Gashing through India’s secular soul

by Nazarul Islam | Published: 00:00, Jan 09,2020


Students of St Joseph’s College of Commerce hold candles as they take part in a protest against India’s new citizenship law in Bangalore on January 7. — Agence France-Presse/Manjunath Kiran

PERHAPS, Narendra Modi’s critics have reasons to believe that the new Indian citizenship law is essentially perilous, repulsive and shocking. It is alarming because it was thought to have encouraged discrimination against Muslims, who constitute a minority of 200 million people in the country. And they, therefore, have been the target of everyday, petty prejudice which has included periodic, violent persecution. It is offensive because whatever the government said clearly undermined India’s post-independence constitutional commitment to a secular state.

Again, Modi may have overreached. Reelected as prime minister in May, when his BJP party secured a large parliamentary majority, he has sought, with increasing vehemence, to impose his hardline Hindu nationalist views on a country that is rightly renowned for its ethnic and religious diversity. In August in a sign of things to come, Modi revoked the special constitutional status of Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state.

Many may have only enjoyed a limited knowledge of the sizzling, South Asian politics and history. Therefore, the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act may seem right at a first glance. Obviously, it seeks to expedite Indian citizenship for those refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who have taken shelter in India after escaping religious persecution in the neighbourhood.

Globally welcomed act of accepting refugees is a noble humanitarian cause — one which India has championed for generations, starting with the Tibetans. Yet, countless commentators have pointed out that the citizenship law has failed all logical tests of humanitarianism: It leaves out Muslim sects such as the Ahmadiyyas and Shias in Pakistan or even rationalist bloggers in Bangladesh. It also turns a blind eye to Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka who have long been at India’s doorstep. Even more tellingly, it covers up the government’s mistreatment of the stateless Rohingyas.

Humanitarianism has traditionally dictated that states of the Union of India should provide an equal opportunity for all those who are persecuted, without valuing one life over another on the basis of identity. Any government that is serious about humanitarian concerns would extend asylum, or citizenship, to individuals based on a case-by-case assessment rather than through a law which clubs them together in clumsy groups based on their name.

Among those who prefer to remain loyal to the act, some have argued that the law’s religious discrimination has its roots in the partition of India. Speaking in the parliament, the home minister Amit Shah explained, ‘These three neighbouring countries are Muslim majority nations and Islam is enshrined in their constitutions. Hence, they (Muslims) cannot face religious persecution like other communities do.’

The argument that Muslims are not persecuted in these countries for their identity is demonstrably false, but it is consistent with the Hindu nationalist logic of partition: that partition created a Muslim state of Pakistan and a Hindu state of India. This narrative forms the basis of calls for a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ — a nation of, by and for the Hindus as a corollary to the Muslim state of Pakistan.

Yet, the logic of India as a Hindu corollary to Pakistan is ahistorical and a gross violation of India’s founding principles. Indeed, the creation of Pakistan was more a secession from the multicultural ideals of India’s freedom movement than just a partition of territory into two religious nations.

For decades, India’s freedom fighters stressed on the multicultural nature of their vision. Mahatma Gandhi once pointed out, ‘Hindus and Muslims are sons of the same soil of India.’. When the Indian National Congress, the party entrusted with the task of India’s freedom struggle which had the largest reach and membership at the time, adopted its resolution of Purna Swaraj (or complete independence) in 1929, it was done in unequivocally universal terms, with no mention of religious conditions in its demand for human rights.

The movement for the creation of Pakistan, on the other hand, rejected these ideals and, instead, propounded the two-nation theory, arguing that Hindus and Muslims could not belong in the same nation. Starting from the 1920s, its ideologues had begun to secede from the larger, national movement.

On the contrary, the demand for Pakistan did not, however, draw much popular support for several years; indeed, until the 1940s, it was deemed to be no more than a fantasy, or wishful thinking of a section of the Muslim aristocratic class. Several Muslim organisations and leaders spoke out against the demand, including the All-India Azad Muslim Conference and the redoubtable Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan.

The Muslim League, the principal party of those who sought Pakistan,  suffered heavy electoral losses year after year. And, as late as in the elections of 1936–37, it drew a blank in Sindh and the North West Frontier Province. In Bengal, it won less than a third of the seats reserved for Muslims. In all, the Muslim League garnered less than 5 per cent of the Muslim vote across the country.

When Pakistan was finally created, it was not so much through the force of ballots as it had emerged through the force of fear and violence. According to critics, the self-contradictory nature of the two-nation theory lies in the fact that Muslims were so well integrated across the entire geography of an undivided India that, for several years after independence, India had more Muslims than Pakistan, despite a forced mass migration.

In the aftermath of independence, Pakistan proclaimed itself an Islamic republic, in line with its values of religious nationalism. Yet, India did not transform itself into a religious polity of the Hindu republic of India, staying true, instead, to the multicultural values of the larger freedom movement.

There was, however, some dissent in the ranks. In 1937, the proponents of Pakistan received an ideological support from their direct counterparts of Hindu nationalism, the Hindu Mahasabha. That year, its president remarked: ‘India cannot be assumed today to be a unitarian and homogeneous nation; but on the contrary, there are two nations in the main, the Hindus and the Moslems, in India.’ (Shortly thereafter, when the Indian National Congress quit the provincial governments, boycotted British state institutions and later launched the ‘Quit India’ movement, the Hindu Mahasabha formed coalition governments with the Muslim League in Sindh, NWFP and Bengal).

The Hindu nationalists were, however, not as successful as the Muslim League and its leaders could not assert themselves in defining the Indian republic on religious terms. For two generations after independence, most notably including the generation that suffered the partition directly, Indians continued to reject Hindu nationalism in the ballot box.

That is now changing: the ruling political ideology in India has now pledged allegiance to the ideals of Pakistan that Hindus and Muslims belong to two separate nations, or that (as with the Citizenship Amendment Act), India should at least exclude whatever identities Pakistan claims to include.

If the secession of Pakistan turned one part of the subcontinent into a religious nation, the ongoing current of Hindu nationalism is turning the other part into its Hindu reflection. This would be the completion of Partition and a triumph of those who spearheaded the secession of Pakistan from the Indian freedom movement.

A vast nation of 1.3 billion souls have not forgotten that Modi’s time as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, when several thousand Muslims were killed in sectarian violence he failed to halt, to put it kindly. The United States and Britain imposed sanctions on him at the time. Perhaps, Narendra Modi has changed to become charismatic and people-centric since those torrid days. However, the rest of India should be in no doubt: the world is watching him now. His reputation and India’s are in the balance. The hateful victimisation of Muslims need an anchor to stop. Happily, a good start would be the immediate scrapping of the noxious citizenship bill.


Nazarul Islam is a former educator based in Chicago.

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