Tuesday, 24 May, 2022
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Indian intellectuals using secularism to shoot down CAA is only helping Hindutva camp

I decided to sign a petition in favour of the Modi government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and was quickly labelled as an ‘Urban Nazi’.

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In the late 1980s, noted anthropologist T.N. Madan had made a provocative statement. He said secularism was unsuitable for India as a political ideology, as a ‘generally shared credo of life’, ‘as a basis for state action’, and ‘as a blueprint for the foreseeable future’. He was convinced that secularism ‘needs to be put in its place’. As protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act rage across India, Madan’s views must be re-examined – particularly because the crisis of secular politics seems to have reached its nadir. By arguing against secularism, Madan was not building a case for the ‘Hindu Rashtra’, but objecting to the ‘foreignness’ of the idea of secularism. It is also important to re-open this debate especially because of the lopsided manner in which Indian intellectuals are using the secularism argument to challenge the CAA.

These liberal intellectuals have exhibited a surprising lack of empathy for the people the Act is meant to benefit. Instead, from the beginning, the protests have been about who has been excluded and about labelling the law ‘anti-Muslim’.


Also read: For the first time, India is seeing secularism go from a top-down decree to a street slogan


Failure of India’s conscience-keepers

Unlike some scholars who are convinced that we are now living in a ‘fascist’ regime, I don’t attribute the failure of secular politics solely to the incumbent BJP government or its political ideology, but to its peculiar lopsided manifestation in India. Political parties across the world are driven not necessarily by goals of justice and fairness but by their immediate political gains. My focus is on the role of intellectuals, who are supposed to be the conscience keepers of any society.

The ongoing brouhaha surrounding the CAA, the National Register of Citizens and now the National Population Register, however, has demonstrated most starkly that a logical and non-partisan approach of deliberation is clearly not an option favoured by our intellectual community. Routine protests often staged by misinformed students and common people have become the norm. There is no space for critical dialogue from any end. The violent clampdown on these anti-CAA protests by an insecure Narendra Modi government has only aggravated this kind of unthinking illogical knee-jerk reaction.

While dissenting against the exclusion of Muslims is a legitimate position; at no point of time did the protesters’ discourse acknowledge that the lives of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians, who for no fault of theirs were left in the wrong side of the border during Partition, mattered. The non-acknowledgement of this position, one may argue, is as politically unethical as that of the Modi government’s, which critics allege has deliberately left out the Muslims.

By not acknowledging the human rights of those who suffered most due to their religious identity, and instead focusing on the imagined persecution of legal Indian Muslim citizens, the intellectual community has shown itself in poor light. More importantly, it has actually been culpable in strengthening the virulent elements of Hindutva even more. The Sangh Parivar’s age-old projection of intellectuals as being ‘anti-Hindu’ and ‘anti-India’ stands legitimised and has now been clearly accepted by the people at large.


Also read: Why electorally secure Modi govt cracked down on CAA protesters so brutally


Being labelled an ‘urban Nazi’

In the midst of this chaos, I decided to sign a petition a few days back in favour of the CAA, and became one of the 1,100 academicians who supported the Act. There have been numerous articles written on the CAA, and I will not go into the details of why I supported the Act. Suffice it to say that born to Bengali Hindu refugee parents myself and having grown up in Assam, I believe that the Act will provide some solace to those who it targets without necessarily being anti-secular.

Overnight, I discovered that I had been labelled as an ‘urban Nazi’, which I understand is a counter category to ‘urban Naxal’, which is meant for an intellectual community that is being cornered and boycotted. Apart from the fact that I felt judged and insulted by people of my own community who never bothered to reach out and find out why I had supported the CAA, I was more appalled by the ease with which they emulated the vocabulary of their nemesis.

This was especially disturbing, also because this was the same community that took their self-image of being conscientious secular citizens very seriously. People who constantly blame the government for being intolerant were denying the freedom of expression and even condemning those who do not toe their line of thought.

But perhaps that is a tall expectation in today’s polarised climate. We live in a political moment where everything that we say has to come with a disclaimer or a caveat that protects us from getting into trouble. It is a time when the intelligentsia of society has appropriated the sole monopoly on truth, decided it with certitude, with little space for any nuance.

Unless we resuscitate an idiom that resonates with a fairer and more nuanced expression of equality, true ‘secularism’ that makes sense in the Indian context will continue to evade us.

The author teaches at Azim Premji University and wrote the book titled ‘Disaster Relief and the RSS: Resurrecting ‘Religion’ through Humanitarianism’. Views expressed are personal.

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37 COMMENTS

  1. A Professor at Azim Premji University, in her personal capacity wrote this piece. As an alumni here’s my “hot take” in my personal capacity:

    Malini Bhattacharjee has written a shockingly simplistic piece on her support to CAA. The piece has only two simple points made all too simplisticaly (maybe three distinct simple points, I will grant that). One- secularism is a western construct (and that thread ends there abruptly with no relationship to others whatsoever), two- the protestors lack empathy for persecuted refugees, three- calling names is bad, but worse when one is at the receiving end (swiftly brushing past the genesis of such a paradigm in public discourse).

    Now I am no writer, but as a reader I felt that perhaps a 700 something word piece is not the right place to touch upon insincerity of “these Liberal Intellectuals” as it leaves no space to actually examine what made the author misunderstand the narrative as anti-CAA protestors’ lack of compassion for those the act seeks to give citizenship. It is a documented fact, that at no point did the discourse challenge CAA on its own because it included certain religions; in fact the ruling party and its supporters tried hard to delink NRC, NPR and other issues (like the Trans Act, which came into force this week) from CAA, and the protestors kept pushing back against such diversions. The protesters infact only demand that a particular religion be included, where all but one is excluded. To dub it as lack of empathy for other religious minorities is a giant logical leap. How this is reshaping or distorting secularism isn’t clear, nor is the ‘peculiar lopsided manifestion’ that has lead to failure of secular politics. Even when CAA is being challenged on its own, the question of Constitutionality of granting citizenship, in effect on the basis of religion is questioned rather than granting citizenship to refugees of the mentioned religions (all but one, again). On a piece that seems to hint at Liberal Intellectuals’ intellectual bankruptcy, committing sin of omission such as this is itself intellectual dishonesty. Above all, the author seems to, in third person, “one may argue”, is herself legitimizing the Sangh Parivar’s age-old vilification of amorphous enemies such as “intellectuals”.

    Would asking Constitutional questions qualify as lack of empathy then? To completely miss such nuance and declare lack of empathy on the part of the protestors not only misunderstands the agitation but surprisingly parrots the ruling’s explanation for its own minority trust building failures. This is also a dangerous project, one in line with painting protests against the ruling BJP as first anti-social, then ignorant, then anti-national and finally inhuman.

    Finally, to despair over being called Urban Nazi is all but natural, but would overstretching this minor personal inconvenience exhibit lack of empathy for the ones actually targeted by the ruling BJP? I will not even get into allegations of fascist ideological roots of the Sangh Parivar as the author is one of the few scholars on RSS and would know of if it better than most of her readers. On the count of CAA protests the author assumes lack of empathy, but thankfully on the count of Urban Nazi she does not extend her own poor logic. Why did I call being called an Urban Nazi a minor personal inconvenience? The fact of the matter is that ‘Tukde Tukde Gang’ etc is now governance parlance. ‘Urban Naxal’ is the Prime Minister’s war cry. Perhaps a point that the author must have added when she attributed knee-jerks of ‘uninformed’ students to Modi’s violent crackdown. This piece gets cause and effect grotesquely and mischievously wrong- first came the information of CAA+NRC links from everybody including the Home Minister, then came the campaign to call dissenters misinformed, then came information campaigns- one must understand the chronology. The coinage of Urban Nazi is not some backhanded comment out of childish spite, but a result of years of sustained vilification of dissent and dissenters. How many ‘Urban Nazis’ have been incarcerated on flimsy charges anywhere? We of course do not need to wait till that happens, but the author’s call for action doesn’t at all direct us to end the instant vilification of all public opinion, especially the one not privileged by the crushing might of state machinery, which “some may argue” need to be protected against all odds.

    • Initially,I support the cause of the movement but now it is really going only as a Muslim movement….I saw some journalists and intellectuals supporting ‘tera mera kya nata,la illailllilaha’ slogans saying they are Muslims and they have right to protest as Muslims.My point is the movement isn’t against some insult to muslim holy books Orr architecture by the government but to the injustice which may be done on applying NRC.So,it is a constitutional matter not a religious one…..…..Secondly,I saw some students in Delhi arguing that where will the 4 crore refugees will be placed in India? First of all,this 4 crore number has been just emerged from somewhere with no reliability.Secondly,when there were voices raising against Rohingyas in India,some people says our culture of ‘atithti devo bhava’ is in danger now just like tolerance,harmony etc etc are in danger.Now,in this case,there is no issue of losing ‘atithi devo bhava’ culture but now,people are worried about loss of resources of our country by some foreigners…….Thirdly,if goes by constitutional way,right to equality is not for all but only to our citizens.For refugees,it is the right of parliament to decide how will they be given citizenship.Also,I couldn’t understand when people say giving citizen on the basis of religion is a shame.Actually, in this case, citizenship will be given to minorities and those people who wants to save constitution,they must know that it is the constitution of India which gives right to minorities to establish their educational institutions.So,rights on the basis of minority and specifically on the basis of religion is not new in India

  2. No one is against the Hindu refugees from Pak but all that is being stressed is there are ways of doing things in proper manner w/o causing widespread consternation or divisiveness.Going by CAA logic the entire Hindus population need to be settled in India because the persecution is not going to be to just a handful of people or for a given finite time.Already a BJP leader says all those minorities not happy in India can go to Pak.In a way it blames our makers of India for not going for total exchange of population on religious lines.Do ppl realise the dangerous implications of doing it now at this stage after 70 yrs ?

  3. A lot of people don’t even realize that CAA does not exclude people of any religion or country from citizenship. It just fast-tracks some of them. So any argument that why it was not applied to certain sections fall flat as they come under the same frame of law as earlier. The reason why some are fast-tracked also has a very clear and legible reason. You can’t argue that Islamic countries do not have equal rights for all citizens. That inequality is the reason. Nothing to do with India or Indian laws.

    • Exactly, the same inequality of law in those contries is being meant to be replicated in India now.That is India is becoming like them

      • inequality???
        are dalit reservation and muslim reservation not inequality???
        No they are not. There’s a classification test in Article 14 bla bla bla…
        See you answered it yourself that CAA is not discriminatory!!

  4. The title of the article is pure wishful thinking. It is also pure hypocrisy to object to be called urban-nazi and at the same not object to the epithet urban-naxals. To those who pretend Nazis have nothing to do with bjp/rss, please read about the the influence of Hitler and Mussolini on Golwarkar and Savarkar. Why be ashamed? many in bjp today admit to admiring the killer of Gandhi – why not also admit the truth about your connection with Nazism?

  5. A dominant cultural nationalism is what is being promoted with popular support and by winning over the power of the Indian State. Since India is country of diverse cultures and religious/ linguistic identities dominant cultural nationalism forcibly reproduce many nationalities within and across the territories to assert their political space in the 21st century.

    The only thing left, if the current trends of cultural nationalism is irresistible, is for the ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ to stop fighting and together love and take care of this independent democratic nation as one’s own self and body with two hands and two legs

  6. WHy didn’t the author focus on the fact that CAA violates the Assam Accord and breaks a long standing assurance to the people of Assam. What is the justification for a 2014 cut off date ? Why does BJP break every agreement entered into till date ? Also, if we had so much sympathy for Hindus , Sikhs etc from our neighbors, why have a cur off date at all ?

    It may not be very easy for a Muslim form Bangla Desh to prove religious persecution, but in case he is able to, then he must also be given a chance of citizenship. Why not amend CAA to include all religions , subject to proper proof of citizenship claims ?

    Retaining 1971 as cut off and making CAA less sectarian is the way to go.

  7. On point – absolutely no discussion of the beneficiaries of CAA. Typical hypocrisy of the left. The Act was meant only for Pak, Afghanistan and Bangladesh with a well documented history of persecution BASED ON RELIGION! Sri Lankan Tamil and Rohingya are ethnic conflicts!! They need to be covered by a separate bill.
    Waiting for Uniform Civil Code bill to drop. The milk and water will separate and we will see who is secular, who is liberal and who is Muslim.

  8. Why beat around the bush? Here is the simple truth. The country was divided based on religion – muslims got their own homeland and they declared their countries as islamic countries. The persecuted religious minorities in those countries have been steadily disappearing. India is the natural home for these persecuted minorities and we have to welcome them – they have nowhere else to go. Muslims from those countries are not welcome because they got their own land; if some of them are getting persecuted for whatever reason, it is their own internal problem. Case closed.

    • Pak was formed on the basis of religion, but India was not. In fact India was not formed at all- it existed as it always had been – open, free and without religious bigotry.

  9. What the author refers as intellectuals are the worst kind of crooks and thugs whose modulus operandi is now known to every nationalist. They pretend to be rational but are most irrational in their arguments. They change their standards like a chameleon changes its colour. They have now become a bottleneck for India’s development and must be ridden off.

  10. Gross and contradictory statements leave serious doubts about the intellectual capacity of the author. Her reactions against intellectuals are vague and imprecise. True, secularism is a foreign concept but so is the concept of the nation-state, democracy, human rights, etc. Shall we do away with all these foreign categories? Foolish is to argue that these foreign concepts are not indigenized in their local contexts.

  11. It is unbelievably sad that in their mindless opposition to the present government, those who are protesting against the CAA are showing complete lack of empathy to the persecuted minorities of the three neighbouring countries. My maternal grandmother’s side had to flee, what is now Bangladesh in 1947 as they were Hindus. All those who are opposing the CAA are unlikely to have gone through such an experience.

  12. and why, if the anti-CAA can be labelled urban-naxal, CAA supporters can not be called “urban-nazi”? only thing one can say is that there is no need to say “urban” – naizs always drew their power from cities and never had to hide in forests. why be ashamed of one’s ideological roots?

    • Nazi were Germany most were Christians, We are Hindus we have nothing to do with this German concept, but naxals are Indian terrorists working on payroll of foreign of foreign country.

    • Dog eats dog world.
      Then the medal of rightousness liberal wear should be thrown away. What is the difference between your calling names, rioting and their calling names and rioting.
      Problem is not all liberal but few foxes and vixens inside herd of sheep

    • Hi Kopi,

      Is Malini Banerjee a Nazi? I think not. Do you know what Nazi is? Read first about the German extermination camps and German invasions of 15-odd countries during WW2 before you justify the use of the term Nazi to attack those who support the CAA. The problem with debate in India is that few debaters and activists know what they are talking about.

      • Are all the people labelled “urban-naxals” really Naxals? read the history of Naxalism in India. Also read about the rise of Nazism in Germany and the concept of “good Germans”. For good measure, why not read about the influence of Mussolini on RSS thoughts?

  13. Who are the intellectuals ? Everyone who opposes the Modi Government is supposed to be an intellectual. If Left leaning were really intellectuals, why did the left leaning countries collapsed all over the world? China is a pure dictatorship which came out out of a failed left leaning government. We also call the left leaning liberals like the Maduros and Castos of the world.

  14. you do have a point. the suffering of minorities beyond our borders must not be neglected. had our government genuinely cared, they would have, in the face of large scale protests and demonstrations sought to concede on the matter of an nrc and upheld a law that can benefit foreign oppressed minorities. they dont really seem to care though. they will weep crocodile tears for someone other than their own pampered selves only so far as it benefits themselves. you say your family experienced first-hand how refugees are discriminated against. it should be easier for you to relate to the plight of the tamil refugees from sri lanka. shouldnt you be asking the government why the different treatment of the tamil hindu refugees under the caa? or does your clamour stop the moment your own situation is secure? hinduism is india’s heritage. so if you want to call yourselves protectors of the hindus, welcome them from every country. maybe give certain concessions to help them settle in india. but do not insult everybody with a law that clearly has an ulterior motive. this government has a particular vision for this country that is not only unsustainable, but also barbaric. their record of behaviour makes it highly likely that should their agenda need oppressing the very refugees they pretend to care for, they will do it readily. plenty of the anti-caa protestors know this. they are not only well-informed, they have also read between the lines.
    by the way, rohingya muslims are persecuted minorities too, but the sun will rise from the west before the bjp will even consider them humans. so never mind them, just think about how hypocritical caa is even just towards hindus.

  15. A simple and liberal-minded solution would have been to include all ‘persecuted people’ instead of listing out religious affinities and excluding people of one particular faith. However much the present dispensation wishes to explain the mala fide intent is obvious to any intelligent person.

        • You Ask Sonia Gandhi. Why did she allowed Sinhalese army to carry out near genocide of Tamils, simply because Tamils killed her husband. Our fake Tamil leaders Stalin & Karunanidhi supported her. Why they did not provide refuge to SriLanka Tamils the same way they provide refuge to Bangladeshis?

    • That’s called rabble rousing. However, the spit is back on the face as the protests show. Political subtlety is an art that eludes this government.

    • Malafide Intent has been manufactured by Modi haters. So far all their fake manufactured propagandas have failed. CAA propaganda would also fail.

  16. Demanding that the state give citizenship benefits for all refugees regardless of religion – at least the ones already inside – is now “lack of empathy”?

    In constrast, supporting CAA is true lack of empathy because it simply implies that:

    1) you don’t want state to give same citizenship benefits for refugees of some religions you don’t like

    and further implies

    2) you don’t even want state to give citizenship benefits for refugees of religions you do like but who came too late or might come in future” (such as those recent Nankhana Sikh victims).

    That, author, is actual “lack of empathy”. You can’t hide your bigotry behind a mask of selective empathy.

  17. The Hindutva gang has been at it since 1947. The normal citizenry woke up after CAA appears to become a reality. Hope the majority opinion prevails.

    • The only gangs in India are trio of jihad, xian and commie. Hindutva and Hindu religion is part of India which gives us our independence.

  18. Every leftists think they have moral high ground, anyone opposing them must b a devil.

    Since when liberal nationalism not enough!
    B R Ambedkar, Indira Gandhi, Atal Vihari Bajpai etc. were both liberal and nationalist.
    rioting then playing victim card is not liberal values.

    Communist and Deobandi group inside left destroying society

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