THE New York Times headlined an op-ed Saturday on the ongoing protests around Modi government’s new Citizenship law (CAA) as the “Rediscovery of A Republic”, premised on the belief that the law created a stratified citizenship based on religion – an anathema according to India’s constitution. The authors from Yale and Cambridge reinforce the trope of CAA possibly becoming a tool to deny rights to existing citizens of India in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
From the protesters in the bylanes of Seelampur in Delhi to the editors in the eighth avenue office of NYT in New York, selective picking and outright mistruth has guided the narrative joined in their hearts and minds with an objective to see the back of Narendra Modi from South Block. While the political position of the opponents is a democratic entitlement, the way subterfuge has been taken of dishonesty – CAA gives citizenship, does not take it away from anyone – has ended up opening fissures that make one wonder if we need to revisit the post-independence secularism-construct itself?
It is exactly a century to the year that the Ali brothers had launched the Khilafat movement in British India for the restoration of the Ottoman Caliphate dismantled by the victors after the first world war in 1919. India’s history text-books white wash that period of independence movement as an example of Hindu-Muslim unity, but it is a harsh truth that Khilafat was essentially a pan-Islamist movement with narrow religious agenda. Mahatma Gandhi’s attempt to co-opt the great mass of Muslims of India into the freedom struggle with his Non-Cooperation Movement had some disastrous consequences, unbottling a genie of separatism that became a handle in the hands of Jinnah leading to partition.
This first general election held in 1937 under the Government of India Act, 1935, returned the Muslim League as the chief party of the community, catapulting Jinnah as the sole spokesperson of the Muslims of India. Congress did not win a single Muslim seat in the central provinces – the region that now constitutes Uttar Pradesh – contested under the principle of separate electorates. The League won 29 of the 35 in UP, picking 109 from 187 across the country. In the second election that was held just ahead of independence in 1946, the League returned with even bigger Muslim mandate, cornering 88 per cent of the community’s vote, thus legitimizing break up of India by the British.
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru explaining the victory of Muslim League in the 1937 elections in the region that now constitutes Uttar Pradesh to Rajendra Prasad in a letter of July 21, 1937, had this to say: “We lost the election for two reasons: 1. The cry of Islam in danger. And 2. Bribery on an extensive scale (of the Muslim voters). People were made to take the oath of Qoran. This solid block of votes went wholly against us almost without a single exception.” Now, if Islam was in danger in India that was under the leadership of Nehru and Gandhi, do you take this cry seriously when the same charge is made under Modi and Shah? Please make your own judgement.
Unfortunately, the same sentiment has continued to challenge India’s nationalism project, rearing its head again for example in the mid-1950s as the Muslim community leadership protested the Nehru government’s reform of civil laws – again in the name of Islam. Nehru had to settle for the Hindu Codes, sowing the seeds of Uniform Civil Code as a political mission for the Hindu right. The Muslim clergy again exercised that veto in 1985-86 in the Shah Bano case, making the Rajiv Gandhi government compromise on the same ‘secular ethos’ in the name of which protesters in Jamia Nagar and Seelampur are seeking to block the CAA today. Only that now, like then, the narrow agenda is to push the community’s interests using the shield of secularism.
Faced with the prospects of mass rioting, the Modi government has made a climb down, but the entire flareup could have been avoided in the first instance with some proactive handling on two fronts – communication and timing. The messaging has been post-facto, not anticipating crisis. It can be argued that a majority of the protesters were misled into sentiment of fear for want of adequate communication outreach by the government. Plus, as it turns out, the CAA has a few loopholes that have left it open to manipulation by political opponents - and a possible judicial filibuster. For one, the semantics could have been better. Instead of citizenship law, if it was framed as a refugee law targeted at the immediate neighbourhood it would have managed a wider acceptance beyond the core constituency of the Modi government. Two, it could have been more carefully worded to pass judicial scrutiny as has been suggested by constitutional experts like Subhash Kashyap. Third, the timing of announcement of the NRC by Home Minister Amit Shah could have been better planned. Living your moment of swagger is one thing, living to make history is another. As the law stands, the application of CAA to the limited number of refugees with the December 2014 cut-off would have been completed over next six months, giving ample time to the government to roll out the NRC post the census exercise next year, sparing the Modi government the charge of intent, and the nation a further cleavage of Muslim sentiment, howsoever motivated.