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“..the foreign races in Hindusthan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment -not even citizen’s rights”, said Golwalkar in his We or our Nationhood Defined (Golwalkar). Golwalkar was the second chief and ideologue of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a hardline, supremacist organization, which is the ideological parent of BJP .This is the foundational principle underlying the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, which allows accelerated naturalization to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to get citizenship of India, that the current BJP government has hastily pushed through, sparking country-wide protests and palpable anxiety. As is clear from the ideas of Golwalkar, ‘Hindu race’ is supreme in India and whoever does not belong to the Hindu race stands to lose even citizenship rights. The Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, which embodies this premise of Golwalkar, is also a knee jerk reaction of the BJP to suit its politics in retrospect of the disaster of NRC in Assam.
In order to understand the intent and import of this Act, it will be useful to trace the inconsistent positions of the BJP over the years. Its position at different times makes it clear that BJP never had a well thought-out, consistent stand on CAA but has brought it in merely for its political exigencies. This can be explained by taking into account that the crux of the CAA is giving citizenship to the “persecuted” Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis and Jains from the three stated countries. This is quite contradictory to the long held political position of the BJP. The BJP, without making any distinction on basis of religion (Hindus or Muslims), have always maintained that illegal immigrants are a threat to the identity and economy of India, and especially Assam. Assam, which has a porous border with Bangladesh, may have had both, Hindu and Muslim immigrants who came to India for better economic opportunities. It is difficult to determine who is a persecuted Hindu. Besides, the BJP never cared to find out how many immigrants had grounds for persecution and who they were.
In 2008, during the UPA government at the Centre, Mr. Advani, BJP’s foremost leader, had vehemently mounted a scathing attack on the then government for not tackling the influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, which was altering the demography of Assam. So strong was his concern, that he warned, “Assam as a whole today is fighting for survival. And the threat to its survival has come from a flood of illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. If this flood is not controlled, Assam will face extinction under the inundation caused by foreigners” (Economic Times, 2008). He went on to claim that there were over 3.5 million Bangladeshi illegal migrants in India, which was aggravating terrorism here (Times of India, 2008). Here, too, no distinction was made between Hindus and Muslims, nor was persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh mentioned. This is not the only figure available, of the illegal immigrants. Murli Manohar Joshi, once, claimed that there were 1.7 crore Bangladeshi infiltrators in India and most of them were in Kishenganj. It is interesting to note that at that time, the entire population of Kishenganj was 15 lakhs only (Engineer & Dalwai, 1995).
This points towards two things. For one, the BJP leaders had no data to prove their incredulous claims, which were not logical. Arbitrary figures were given in public domain by them to create paranoia against immigrants, and this made them popular in Assam. Secondly, over a period of time, they insinuated and popularized the narrative that illegal immigrants from Bangladesh is coterminous with Muslims. Thus, they wanted everyone to believe that all illegal immigrants were Muslims. In fact, they made a distinction- Muslim immigrants were called “infiltrators”, connoting aggression and sense of animosity, while Hindu immigrants were called “refugees” (Engineer & Dalwai, Immigrants in Bombay: A Fact Finding Report, 1995). It was not proven by any credible data that the Hindu immigrants were, in any way, refugees, and not just immigrants who had migrated for livelihood, like the Muslim immigrants. This resentment towards illegal migrants is shared by the current Home Minister, Amit Shah who said, “…illegal immigrants are like termites. They are eating the grain that should go to the poor, they are taking our jobs” (The Hindu, 2019). It is, then ironical that Amit Shah would want to flood the whole country with immigrants.
The Central government had exempted the migrants from adverse penal consequences of the Passport Act 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946 (which requires that undocumented immigrants prove their citizenship) through notifications in 2015 and 2016. This, also, made them eligible for long term visa to stay in India. In effect, this provided a solution to the immigrants, if they were really persecuted, to avoid punishment and allowed them a wide range of rights, barring a few like the right to vote or to hold political and constitutional post. If this was the case, it makes one wonder what was the need for this amendment in 2019, unless vote bank politics was the motive by giving the immigrants voting rights. This is the same vote bank politics that BJP accuses the Congress of but it itself indulges in this very cleverly.
In its political manifesto of 2014, BJP mentioned that addressing the issue of infiltration and illegal immigrants in the Northeast was its priority. And to address this concern, it wanted to review and improve the border management. It promised punitive measures to check illegal immigration. At the same time, it mentioned in the same manifesto that “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here”. But here clearly, the intent of the BJP is to foment discontent in Assam against Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims and push for instruments like NRC, targeting Muslims who the BJP believes to be “foreigners” and “infiltrators”. There was no specific concern about the refugees of the abovementioned religions while dealing with the problem of the so-called infiltration from the east.
In July 2018, when the draft list of the NRC was published which excluded 4 million residents, a large number of them being Hindus caught unwittingly in the process of hounding out the Muslims, the BJP had to start thinking of ways in which to protect the citizenship of the excluded Hindus, which forms its political support base. This is when the idea of Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019 started to be pushed aggressively. This perhaps explains that BJP, for the first time, stated in clear and unambiguous terms in its election manifesto its intent to propose the Citizenship amendment Bill as we know it today. At the end of August 2019, when the final NRC list was published leaving out 1.9 million, again most of them Hindus, the scramble to introduce the Bill and get it passed accelerated.
The BJP, in the face strong protests by students and from other quarters, is reiterating that the CAA, in no way, targets Muslims in India. However, CAA cannot be viewed in isolation and has to be examined and analysed in the light of the announcement of the ruling dispensation that NRC will be implemented throughout the country. In its support, it argues that Bangladeshi illegal immigrants are spread throughout India. But, fearing the repeat of the NRC experience in Assam, which now the BJP has disowned in some way, the CAA is the backdoor entry for those Hindus likely to be excluded from the NRC process. Its intent is to exclude Muslims and strip them of their citizenship. Though the Muslims under different regimes in India have been discriminated against and were victims of communal violence – in fact, for all practical purposes, they were treated as secondary citizens of India, this is a concerted institutionalized attempt to strip them of their very citizenship.
If BJP is rolling out the NRC throughout the country then there are lessons to be drawn from the NRC process in Assam. The NRC process in Assam, having its roots in the simmering conflicts spanning decades, was a result of the opposition to migration, especially of Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims, which, over time, metamorphosed into opposition to Bangladeshi immigrants and all Muslims. Muslims were the primary targets, which manifested itself in the Nellie massacre. The NRC process, which required all the residents to produce a complicated labyrinth of documents of many generations of their family to prove that they are citizens of India, brought unspeakable misery to the Assamese. Apart from the colossal INR 1200 crores estimated spent on the exercise to eventually “identify” 1.9 million ‘foreigners’ – when exaggerated numbers of immigrants where pulled out of the hat without proper data – the human cost is criminal.
The fact finding mission in Assam, which the author was part of, witnessed and spoke to many college professors and teachers who were deployed over many years, some for 15 years till retirement, in the process of NRC. While education of an entire new generation of citizens took a backseat, the entire human resource was deployed in the machinery of NRC. The pervading paranoia and arbitrary exclusion on mere spelling mistakes or technical errors in the documents of the residents led to innocents committing suicides or being sent to detention centres, which for all practical purposes are like prisons. Innocent lives were upturned, leading to tearing apart of families, prospects of life in detention centres and loss of financial and mental wellbeing. The poor and illiterate had to queue up to supplicate before the authorities to include them in the NRC. Maintaining documents in a flood ravaged state is not easy and the Adivasis have no concept of documents to prove that the land they live on is theirs for generations. There are still remote areas which don’t even have hospitals to issue birth certificates.
An all India NRC would be many times worse. The NRC in the state of Assam alone required the involvement of over 50,000 government employees and cost more than Rs. 1,200 crore. This is a state that has less than 3% of the country’s total population (Shrivastava, 2019). One cannot even imagine the funds required to carry it out throughout India. This massive amount spent on this exercise, which is based on unsubstantiated and exaggerated fear and suspicion, will drive the entire country to a new level of paranoia. The poor and dispossessed will be supplicants before the authorities and at their mercy. Ironically, the very Hindus, who the CAA is supposed to protect, will be those queuing up in large numbers. If they want to protect their citizenship through CAA, they will have to prove persecution from one of the three neighbouring countries mentioned in the Act, which is almost impossible. Rightful citizens will have to declare themselves foreigners or refugees first. Thus, the NRC will spare nobody, though the Muslims will face brute open discrimination. All communities are at a risk of being stripped off their citizenship, as witnessed in Assam. The hardships are unimaginable.
How does CAA, coupled with the NRC, affect the country on a whole? These two instruments will change the paradigm of citizenship in India. So far, the citizenship of India was based on the principle of jus soli, which means acquiring citizenship of the country by virtue of being born there. The Citizenship Act, 1955 provided for all born on or before 1st July, 1987 being Indian citizens. Subsequently, citizenship can be acquired by descent, where one has to prove that one of their parents was a citizen of India. However, with CAA and NRC, the shift is towards the principle of jus sanguinis or blood system. By stating that India is the natural home for Hindus all over the world, the idea of Golwalkar that Hindus alone will enjoy all rights in India takes shape. This idea is similar to that of Israel, which calls Jews all over the world as its citizens. This goes against the very grain of multicultural societies, where people of different religions co-exist with equality. It, also, goes against the tenet of equality enshrined in our constitution, which ensures no discrimination on the basis of religion, caste, creed or gender. This is a change in the very idea of India. India was founded on the principle of composite nationalism, where citizens belonging to all faiths enjoyed the same citizenship rights. Their religion did not determine their citizenship. This is a dangerous turn to ethno-nationalism in Indian history, which will bring violence and unrest in the future.
The government reiterates that this Act only seeks to give refuge to those persecuted in the countries having a specific state religion. It is important to point out that, as much as we appreciate the humanitarian gesture of the government, the purpose of the Act will be lost if India is unable to provide refuge to all the other persecuted minorities in other neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka, which gives a special position to Buddhism in its Constitution, leading to reports of discrimination against Tamils and Muslims, or even Bhutan and Nepal, which have state religions. These inconsistencies along with its knee jerk design to protect its constituency, which votes it to power, makes its nefarious attempt very clear.
Today the country is burning in the face of brute power and arrogance of the ruling dispensation, which is pushing through an Act that was passed with no consultation and democratic spirit. Earlier, the ruling dispensation allowed issues like cow vigilantism, “love jihad”, ghar wapsi to foster hatred and ‘othering’ of Muslims and other vulnerable communities. This act is just another instrument to further this agenda. By all means, it will not be the last one. The Act betrays India and flays its soul by hurtling it down into the abyss of uncertainty, anxieties and injustice, knowing well the consequences of such acts. This ill-thought out and ill-intentioned Citizenship Amendment Act, and the imminent NRC that the Home Minister threatens the country with, has brought this country to the verge of unrest, which the world is taking notice of. The defiant government, which is turning a blind eye to protests, and the disproportionate force the protests are handled with, is giving a message that it cares less about democracy and is bent on redefining India, which will completely normalize bigotry and render its own millions of citizens stateless, in its thirst for power and its pursuit of the ideology of Hindu Rashtra. This Act, coupled with NRC, is unmistakably the first concrete step towards the cherished dream of BJP’s ideological parent, RSS. Unfortunately, the ruling party does not care if it is at loggerheads with the idea of India itself, and its long-cherished dream.
(Secular Perspective December 16-31, 2019)
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