India and the Indian people are much too diverse. Singling out Muslim migrants for exclusion and being open to accepting migrants of all other major religions can create its own problems.
Panic has gripped West Bengal as the central government reiterated its plans to introduce the National Register of Citizens (NRC) across the country. Long queues have formed in front of government offices with people seeking copies of documents which could prove their Indian citizenship.
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has claimed that 11 people have died as a result of the panic; a PTI report says eight. Four of these are suicides by people depressed over their inability to get the necessary official documents. Four others have died after falling ill while standing in queues before government offices.
The panic has touched Hindus also as there are many non-Muslims among the 1.9 million people who failed to make it to the NRC in Assam. I may be in a similar situation. I was born over 70 years ago at home and do not have a birth certificate. The date of birth in my passport and Aadhaar stems from my school leaving certificate which says it is given on the basis of the school principal’s declaration. He, in turn, went by what my late father had declared.
To assuage the fear among Hindus, BJP and Sangh leaders have repeatedly assured that no Hindu will be declared a foreigner. Union home minister Amit Shah has also promised that the Citizenship Amendment Act will be passed before the NRC is prepared and the act will have a provision to accord citizenship to refugees who have come in at least six years ago.
Significantly, to qualify for citizenship, refugees can be of every major religion except Islam, despite the fact that smaller sects among Muslims like the Ahmadiyyas are persecuted in many Islamic countries.
Amit Shah has repeatedly publicly asserted in West Bengal that his party and government are determined to undertake the NRC exercise after which not a single “infiltrator” will be allowed to remain in the country.
Despite this faith in the NRC, its final version for Assam has created deep disaffection among many sections, including even those who were part of the Assam movement and looked at the NRC as a powerful tool to rid the state of foreigners. Not just Muslims but many non-Muslims who speak Hindi, Nepali, Marwari and of course Bengali have been left out.
In the case of Assam, the issue of Bengali Hindu migrants is uniquely complex. The Assam movement targeted not just Bengali speaking Muslims but also Bengali speaking Hindus as the movement’s leaders sought to preserve the linguistic and cultural character of the state.
The issue of immigrant Bengali Hindus is also complex in adjoining Tripura where they have outnumbered older residents and form the support base of the BJP which has come to power by defeating the leftists. (Bengali Hindus, in fact, are also part of the support base of the ruling BJP in Assam.)
If the NRC is prepared for the whole country and Bengali Hindus who have migrated till even as recently as seven years ago are included then it will go against a key aim of the Assam movement. No wonder, even the original litigants behind the Supreme Court-supervised NRC exercise in Assam feel the exercise has been a failure and a waste of money.
Not just Assam, different states in the north-east are opposed to the granting of citizenship to different non-Muslim migrants. The Christian majority in Mizoram will not be happy if the ethnic balance is disrupted by citizenship being given to Buddhist Chakmas. Similarly the Hindu majority in Arunachal will be opposed to citizenship being given to Tibetan and Chakma refugees, who are all Buddhists.
This underlines the fact that India and the Indian people are much too diverse and singling out Muslim migrants for exclusion and being open to accepting migrants of all other major religions can create its own problems.
There are at least two reasons why the exclusion of Muslim migrants is being emphasized. One is the longer term and broader Hindutva goal of turning India into a Hindu rashtra; Muslims form the largest minority. The second is the specific agenda of the BJP in West Bengal to come to power by defeating the Trinamool Congress through the consolidation of the Hindu vote. The BJP campaign highlights the Trinamool’s reliance on the Muslim vote and consequently unwillingness to face up to the issue of illegal Muslim migration from Bangladesh.
India’s eastern neighbor has been watching with apprehension the whole issue of NRC and earlier references to it brought forth the response that NRC was a court driven exercise and an internal matter for India.
But Bangladesh is now raising the pitch, as is clear from what transpired during the recent meeting in New York between the two prime ministers, Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi. The Indian external affairs ministry’s read-out of the meeting made no mention of the NRC issue being raised but Bangladesh media reports, quoting the country’s foreign minister, said the Bangladesh prime minister had “raised the NRC issue saying that it has become a matter of great concern.” Modi had told her that there “will be no impact on Bangladesh and there is no need to be worried about it.”
Sheikh Hasina also told the Voice of America in an interview, “He (Modi) told me that they have no plan to send them (illegal migrants) back.” If relations with Bangladesh are adversely affected by this issue then it will impact India’s security environment. It already has one large hostile neighbor Pakistan and relations with China, a large and powerful neighbor, remain delicately poised.
Overall, there is a sharp contrast between the attitude and pronouncements of two Indian leaders. Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, has reportedly told a closed door meeting of the functionaries of the RSS and its affiliates that not a single Hindu will have to leave this country. This goes with seeing India as a Hindu rashtra.
On the other hand Modi has taken the lead in globally observing the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi who laid great store by a plural India and Hindu Muslim amity. In a signed article in the New York Times, Modi has written that Gandhi “envisioned Indian nationalism as one that was never narrow or exclusive but one that worked for the service of humanity.” He ended the piece by referring to Gandhi’s “favourite hymn, ‘Vaishnava Jana To’, which says that a true human is one who feels the pain of others, removes misery and is never arrogant.”Subir Roy is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal.The Great Diwali Discount!
Unlock 75% more savings this festive season. Get Moneycontrol Pro for a year for Rs 289 only.
Coupon code: DIWALI. Offer valid till 10th November, 2019 .