India is celebrating the 150th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi with widespread tributes. Such was the moral force of the father of the nation’s nonviolence agitation for independence against the British, that he remains the one historical figure about whom little political disagreement is permissible.
Writing in the New York Times recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Gandhi “envisioned Indian nationalism as one that was never narrow or exclusive but one that worked for the service of humanity.»
Indeed, India was never modeled on linguistic unity or religious identity, which styled so much of European nationalism. And unlike other countries in India’s immediate neighborhood, the country’s constitution does not allow for discrimination on the basis of religion, region or caste.
What defines India as a nation is precisely its unique diversity, and no one stood for unity and cooperation between all of our people more than Gandhi.
But the grand commemoration is being contradicted and undermined by the sharp anti-Muslim subtext in a proposed new citizenship policy for refugees and migrants. What was meant to be a crackdown on illegal migrants and protection for persecuted religious minorities of South Asia — both legitimate goals — is now effectively an Islamophobic campaign. Gandhi would never have stood for it. The expansive, generous nationalism that Gandhi believed is being twisted out of shape by the inflammatory rhetoric of these imminent new policies.
Home Minister Amit Shah, considered the second most powerful man in India and the only one who has a relationship of equals with Modi, has now said more than once that refugees from neighboring countries who are Hindu, Christian, Buddhist or Jain — everyone but Muslims, essentially — don’t need to worry. Though the proposed legislation lapsed in Parliament earlier this year, Shah has vowed to use the party’s electoral muscle to reintroduce it and ensure that all non-Muslim refugees are able to get legal rights within the Indian Union.
The discourse around the proposed citizenship legislation is a companion piece to the BJP’s rhetoric on the National Register of Citizens, or NRC. The NRC began as a court-mandated process in the eastern state of Assam to separate “foreigners” or “outsiders” from natives. To be fair to the BJP, this was not its policy initiative. Assam’s first NRC was prepared in 1951.
The influx of migrants into Assam from what was East Pakistan and is today Bangladesh goes all the way back to 1947. For decades, ethno-nationalist groups demanded that the NRC be updated to determine the scale of illegal migration. The first accord that agreed to do this was signed under a Congress prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi. Today, political defeats have made the Congress ideologically wishy-washy; it’s the BJP that has been able to exploit the issue for political gain.
Shah, who has previously referred to migrants from Bangladesh as “infiltrators” and “termites,” is now even promising an NRC in the neighboring state of Bengal. Taking their cue from him, less consequential BJP leaders have begun talking loosely about such an exercise being done across India.
Veteran journalist and BJP-backed parliamentarian Swapan Dasgupta has argued in favor of the distinction the party draws between Hindu refugees and the “organised influx of Muslim Bangladeshis” for jobs or political reasons, like tinkering with demographics to win elections.
I have no quarrel with Dasgupta’s point that, unlike the partition of Punjab in 1947, when Pakistan was created, the second partition — that of Bengal — has never received the attention it merits. But implicit in a religious filter for citizenship laws is the assumption that in the South Asian neighborhood only Hindus, Christians or Buddhists are at the receiving end of oppressive Islamist regimes. Look no further than Pakistan, where we know Shiites, Ahmadis, Balochis — all Muslims — have faced violence and disenfranchisement. And what of the Rohingya? Targeted ethnic cleansing of this Muslim community in Myanmar makes them the textbook examples of persecuted minorities in their country.
Furthermore, to approve and implement a law that treats one religion as a disqualifier for citizenship sends the worst sort of signal to millions of Indian Muslims. Remember, when given a choice in 1947, this is a community that chose India’s pluralism over Pakistan’s narrow linking of Islam to nationhood. Even today, Muslim public figures routinely pour scorn over Pakistani politicians who suggest that they are being treated as less than equal in India. Even if the proposed new law does nothing to diminish their rights, there is great humiliation in just one religion — their religion — being kept out of the mix. BJP supporters whisper that there are plenty of countries for Muslims to seek a home and none for Hindus. But as a country, we certainly did not opt to be the Hindu version of a Muslim nation.
In any case, the NRC experiment in Assam has ended in so much chaos that even the BJP is unhappy. Speaking on the stump, party leaders declared that there were an estimated 4 million “infiltrators” — but the verification process put the number at 1.9 million. This includes a large population of Hindu Bengalis as well as Muslims who have served the country with honor, including in the military. The process has thrown the party’s political calculations awry.
In other parts of eastern India, states are objecting to Shah’s promise that non-Muslim outsiders will automatically be given citizenship.
It’s now clear the BJP must put the brakes on this exclusionary electoral populism and think this one through. While every country has the absolute right to control immigration, the basis to accept one population and reject another cannot be religion.
Gandhi’s last fast in 1948 was for communal amity between Hindus and Muslims. If he were alive today, he would most certainly have been sitting on a “satyagraha” against citizenship laws that discriminate on the basis of religion.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning TV journalist and anchor with more than two decades of reporting experience. She is the author of “This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines.” Dutt is based in New Delhi.