The CAA, Muslim exclusion and the lens of the right

The issue of Muslim exclusion in the Citizenship (Amendment) Act needs to be seen in the broader context of right wing politics

March 23, 2024 12:08 am | Updated 07:57 am IST

In this September 1947 photo hundreds of Muslim refugees crowd on top a train leaving New Delhi for Pakistan. 

In this September 1947 photo hundreds of Muslim refugees crowd on top a train leaving New Delhi for Pakistan.  | Photo Credit: AP

Union Home Minister Amit Shah, while speaking at a conclave recently, gave two reasons, during the discussion, for the exclusion of Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh in the recently implemented Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019. The first is Partition and the second is that as these Muslim countries are officially Islamic states, the case of persecution against Muslims does not arise.

Partition and some truths

The argument that all Muslims are responsible for Partition is a fundamentally flawed one. Partition was a Muslim elite-driven project, mainly supported by Muslim landlords in North India. Among others, the Hindu right’s dream project, of a Hindu Rashtra (which was already taking institutional shape by the late 1920s) was a major trigger that caused alienation among the Muslim elites in addition to the colonial state’s divide and rule policy. It was not just some Muslim elites. The legendary southern leader Periyar championed Dravidistan as he was convinced that the political freedom that India’s nationalist elites, largely drawn from an upper caste background, were working for, would not bring genuine freedom to the oppressed and marginalised people of the South.

All about Citizenship Amendment Rules, 2024

The truth is that a vast majority of Indian Muslims were fiercely opposed to Partition and chose to stay back in India. Besides this, tall figures such as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Sheikh Abdullah, and many others including the religious leadership of Deoband were opposed to Partition.

The most decisive blow to Jinnah’s two-nation theory came from iconic secular Muslim leader Bangabandhu Mujibur Rahman, who gave leadership to the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. If the Hindu right seeks to justify Muslim exclusion owing to Partition, it needs to be blamed for deliberately failing to appreciate the resistance that Muslims launched against Partition and who have demonstrated their love for India with sacrifices since then. To put it bluntly, this argument of Partition as the basis for Muslim exclusion in the CAA 2019 reflects the Hindu right’s vengeance in the form of collective punishment to Muslims.

On top of it, a vast number of the Muslim masses and Muslim middle class remained confused on how to respond to the new situation arising out of the creation of Pakistan. According to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, when he learnt that the Muslim League was inciting all Muslim officials working in the Central Secretariat, New Delhi, to leave for Pakistan, he pushed the government of India to issue a circular that Muslims who would stay back in India would be given their rights. Azad’s effort was fully backed by Jawaharlal Nehru and Lord Mountbatten. As a result, 23,233 officers and sub-ordinate staff in the Central Secretariat who had opted to move to Pakistan changed their mind and applied to remain in India; of them, 19,676 personnel were retained. Similarly, another 16,090 Muslims who had applied to move to Pakistan, had left the job. Of them, 13,018 Muslims were re-employed when they changed their mind. This is just a small example to show the enormity of confusion the average Muslim was going through at the time of Partition.

The argument of persecution

There is truth in the Hindu right’s argument that religious minorities in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan experience enormous persecution. So do some Muslim sects such as the Ahmedias. Even the Nobel Prize winning Pakistani physicist, Professor Abdus Salam, was not spared due to his Ahmadi heritage. Indeed, some leadership of the Shia community considered the Pakistan project as Sunnistan and were fiercely opposed to it. Also, the argument that India’s so-called secular governments did not address this issue with urgency is also valid. In a nutshell, it is true that India was partitioned on religious lines but all Muslims cannot be blamed for it. Ayesha Jalal captures the complexity of Partition in a preface to her classic, The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan (1994) in the following words: “Partition of 1947 was no more than a partial solution to the minority problem in the sub-continent. The point has been made more poignant by the resurgence of communal tensions in India and repercussions in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Apart from targeting their own non-Muslim minorities, citizens of Pakistan and Bangladesh can merely look helplessly across borders at the plight of India’s Muslim minority under siege.”

In this unfolding national debate on the CAA, 2019, the most unfortunate intervention has been from the Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal. To abuse asylum seekers who are genuine victims of hardline theocratic politics as criminals is xenophobic. This is identical to depicting them as termites. It is perhaps the Aam Aadmi Party leader’s ambivalence over how to address the Muslim question and secularism issue that has encouraged him to resort to such xenophobic arguments.

The canvas of the right

This Muslim exclusion issue in the CAA 2019 needs to be seen in the broader context of the Hindu right’s ideological politics. The decision not to field Muslim candidates by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the witch hunt of madrasas particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Assam, the singling out of darghas and masjids for their legal status when combined with Muslim exclusion in the CAA 2019 has more to it than the context of Partition. What is unfolding, slowly and steadily, is a comprehensive ideological project of a de-Islamisation of India. And neither the secular political class nor Muslims have any well-crafted political response to it.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman is the author of the forthcoming book, Shikwa-e-Hind: The Political Future of Indian Muslims and teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi

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