Nagging worry for largest minority community

If we desire a society that is democratic, then democracy must become a means as well as an end,” said Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist

A L I ChouguleUpdated: Tuesday, December 17, 2019, 08:51 AM IST

“If we desire a society of peace, then we cannot achieve such a society through violence. If we desire a society without discrimination, then we must not discriminate against anyone in the process of building this society.

If we desire a society that is democratic, then democracy must become a means as well as an end,” said Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist, a close adviser to Martin Luther King and one of the most influential and effective organisers of the civil rights movement in America in the 1950s and 1960s.

Non-violence was indeed the means employed by Mahatma Gandhi to achieve independence for India and build a society where people could live, co-exist and prosper peacefully. Paradoxically, it was violence that killed the Mahatma.

The founding fathers laid the foundation of India’s democracy on the principle of equality and non-discrimination, irrespective of caste, creed, class and religion.

But what we are witnessing now is an overwhelming desire on the part of the ruling dispensation to discriminate and whittle democratic and constitutional rights as means to achieve an end that bestows primacy to one religion. Ironically, they want to achieve this undemocratic objective through democratic means (parliament).

This has been a slow and steady process since 2014; but lack of numbers in the upper house of parliament was a major impediment to achieve the objective. However, after an overwhelming majority the BJP got in May 2019, the process has gathered tremendous pace, though the BJP is still short of majority in the Rajya Sabha.

But because it’s not far away from the majority mark and is able to garner support from smaller and regional ‘secular’ parties, which opportunistically side with the majority party in downright disregard to constitutional morality, contentious bills are being passed which, in some cases, violate fundamental rights.

Modi government’s first term was a mere trailer of the agenda that was in store for its second term. Having come to power with a bigger majority, it is now on course to implement its divisive policies to achieve the bigger goal of creating a ‘Hindu’ nation, a nation where even the ‘Hindu’ is defined from a narrow political prism and not from an inescapably diverse, inclusive and liberal prism. Here is a list of some of its most contentious decisions in less than six months of its second term.

Article 70 has been revoked and Kashmir is in a semi-permanent state of lockdown since August 5. But no one is talking about it and the Supreme Court (SC) began hearing the petitions challenging the revocation of Kashmir’s special status only last week.

Earlier on July 30, the triple talaq bill was passed, which is not only discriminatory but is viewed as a bill of pure spite than a necessary law. These developments are part of a narrative that is aimed at a radical change in the idea of India.

On November 9, the Ayodhya verdict came which surprisingly settled the title suit in favour of the Hindu litigants. The judgement, appreciative of faith, went beyond the domain of law and fell short in creating a sense of closure to more than 150 years old dispute.

Though the judgement left many questions unanswered, the muted and guarded response from Muslims was reflective of its goodwill as well as helplessness in an increasingly majoritarian polity. And now, it’s the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which is arbitrary in its classification and excludes Muslim migrants from three neighbouring countries from its ambit for citizenship.

All these developments are more radical than the Modi government’s first term and have been hailed by the prime minister and his party as ‘historic’. Next in line is the National Register for Citizenship which home minister Amit Shah has promised, now that CAB is in place to protect non-Muslims migrants.

For most people outside of Assam or the North-Eastern region, popularly known as the land of seven sisters, it is much easier to give their opinion on the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill and its impact. The passage of the bill in both houses of parliament last week has angered people in the North-East so much that its streets erupted in rage immediately.

The Bill has sparked similar violent response in parts of West Bengal. But for most people from rest of the country, it’s probably tougher to voice their opinion with clarity on CAB and its implications, because either they are unaware of the complexity of the problem it will lead to or they simply don’t care much about it. However, for Muslims it is a cause of concern and worry.

For a large number of non-Muslims, the message that emanated from the bill’s passage in parliament is loud and clear: India must be protected from the real or imagined threat of mass Muslim immigration.

But for Muslims, the CAB is not so much about protecting persecuted minorities in neighbouring countries but part of a larger design which defines India in majoritarian terms, which will eventually lead to their subjugation.

Since the Partition is still a highly debatable and divisive subject, in competitive electoral politics it is easy to blame a lot of things on the Partition and divide people on religious lines through flawed history, biased interpretation and inconsistent arguments.

It is a handy tool for the right-wing forces to browbeat and corner India’s largest minority community to accept its fate at the will of the majority community.

One nation, one law was the BJP’s catch-line to justify abrogation of Article 70 in August. Now four months later, that’s not the case because CAB exempts many parts of the North-East from its provisions. The terrible consequence of CAB is that for the first time in India, citizenship will be defined for some people on the basis of religion.

But the fundamental worry is that CAB undermines the very foundation of the republic that was based on the plural idea that also refuted the two-nation theory, which led to the creation of Pakistan.

Therefore, it not only violates the fundamental right to equality under Article 14 of the Constitution, but also negates the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of religion under Article 15. Many legal experts believe that CAB will not stand the test of judicial scrutiny.

In the coming weeks and months, the fight against CAB will shift to the SC which will have to decide whether the differential treatment of Muslims and others is constitutional, even if it is reasonable, and whether the law is in keeping with the basic structure of the Constitution.

The CAB is a consequence of NRC in Assam, which has created more fault-lines in the state than it has settled. Now, the government has promised to expand the NRC nation-wide, which is being perceived as a witch-hunt against Muslims, given that stringent documentation proof to prove ancestry was demanded for the Assam NRC.

If the same process is followed, one can imagine its consequences. It is why there is a sense of panic in the Muslim community about NRC in states ruled by the BJP or where the party is hoping to capture power, such as West Bengal.

The CAB along with NRC is the Muslim’s community big worry. In West Bengal it seems to be the BJP’s electoral strategy for 2021 assembly elections.

Whether and when it will be extended to rest of India remains to be seen. May be, it will be timed around 2024 general elections or it could become the BJP’s election promise in 2024.

The writer is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist.

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