The protests erupting over the Citizenship Amendment Act in the Jamia Millia Islamia University, across the northeast and elsewhere in India is the direct fallout of the BJP’s malicious reading of India’s history and plan to make the country a Hindutva version of Pakistan. But the immediate crisis should not obscure the fundamentals. We are now accustomed, alas, in our irremediably tedious political controversies, to seeing history used as cannon fodder by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Given that the BJP is determined to drag us back to the 16th century, I suppose we should be grateful that currently, it is restricting itself to the 20th century.
But Home Minister Amit Shah’s astonishing assertion in Parliament, in a response to me, that the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), now a law, was necessary only because the Congress had divided India on religious grounds in 1947, is such a breathtaking piece of effrontery that it deserves a response.
My initial reaction was that Amit Shah must not have been paying attention in school during history class: had he never heard of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the “two-nation theory”, or the Muslim League’s Pakistan Resolution of 1940? Could he seriously believe that Partition wasn’t the demand of the League, voted for by a significant plurality of India’s Muslims in 1946? Did he actually consider that Mahatma Gandhi’s Indian National Congress, the flag-bearer for six decades of a united nationalist movement, a party that had been led multiple times by Muslims and actually served under a Muslim president (Maulana Azad) in the crucial period from 1940 to 1945, wished to divide India on religious lines?
But then, I also came to realise that it didn’t really matter what Amit Shah believed: it only mattered that he had said it. And in saying it, the BJP, hero-worshippers of V.D. Savarkar who first propounded the two-nation theory as president of the Hindu Mahasabha before Jinnah seized upon the same idea, had continued its tiresome political tactic of ascribing to the Congress party responsibility for any error, tragedy or event that had cast a blight upon India. Partition was bad, ergo blame it on the Congress.
Ironically enough, Amit Shah found unlikely allies in the most improbable place – across the border – where my denunciation of his ruling BJP for ushering in a Hindutva version of Pakistan in India was fiercely condemned by Pakistani liberals. Asad Rahim Khan in Dawn and Yasser Latif Hamdani in ThePrint both criticised me by name for venturing to suggest that Partition was Jinnah’s fault. In their telling, the man who had once been hailed by Sarojini Naidu as the ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity was blameless: it was Hindu illiberalism, and Gandhiji’s use of Hindu religious concepts to stir the masses, that led Jinnah to demand a separate country.
Jinnah, a hypocrite Pakistani liberals love
For these Pakistani liberals, the Quaid-i-Azam is an apostle of decency, secularism and liberality, who wished to run Pakistan as a state where minorities could feel totally at home. They do not explain why, then, he wanted a confessional basis for his state. The phrase “two-nation theory”, and the attendant bigotry of Jinnah’s speeches averring that Muslims are a separate nation, is never mentioned. They cannot explain why, even today, a citizen of Pakistan hailing from a minority community has the words “non-Muslim” stamped on his passport, rather like the yellow star of David that Jews were obliged to sport in Nazi-occupied Denmark.
No attempt to reinvent Pakistan as an example of enlightened liberalism will wash in the face of its ruling ideology, its odious practices of religious and sectarian discrimination, its procrustean blasphemy laws and resultant persecution of poor minorities, its forced conversion of Hindus and Christians, and its incubation of an alphabet soup of Islamist terrorist organisations. Pakistani liberals might want to wish these realities away, but this intolerant incubus is precisely what Indian liberals were proud that they were not – and passionately believed that they could never be.
So Pakistani liberals, in their anxiety to defend Jinnah, unwittingly give aid and comfort to the political cynicism of Amit Shah, the president of a party that expelled the redoubtable Jaswant Singh for hailing Jinnah as a hero. Jinnah had many good qualities, but freedom from communal bigotry was not one of them. The fact that Jinnah drank whiskey, enjoyed bacon and sausages, and married a Parsi does not make him a liberal – it just makes him a hypocrite.
BJP’s deliberate distortion of history
Amit Shah is not alone in distorting history to blame the Congress party for the sins of others. The BJP employs another variant of this tactic – to say that the Congress had already done what it is now attacking the BJP for doing. Thus, BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav says that a bill similar to the CAB “was passed by the Nehru government” and that the Congress’ 1950 Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act ‘establishes’ that Jawaharlal Nehru had specifically exempted minorities from being expelled from Assam. Madhav reportedly said: “the Nehru government had passed a similar bill in 1950 for expulsion of illegal immigrants mainly from the erstwhile Pakistan and had categorically said that minorities of East Pakistan wouldn’t be covered under the bill”.
It hardly needs to be said that this, too, is false and misleading, and that the attempt to compare the 1950 Act with the CAB reveals the opposite. Clause two of the 1950 Act, titled ‘Power to order expulsion of certain immigrants’, has the following provision: “Provided that nothing in this section shall apply to any person (emphasis added) who on account of civil disturbances or the fear of such disturbances in any area now forming part of Pakistan has been displaced from or has left his place of residence in such area and who has been subsequently residing in Assam”.
This provision makes it explicit that the people exempted are any persons who fear being sent back to Pakistan – a category that includes people of all religions and not just non-Muslims. So, Ram Madhav’s claim that the Nehru bill, like the BJP’s, protected only the minorities of East Pakistan, is false. When I moved an amendment in the Lok Sabha suggesting precisely what the 1950 Bill did – that instead of mentioning specific religions and excluding others, the CAB merely speak of “persecuted persons” – it was shouted down with vociferous enthusiasm by BJP MPs. The BJP has no right to mischaracterise the Congress’ stand of 1947 or 1950 in its attempt to score petty political points in 2019.
My simple request to the BJP leadership is this: stop distorting the past to explain your failures of the present. India deserves better. It’s time to stop fighting battles of historical interpretation – and fix the problems of today instead.
The author is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 19 books, both fiction and non-fiction. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor. Views are personal.