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Understanding the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019

Wholly subordinated to the majoritarian nation

The NRC-CAB combine seeks the reconstitution of Indian nationhood on the lines of V.D. Savarkar’s idea

December 11, 2019 12:02 am | Updated December 20, 2019 10:22 am IST

“With India for their basis of operation, for their Fatherland and for their Holyland… bound together by ties of a common blood and common culture (Hindus) can dictate their terms to the whole world.” These words scratched by V.D. Savarkar on the walls of a prison, and published in 1923 as a book that defined Hindutva, are roughly 100 years old.

Political boundaries are artificial and imagined barriers to human movement. Most violence in the modern history of humankind emanated from attempts to enforce boundaries that purportedly protect citizens and eject aliens. The Holocaust and the Palestinian dispossession are two egregious examples. Ascribing, and claiming legitimacy for a particular community-territory link is a political project, and Savarkar did this with remarkable clarity.

During the Second World War, he exhorted Hindus to join the British Army, not to fight fascism, but to prepare for the civil war with Muslims that he thought was inevitable. Muslims and Christians could never be loyal citizens, he argued. He wrote, “The tie of a common Holyland has at times proven stronger than the claims of a Motherland… Look at the Mohammedans. Mecca to them is a sterner reality than Delhi or Agra.” The idea that nation is not territorial, but cultural, was the core of Savarkar’s treatise. Though the notion of a Holyland is emphasised, it is only “a basis of operation” to dictate terms to the rest of the world. Not all those who are residents are a part of the nation, and not all outside the territory are outside the nation. India’s founding fathers and public opinion overwhelmingly rejected this notion at the time of Independence, but an Islamic mirror image of it was born into reality as Pakistan.

Rooted and true

Though a group of sedate political experts were hallucinating a delink between Narendra Modi and Hindutva in 2014, he was clear in his promises and has been true to them in government. The non-territorial notion of citizenship and nationhood, the core of Hindutva, was reiterated in the 2014 manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party, foretelling the amendment to the Citizenship Act, which was passed by the Lok Sabha on December 9. “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here,” the manifesto said. “The NRIs [Non-Resident Indians], PIOs [Person of Indian origin] and professionals settled abroad are a vast reservoir to articulate the national interests and affairs globally. This resource will be harnessed for strengthening Brand India,” the manifesto foretold Mr. Modi’s diaspora politics.

Talking to the Indian diaspora in London on November 13, 2015, Mr. Modi said: “Our relations are based on the ties of our blood, not on the colour of our passports. All the rights of Narendra Modi has, you do too...” While the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 (CAB) seeks to enact as law the notion of India as the home for all Hindus anywhere, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) seeks to weed out those who are already in the territory but are not part of the nation, as per Savarkar’s doctrine, echoed in numerous resolutions and statements of the BJP and its forebear, the Jan Sangh. For a non-Muslim excluded from the NRC, there could be a route to citizenship once CAB is law. This distinction between “infiltrators” and “refugees” that Home Minister Amit Shah made during the debate on CAB in the Lok Sabha was made by Mr. Modi during the 2014 campaign. As Mr. Shah told Parliament, nobody can complain of being blindsided by the government on CAB — it was part of the BJP’s agenda on which it sought a mandate in 2014 and 2019.

The outlines

If Muslims were not legitimate citizens of the nation, where would they go? While he would not accept them as part of the Hindu nation, Savarkar would also not concede to the demand for a separate country for them and he fiercely opposed the demand for Pakistan. It was left to M.S. Golwalkar of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, with whom Savarkar had a hostile relationship, to spell out clearly what non-Hindus were supposed to do. They “... may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment — not even citizen’s rights.” When India debates what happens to those who will not be able to prove their citizenship under the NRC, and are unable to seek citizenship under CAB, this is the future envisaged for them in the Hindutva notion.

This understanding of nationhood and citizenship is reflected in the government’s move to end the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir, and demote and divide the region into two Union Territories. Kashmiris, far from aspiring for autonomy and enjoying special protection of their cultural identity, are now reduced to seeking the restoration of basic citizenship rights and statehood; as and when they are allowed to speak, that is. Far from holding a veto on Indian politics as the BJP had accused them of for decades, Muslims would be seeking to restore their voting rights, if unable to meet the onerous requirement to be listed in the NRC. The shallowness and duplicity of the government’s claim that the scrapping of the special status of J&K was about uncompromising uniformity of laws across the country stands exposed in CAB, that continues to provide special protection to the cultural rights of several communities. Mr. Shah also made the reassurance during the debate that Article 371 which protects the cultural integrity of many regions, would “never be altered”. So, it is not a matter of principle for the government that no community shall be granted special cultural rights; it is only that Muslims will not be allowed that.

The U.S. and a parallel

The ongoing attempts in India to remake itself have striking parallels in the political project of U.S. President Donald Trump. In January 2017, soon after taking over, Mr. Trump ordered a religious test for admission to the U.S. Through an executive order he banned travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entry. The order also a had a provision, echoing the Modi government’s CAB, which was then pending in Parliament. The President ordered to “prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality”. This would have excluded Muslims from Muslim-majority countries — the exact intent of the CAB. The American judiciary stalled the implementation of the order, and a third version of the travel ban that was finally upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2018 did not have the above provision. Two non-Muslim countries were included in the amended list of countries from where travellers are banned. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the principle that there cannot be a bar on entry based on religious categories, though it allowed the third iteration of the Presidential order to stand.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, speaking for the minority in the 5-4 judgment said the Presidential order — even the revised one — was discriminatory and unconstitutional. She held that a “reasonable observer” would view the executive action “as motivated by animus against Muslims”, and termed the majority decision as a repetition of the past mistake of upholding the Japanese American internment camps in 1944. During the Second World War, when Savarkar was recruiting future soldiers to deal with the internal enemies, Franklin D. Roosevelt, hailed as a progressive President, was ordering the internment of thousands of American citizens of Japanese origin. That past appears to be returning, not as a haunting nightmare as it should be, but heralded as the promised glorious future. What makes Hindu majoritarianism more effective is its doctrinaire legacy, supported by texts and enforced by a quasi-military cadre.

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