Intolerance, fear, insecurity hurt India

Zeenat Khan | Published: 00:00, Jan 28,2020


People line up along a road to form a 620km human chain across the southern state of Kerala organised by the Left Democratic Front to protest against the Indian government’s Citizenship Amendment Act in Thiruvananthapuram on January 26. — Agence France-Presse/STR

ON RABINDRANATH Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary, Tagore song exponent Rezwana Choudhury Banna was invited to join the celebrations in New Delhi. At the programme, Banna was introduced as one of the ‘most popular artists of Rabindra sangeet.’ In the presence of prime minister Manmohon Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Bangladesh planning minister AK Khandker as chief guest, Rezwana sang: ‘Barisha dhara- majhe shantira bari | Shuska hridaye laye achhi danraiye | Urdhamukhe naranari | Kena e hingsadwesh, kena e chhadmabesh, kena e man- abhiman | Bitara bitara prem pashana hridaye | Jaya jaya hok tomari.’ The English translation that I happen to like is done by Ratna De. ‘With thirsty eyes looks up the human race | Let all darkness disappear; let no sin of undue attraction exist | Let there be no sorrow, no repentance | Let the heart be pure, let life be strong | Why is there so much envy, so much pretence? | Why so much misunderstanding? | Pour out your love into the stony-heart | And let victory be yours.’

Because of the current political situation in India, it is hard to imagine that Rezwana is singing the same song in front of Narendra Modi and BJP politicians. With the Citizenship Amendment Act and the initiation of the process to create a national register of citizens, such an invitation is most likely not to be sent to a Muslim singer even when she is a devotee of Tagore. India’s political climate was very different during Manmohan Singh’s premiership. Since the implementation of the CAA became a priority for the BJP government, it has faced a lot of criticism from former and current Congress leaders. Manmohon Singh has blamed Modi for the ‘climate of fear’ and lack of economic stability. Unlike Singh, no one in the business and private sectors has been so vocal in articulating it so clearly.

Indian citizens in thousands have been organising protests against India’s Citizen Amendment Act 2019. ‘The base remains confined to the groups that were already opposed to the BJP government: the largest number has been provided by Muslims, along with liberal middle-class professionals, Leftists, and dissenting students.’ Among the protest organisers, some object to Muslim exclusion and others object to ‘broad welcome’ for other minority groups. The protesters are asserting that they are Indians first and everything else, including their religion, comes second. The mass students’ protests were also joined in by grandmothers and housewives which proves that the movement is not going to be limited to educational institution campuses alone. The secular India is also pushing back as they fear religion can become a dominant force if and when the government implements the CAA.

Economist Amartya Sen is appalled by the violence that occurred on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi on January 5. He said, ‘Citizenship should be granted on a fair basis, not on the basis of communal discrimination against one religion.’ The JNU students led a protest march on campus against violence in which many people were injured. The students welcomed popular actress Deepika Padukone when she went to the JNU campus to offer her support. The government has thus far not paid much attention to the people’s movement and to all the technical and legal issues other than deploying police on campuses to conduct a flag march in order to prevent further chaos. Protesters come in thousands and from all religious backgrounds after seeing something morally wrong which goes beyond the legal framework in a democracy, only to find how such a historical antecedent is met with atrocious police brutality.

India used to take pride as being secular in its belief and the largest democracy in the world. India’s very existence and its fundamental principles are questioned by the protesters now. Students keep on chanting that they will not be silent, nor will they be violent. Protesters have been beaten, taken to jail and yet they are not letting up. The students want to have a dialogue with the government’s representatives on the issues of the CAA and the NRC. They believe that a dialogue is a way out of the current predicament. Until that happens, they will keep on protesting. ‘The widespread protests will not be a turning point for the Modi-Amit Shah government until ordinary Hindus join it in large numbers,’ read an opinion piece in one of the leading Indian dailies that I read.

A student uprising of such magnitude is causing a lot of momentum. Under pressure from the government, on January 23, the Supreme Court of India gave a ruling to put a stay on the CAA implementation until the end of February. It gave the government four weeks to reply as it found constitutional issues in implementing the CAA. This has been a major blow to the government and this setback is debated on television between the BJP-RSS and Congress politicians. Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party politicians talk about Article 19 of the Indian constitution and argue that protest cannot take place by disturbing peace and the flow of everyday life. They iterate that Muslim minority rights will not be taken away by carrying out the CAA. The Congress leaders point out that protest in a democracy is the right of citizens and they are not causing any inconvenience to others. They emphasise that when the protests are non-violent, the government must listen to young people. One politician became irate and said that BJP must give up its idea of pseudo-secularism as no one is buying into its act. Another pointed out that the protests by minority groups will bring in more Hindu votes during the Delhi assembly election 2020 that will take place on February 8. Those discussions often turn into shouting matches. Such debates and protests across India will continue until the Supreme Court gives its decision.

When rising levels of violence and intolerance threatened peace and security throughout the Indian subcontinent, Tagore imagined the rain of peace to fall on earth — to wash away all violence, darkness, sorrows, malice and deception. Out of intense love for his fellow citizens, in 1884, at the age of 22, he wrote and composed the Bhairavi, Barisha dhara maajhe shantira bari in raga trital. As a mystical writer, in his work, Tagore wrote about purity of heart, hate and jealousy, egotistical pride, peoples’ safety, social rights, elimination of all forms of discrimination and, most importantly, about our minds to be without any fear in spreading the joy of love. He often wrote about an idyllic place where all cultures and religiously different ideologies can seamlessly co-exist in mutual harmony.

Tagore obviously wrote about a different kind of India where all men and women would have enjoyed equal rights where sectarian violence would have diminished with India coming of age. In light of the recent steps the Modi government has taken in terms of citizenship and the NRC, these demonstrate that Tagore, perhaps, was romanticising about India being a secular nation. Tagore wrote his songs and poems under the British occupation. During that time under the guidance of Mohandas Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad and prominent Muslim League leaders such as Mohammad Ali Jinnah, India united despite ideological differences and deep divides between the Hindus and the Muslims. The main focus was to drive the British out.

I read those stories of pre-partition India in secondary and higher secondary school as Indian history was my elective. In the pages of those history books, I learnt about how under the stifling ethos of the caste system ‘lower caste’ Hindus and the minority Muslims lived their lives in India. My own parents once were part of that history. My late father was a product of English education who happily gave up practising law in favour of a job at civil administration in Calcutta. On the contrary, my maternal uncle, a religious scholar and a graduate of Aligarh Muslim University, could not see himself living in British India without joining the Muslim League. All these facts coupled with the political climate of then India, the Muslims from East Bengal made choices that were right for them and their families. After the partition, a different kind of class struggle started.

Now, 72 years after the partition, with tension rising, the minority Muslims in India are facing intolerance, insecurity, and fear that my father’s generation in British India had felt. India’s treatment of the minority Muslims continue to remain harsh, biased and cruel. Those Muslims who decided not to migrate to West or East Pakistan were never given the full status of Indian citizens. Yes, in paper, they are Indian citizens but in every sector, they continue to live like second-class citizens. They were never fully embraced into the big cosmos that makes India whole with all the people in it. They are under-represented in every arena including government jobs, foreign scholarships and other lucrative positions. Those mostly go to the Hindus. The Muslims in India have been living a life of ill-treated minority ever since the independence of the Indian subcontinent. Now, Modi’s government wants to add insult to injury by implementing the CAA and by creating the NRC.

Populist leaders such as Narendra Modi rely on the support of the ‘silent majority.’ In a nation of 1.3 billion people, the right-wing Hindus in India have dislike towards the Muslims simply because of the fact that for centuries, India was ruled by the Muslim Mughal emperors. Under the Modi government, the rise of Hindu fundamentalists has given the BJP a whole new image of how India ought to be a Hindu state. As a result, the Muslims in India are facing further persecution and discrimination. Therefore, with the threat of the CAA looming on the horizon, the Muslims are not taking it lightly. They refuse to prove their identity and birthright as Indians. The younger generation across India has risen. In the 2003 Citizenship Amendment Bill, Manmohon Singh did not talk about leaving anyone out of the citizenship based on religion. However, the BJP keeps on harping about it and it is a contention that the Congress has with the BJP. The fight is not going to end any time soon from the looks of it. Opposition Indian leaders have joined this protest to protect the rights of the minority Muslims.

One hundred and thirty-three years after writing the invigorating song, Tagore’s vision has not fully happened in India. With hollow hearts, men and women are still waiting for the metaphorical rain of peace. People still have to find that tranquil place where barriers between people are removed and intolerance does not spiral out of control. People and the government of India need to establish what the true meaning of secularism is — without censoring the thoughts of others or making the free-thinkers submit to fear and intimidation. A secular India is still hopeful that with pure hearts and resilient souls, they will remove the obstacles where there would be no need for hatred, disguise and ideological warfare. One can hope love will enter people’s uncharitable hearts and everyone will be triumphant as Tagore had envisioned, ‘Pour out your love into the stony hearts | And let victory be yours.’


Zeenat Khan writes from Maryland, USA

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