The Narendra Modi-led BJP government is forcing India’s Muslims to prove that they belong to the nation. The amended Citizenship Act and the plan for a nationwide National Register of Citizens process are measures to that end.
But history always has better lessons. Several countries across the world, such as Germany, the United Kingdom and the US, have instituted their own loyalty tests in the past. And with hindsight, we know how short-sighted and disastrous these were.
And yet, India has chosen to go down that same path.
The cricket test
In the 1980s, a particularly egregious example was that of the “cricket test” in the UK, which targeted immigrants from India and Pakistan in particular. It went like this: in any cricket match between the English team and a South Asian team, if British South Asians cheered for the non-English team, they could be accused of disloyalty to England.
Norman Tebbit, a Tory politician who was thought to be Margaret Thatcher’s successor, called these cheerers “the enemy within”. In addition to the cricket test, Tebbit railed against Muslims by saying they stick too closely to their own culture and therefore can never be fully assimilated. Is it irony or vindication that London’s current mayor, Sadiq Khan, is a Pakistani Muslim and two ministers in Boris Johnson’s cabinet were of South Asian descent?
Tebitt didn’t stop there, he later came up with the ‘war test’. “One test I would use is to ask them [migrants] on which side their fathers or grandfathers or whatever fought in the second world war,” Tebitt said in 2014. He preferred migrants only from allied countries.
And it wasn’t just Tebbit. Politicians in Britain and elsewhere have used ‘dog whistles’ in order to signal belonging and non-belonging. Margaret Thatcher famously said that England is being ‘swamped’ by people of a different culture. This is very similar to BJP leaders and supporters who use the word “infiltrator” as code for Muslim citizens.
The colour and language test
The United States is seen as a land of assimilated immigrants, where people “melt” into the general population while retaining a symbolic ethnic identity. Except that this ideal is not exactly true. Some groups of immigrants assimilate easily, others don’t. Both language and race are deep fault lines running through American society.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, several US states used the literacy test to give voting rights. This along with the property restrictions, were meant to disenfranchise African-Americans.
Assimilation is easiest for white newcomers who can speak English. It is hardest for people of colour who don’t speak English. Immigrants from Mexico or Haiti have a hard time ‘making it’, eventually living and working with existing marginalised minorities like African-Americans or other Latinx populations.
Political scientist Samuel Huntington, who The Washington Post called the ‘prophet for the Trump era’, wrote in his essay The Hispanic Challenge how Hispanic immigrants have not assimilated in the US because of their own ‘political and linguistic enclaves’. He said, the Mexican Americans will only be a part of the American dream if they dream in English.
Similarly, early Indian immigrants were seen as being “black” and denied the ability to buy land or marry white women.
The hijab test
The hijab was the French Loyalty test. François Mitterrand as France’s first socialist President, appealed to his base by stating, not very subtly, that the French public had reached its “seuil de tolérance” or threshold of tolerance. This threshold, according to him, was provoked by the presence of people with a different style of cooking, dressing, and above all, a different religion.
This intolerance reached its apogee in the 2014 law banning the use of religious symbols in public spaces – that included the headscarves worn by Muslim women. Controversially, this law was supported by intellectuals and public figures on the right and on the left, including many public intellectuals. One of the results of this marginalising of minorities has been that France has one of the highest percentages of Maghrebian prisoners and radicalised fighters who have joined the ISIS and other militias.
The blood test
Post-war Germany explicitly sees citizenship as a social contract, not as a primordial affiliation. An important reason for this policy is the history of Nazi thinking, which used race and blood as proof of nationalism and belonging. The Holocaust against Jews, gypsies and homosexuals with its genocidal nationalism later resulted in strong German laws banning racial and religious profiling, hate speech and discriminatory acts.
Germany has also taken the lead in assimilating its refugees and immigrants, not by intimidation, but through policies that emphasise education and job skills. The thinking behind this is that economic assimilation leads to cultural and social assimilation, which in turn reduces social stress and makes for a better integrated society. I have studied some of these social and educational policies that have been put into place for the 2015 refugees from Syria, and it is clear that Germany intends to learn from its mistakes in the 1950-70s with Turkish immigrants. They want to replace loyalty tests with language skills and job qualifications.
However, Germany’s neighbour Belgium in 2016 drafted a proposal to make non-Europeans migrants sign a statement accepting ‘European values’.
The BJP’s rhetoric of majoritarian nationalism or Hindutva seems to have taken lessons from many of these countries. Indian Muslims have to prove they belong, show overt love for Hindus and loudly condemn any acts of terrorism.
Like the British cricket test, Hindu nationalists have claimed that Muslim areas celebrate Pakistani cricket wins or military attacks. As in the French case, many have claimed that while India has been historically ‘tolerant’, it is time to replace tolerance with demands of overt shows of loyalty.
The clear targeting of minority identified universities can result in a real lack of assimilation across India. While India should be taking a lesson from modern Germany, we often prefer the demeaning language of segregation and economic deprivation that marks the experience of immigrants in the US.
As India invents its own loyalty tests to fill an arbitrary ideological agenda, it should know no country has progressed by failing its citizens.
The author is Professor, International Studies and Refugee and Forced Migration studies, DePaul University. Views are personal.
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