The BJP government’s recent Citizenship Bill has understandably aroused a storm of controversy, not least in Assam, where the Asom Gana Parishad has quit the state government in protest and communal tensions have risen across the state. The issue that is agitating the protestors the most is the betrayal of the 1985 Assam Accord, by permitting migrants who came to Assam after 1971 to receive Indian citizenship in violation of that accord. But there is a larger issue with the Bill that deserves more attention than it’s getting – the far more profound betrayal it embodies, of the very basis of Indian nationhood.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which modifies a 1955 Act, grants the right of Indian citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians fleeing the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. It is the first time any law of this nature has specified religious groups by name, and the omission of one community is striking. If India has for 3,000 years offered refuge to the persecuted of various lands, it has never excluded a specific religious group. But Muslims have been very deliberately left out of the purview of this law.
The Bill’s supporters in the BJP are belligerent about their bigotry. “If Hindus cannot find a home in India, where can they?” is their refrain. The implicit argument is that India is a natural Hindu homeland. Muslims have other countries they can lay claim to.
The shocking thing about this argument is that, in one piece of bigoted legislation, it sweeps aside the fundamental premise of Indian nationalism. When the country was partitioned in 1947 and Pakistan was created as a homeland for Muslims, the Indian nationalists – most notably Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, but also the bulk of their colleagues – never fell into the trap of accepting the insidious logic of Partition that since a state had been established for the Muslims, what remained was a state for the Hindus. To accept the idea of India you had to spurn the logic that had divided the country.
As I have argued in my book India From Midnight to the Millennium (Penguin), this was what that much-abused term, ‘secularism’, meant for us. Western dictionaries might define ‘secularism’ as the absence of religion, but such a notion is foreign to India: religion is far too deeply rooted in all our communities to be wholly absent from Indians’ perceptions of themselves. Irreligiousness can never be popular in our country: even avowedly atheist parties like the Communists or the southern DMK have made their compromises with religion (in Kolkata, during Durga Puja, the various Communist parties compete to put up the most lavish Puja pandals). I remember how, in the Kolkata neighbourhood where I lived during my high school years, the wail of the muezzin calling the Islamic faithful to prayer blended with the chant of the mantras at the Hindu Shiva temple and the crackling loudspeakers outside the Sikh gurudwara reciting verses from the Granth Sahib.
So irreligion was not the issue; every religion flourishes in India. But secularism as an Indian political idea had little to do with Western ideas privileging the temporal over the spiritual. Rather, it arose from the 1920s onwards in explicit reaction to the communalist alternative. Secular politics within the nationalist movement rejected the belief that religion was the most important element in shaping political identity. Indian secularism meant recognising that India had a profusion of religions, none of which should be privileged by the state.
All the cant about ‘genuine’ and ‘pseudo’ secularism boils down in the end to simply this. Professor and economist Amartya Sen has put it rather well in declaring that political secularism involves merely “a basic symmetry of treatment of different religious communities”. This kind of secularism is actually the opposite of classic Western notions of secularism, because in effect it actively helps religions to thrive, by ensuring there is no discrimination in favour of or against any particular religion. This means recognising all religions as equal, in pursuance of Swami Vivekananda’s dictum, “Ekam sat, vipra bahuda vadanti (that which exists is One: sages call it by various names)”.
In a country like India, our secularism recognises the diversity of our people and ensures their continued commitment to the nation by guaranteeing that religious affiliation will be neither a handicap nor an advantage. No Indian need feel that his/her birth into a particular faith automatically disqualifies him/her from any profession or office. That is how the political culture of our country reflected ‘secular’ assumptions and attitudes. Although the Indian population was 80 per cent Hindu and the country had been partitioned as a result of the demand for a separate Muslim homeland, three of India’s Presidents were Muslims; so were innumerable governors, cabinet ministers, chief ministers of states, ambassadors, generals, Supreme Court justices and chief justices.
During the 1971 Bangladesh war with Pakistan, the Indian Air Force in the northern sector was commanded by a Muslim (Air Marshal Latif), the Army Commander was a Parsi (Gen. Manekshaw), the General Officer commanding the forces that marched into Bangladesh was a Sikh (Lt Gen. Aurora), and the General flown in to negotiate the surrender of the Pakistani forces in East Bengal (Maj. Gen. Jacob) was Jewish. That is Indian secularism.
As I have written in my book The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone: Reflections on India, the Emerging 21st-century Power (Penguin), the critics of secularism in the ruling party want to end an India in which this kind of ‘secularism’ is practised. Hindu chauvinism has tended to portray itself as qualitatively different from Muslim sectarianism. As far back as 1958, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had warned against the dangers of Hindu communalism, arguing that the communalism of the majority was especially dangerous because it could present itself as nationalist: since most of us are Hindus, the distinction between Hindu nationalism and Indian nationalism could be all too easily blurred.
Obviously, majorities are never seen as ‘separatist’, since separatism is by definition pursued by a minority. But majority communalism is, in fact, an extreme form of separatism, because it seeks to separate other Indians, integral parts of our country, from India itself. This is what we are seeing with the contemptible campaign to rename places bearing Muslim names – and this is why Nehru vowed, in a phrase I repeated to some notoriety, that India should not become a Hindu Pakistan.
The logic propagated by the proponents of Hindutva, and embodied in the Citizenship Bill, resembles nothing so much as the arguments for the creation of Pakistan, of which Indian nationalism is the living repudiation. The Hindutva movement is the mirror image of the Muslim communalism of 1947; its rhetoric echoes the bigotry that India was constructed to reject. Its triumph would mark the end of the Indian idea.
With the zeal of the recent convert, the former Congressman who is now the BJP’s leading strategist in the northeast, Himanta Biswa Sarma, declared that the Bill was necessary to prevent the region from ‘going to Jinnah’. Ironically, what the Bill actually does is surrender to Jinnah. By reducing India to a non-Muslim state, it buys into the Idea of Pakistan, which asserted that religion was the proper determinant of nationhood.
The central challenge of India as we enter the 21st century is the challenge of accommodating the aspirations of different groups in the national dream. The ethos of Hinduism – inclusionary, flexible, and agglomerative – had helped the nation meet this challenge. This is why the Citizenship Bill is so dangerous. The only possible idea of India is that of a nation greater than the sum of its parts. An India that denies itself to some of us could end up being denied to all of us.
Dr Shashi Tharoor 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 18 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is The Paradoxical Prime Minister. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor.