Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP president Amit Shah | Atul Yadav/PTI
File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP president Amit Shah | Atul Yadav/PTI
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An India that denies itself to some of us could end up being denied to all of us, writes Shashi Tharoor.

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.


Also read: Pakistan doesn’t give citizenship on religion, but India is dangerously tilting towards it


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)”.


Also read: With amended Citizenship Act, BJP will do Jinnah proud


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.


Also read: Citizenship Amendment Bill: Atoning for Partition or religion a criterion in secular India?


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.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. I concur to the ideological / conscientious view that you have talked about in this article. But you also tread on a very slippery slope. Firstly, I am not sure if our constitution treats the word ‘secularism’ in any different way from what the literal meaning does. It is just that the sectarianism is so ingrained in us that, it has become the first go-to tool for a politician (even including yourself) to appeal to a sectarian vote base. Because BJP tries the same with the majority Hindus doesn’t make it much different from other political parties. But what BJP does, that is particularly reprehensible, is the constant targeting of a religion they don’t like. Hindu nationalism is definitely at loggerheads with our constitution.
    But –
    When we talk about inclusive secularism like the one you described, are we not giving an immunity to religious beliefs from challenging ideas, debates and questions?

    When we talk about political secularism as one that involves “a basic symmetry of treatment of different religious communities”, do we have a uniform civil code?

    When we talk about Nehru’s idea of a multicultural, multi-religious, multilingual society like India, do we take it as THE BEST idea without question OR retrospect whether it was an utopian concept that looked righteous on paper but not so much in reality?

    When we talk about Islamophobia as a global phenomenon, are moderate muslims doing anything to course correct the public image and discourse of their religion?

    When we talk about the future of this country, are we sure, 50 or 100 years from now, we won’t have another Kashmir in the Northeast?

    None of my comments, although it may seem like, are against Muslims. But against any religious faith gaining an upper hand in guiding our actions rather than scientific temper that the constitution advocates (i.e. to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform).

    Right now India is acting out like a typical Hindu majoritarian country under the BJP (within the confines of a secular constitution), but I am sure if we do a role reversal between Hindu and Muslim, India will act as a typical Muslim majoritarian country. What we need is to get the people of India out of the comfort zone that their faith is and will always remain unchallengeable.

  2. Watching the comments section is always interesting. The new generation of dumbed down middle class Indian youth is the worst generation to have been born on this land, the weakest by principle, education quality, and unfortunately fundamentalist. I guess fundamentalism occurs anyway in this climate. So maybe before we speak and debate would be nice to check your IQ in a test, if below 100 then you are obviously analysising cock and bull. In India we have own deplorables. A majority of public isn’t like it. These are so called influencers but all they are doing is making people so angry they will surely vote for congress, even if they had a doubt.

  3. Would Shashi be fine if the bill included the religion omitted in the Bill? If so, he should say categorically that when UPA or Congress comes back to power, it will amend the bill suitably. Otherwise, all the wisecracks on secularalism and India’s religiousness are known and have no meaning in the context of the purpose of the amendment. If no minority were to be threatened in the neighborhood, the bill was not required. In that sense, this step is necessary to protect innocents from vicious impact of realization of Jinnah’s vision. Shashi should know limits of smooth talking and writing skills and presenting irrevelant arguments.

  4. Mr Tharoor, I thought you were well versed with world affairs. And I have never ever understood why a well read, well educated person would join a dynastic party which hold sycophancy as its key virtue! But lets just focus on the issue of your article…

    I live in Germany which I am sure you are aware let in about 2million muslim refuges and now is in the process of giving them asylum. Smaller numbers have also been taken in other European countries. Most of these refuges are from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and North African countries. The German government and quite a few German people welcomed them with open arms. They accommodated in fairly luxurious camps in towns across the country. Integration classes were held to help them get their way in Germany. Kindergardens and schools were told to accept refugee students on priority. In short every possible help was provided to help them.
    What do they give back in return…
    – A couple of years back on new years eve in Cologne, hordes of these refugees descended on the city centre and molested and raped women.
    – Year before last, truck was driven by one of these refugees in the Berlin Christmas market killing scores. A similar incident happened in France
    – There has been an epidemic of stabbings and rapes by these refuges across the country
    – In many towns, refuges have been banned from using public swimming pools because of molestation cases
    – Salafist movements have started in many places
    – Look at what is happening in the rest of Europe, terrorists attacks in France, Netherlands, Spain UK, all perpetrated by Islamists

    This is just a small sample of whats happening. Germany in its naivety gave these people refuge but far from being thankful they have actually tried to harm this country.
    So which brings us to the question on why should Bharat give refuge to muslims, because if they will definitely cause more problems. If they have problems in their own country then they can perhaps go to another Muslim nation!

    • Rapes and murder are committed by Hindus also in India. So why are you pointing finger on Muslims only? You only look at the negative side of things but you deliberately ignore countless stories of Muslims who have richly contributed to India. Are you that naive to think we would fall to your argument where you push one part of the narrative while ignoring the other?

      • Muslims as a religion, as a culture have never integrated with the local culture and try to impose their own religion etc on others by any means. These are facts not fiction. You would have to be really blind not to see this. Germany and other countries excepted them gracefully from hell but they took advantage of that generosity!!

        Yes Hindus and others do commit rapes, but why should we import trouble from a people who we know from plenty of examples on how they behave. Again one would have to be stupid, blind and naive to do that.

        Ps. Why is it that none of the Muslim nations have accepted any of these refuges? It would have been natural for many of these refuges to go to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait etc? Because they did not accept them.

  5. The initial argument about multi-faith India is based on the unsaid assumption that the people belonging to different faith especially the “absent” community in the bill were all living peacefully for years without friction; when in fact the people had bore the barbaric and forceful conversions by the invading Arab tribes. It probably thinks destroying the holiest shrines of Hindus, including Ayodhya – was an exercise towards peace building. The fact is that the two communities were like wolf and the lamb – and peace, it at all, was just a pretend activity. But that is in history. I do not think that it should be continued or that any person can be prosecuted for the crimes committed by his forefathers. So I personally have no ill-will because of this history – nor do I want to perpetuate it in reverse. But the fact remains that this history needs recognition.
    And what also needs verification is whether the “absentee” community is desiring of co-existence. What I will talk about is, two instances. One that the article talks of. The partition. Who demanded it and for what reasons? The second one, of Kashmir – the only Indian state where the community was/is in the majority. Today all the Hindus from the valley are living in refugees camps and yet the community is still desiring of Azadi; and the infamous interview clip of an Azadi seeker from the self-styled journalist Ms Barkha Dutt, clarifying yet again that the desire is based on the religion. So it seems to me like a pattern for infinite number of partitions where one part will be for the community and the other for the community to experiment and break again.

  6. Both 10% reservation for the general category and making grant of citizenship contingent on religion appear to be constitutionally impermissible. The apex court will clarify the correct legal position.

  7. The policy of B.J.P is praiseworthy. Responsibility of discrimination lies on Muslims. They have failed to eradicate bigotry. An important issue which United Nations has failed to address is blasphemy. The reason for this is that all western religions support blasphemy. All people in the world should be encouraged to have faith in minimum 2 religions or they may have the choice to be non-believers.

  8. To begin with, the word ‘secularism’ is most abused and repulsive word that was inserted into the the Constitution by an insidious agenda, presumably codification. The much touted examples cited above of excellence is due to the exceptional talent and skill displayed by those individuals and nothing to do with religion. The reviled Congress always sought to and seeks to convert every topic into compartmentalized comment, be it caste, religion or class.
    Even after 70 years, this extra intelligent courtier prefers to fall back on instilling fear using the religious card.

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