Indian.

Let us first consider the "natural home" argument. If India is the natural home of the Hindu, then why are so many millions of Hindus, particularly from Modi's home state, getting the Hell out of their "natural home" to seek glory and riches "unnatural", mlecchahomes

And does it mean some 200 million non-Hindus are Indian citizens in an "unnatural" home? And what of Hindu-majority countries outside our sub-continent? Is Mauritius not the "natural home" of the Mauritian Hindu? Is that not also the case with the Guyanese or the Fijian or the Trinidadian? Is Nikki Haley an "unnatural" American? 

Indeed, why should the millions of Hindus - ardent Modi fans in the main - who have migrated to non-Hindu countries have an automatic right of return to India, but not the Muslim who regards Bharatvarsha as his home and the land where his forebearers are buried? And does not the 'natural home' argument validate the "two-nation" theory - sponsored by Savarkar - which held that Hindus and Muslims constitute separate nations, leading inevitably to Golwalkar's argument that the minorities might remain in India but only as "second-class" citizens? The conflating of religion with nationality has visited disaster on our subcontinent. To make that conflation the touchstone of our contemporary definition of citizenship is to invite that disaster to revisit us.

The proposed amendment compounds the confusion already created by failing to distinguish between "migrants" and "refugees". Migrants are those who do not flee their homeland because they are "harassed or suffer". They wish to change their citizenship to Indian citizenship because they see greater opportunity in India than they see in their homeland. 

This is the same as those hordes of Indian Hindus, especially Gujarati Hindus, who fled from India, abandoned their Indian citizenship and become nationals of other countries not because they are "harassed or suffer", but because of the same motivation that brings most Bangladeshis to India: economic opportunity while retaining familial and cultural and religious ties with their country of origin.

Would Modi tolerate any treatment of Hindu emigrants from India in the same manner as he proposes to treat Bangladeshi Muslim emigrants? If the answer is that the West has economic space to accommodate immigrants, my answer would be that our Citizenship Act, 1955, already gives the government the right to factor this in - but not to discriminate on the basis of the religion of the potential immigrant. 

A refugee, on the other hand, is one who takes refuge in our land because he or she or they are "harassed and suffer" in their own country or who apprehend persecution in their own land - like Taslima Nasrin, the writer from Bangladesh who has sought refuge in India. Must Taslima be denied refuge because she is a Muslim? She is regarded as an apostate in her own country but is clearly a non-Hindu in ours. So, should be made to convert to the sanatana dharma to stay here?

The second question is whether by being a Hindu, any non-Indian can claim a right to be in India, but cannot do so if he/she/they are non-Hindus? Modi's view clearly is that ipso facto Hindu = Indian. But does that not make 175 million Indian Muslims un-Indian or lesser Indians? That, of course, was the Savarkar/Hedgewar/Golwalkar line of thinking to which Modi is heir. 

But if India is "Hindu" because some 85% of Indians are Hindus, we have to remember (if we are to remain one nation) that even though the Muslims constitute a small fraction of our population (some 13 to 15 percent), in absolute terms, they constitute one of the largest Muslim concentrations in the world. In other words, if India is the largest Hindu country in the world in terms of numbers, on the same criterion of numbers, India is the second-largest Muslim country in the world. Indeed, it is as impossible to conceive of India without Islam as it would be to conceive of Islam without India.

This objective truth cannot be replaced by pushing for Indian democracy to transmogrify from a secular democracy to a Hindu democracy. That is the mischief that the Modi government started with its two notifications in 2015 and 2016 respectively to the Passports Act, 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946 that, for the first time ever in the history of independent India, discriminated between non-Muslims from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and Muslim migrants from these countries.

In carrying forward that mischief to the Citizenship Act, 1955, Modi has shown that he understands nothing of the identity issues in Assam, issues that have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with language and culture. The Assamese do not feel assaulted by Islam, but by Bengali and Bengalis. 

The share of Assamese-speaking residents of Assam is already down to under 50% according to the 2001 census (48.8% from 57.81% a decade earlier in 1991) -  while the share of Bengali-speakers has grown from 21.67% in 1991 to about 27.54% in 2001 (to an estimated 35% now - the latter figure, perhaps exaggerated, is from Jaideep Mazumdar, Swarajya February 18, 2018). As he says: "Be they Hindus or Muslims, the Bengali-speaking populace are justifiably viewed by the Assamese-speaking people as posing a grave threat to their identity. It is but natural for the indigenous Assamese to not only oppose the illegal influx from Bangladesh, but also any move to confer citizenship on these immigrants, Hindus included".

His views are echoed by Akhil Gogoi of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, the leading farmers' organization of the state: "According to a report by former Governor S. K. Sinha, 75 lakh Bangladeshi Hindus had entered between 1971 and 1989. If the bill is passed, they will become citizens of Assam. All foreigners, irrespective of religion and caste, who came to Assam after 1971 must be detected and deported." 

Moreover, according to the same source, some 135 organizations (at least one written in blood!) have submitted memoranda to the Joint Parliamentary Committee that visited Guwahati earlier this month "expressing fear of losing their linguistic and cultural identity to Bengali if doors were let open to migrants from across the border to settle in the state on religious grounds."

Militants and ex-militants ranging from Arabinda Rajkhowa to Paresh Barua and Anup Chetia have also expressed their opposition to Modi's attempt to convert a linguistic-cultural issue into a communal one.

Unsurprisingly, the political opposition has extended not only to the Congress (Tarun Gogoi and Ripun Bora) but also to the Asom Gono Parishad of Prafulla Mahanto, and even, albeit in muted terms, to the BJP Chief Minister of Assam.

Clearly, Modi has opened a can of worms that will bite him hard come 2019.

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.


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