The battle for India’s soul | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 28, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:48 AM, February 28, 2020

The battle for India’s soul

It couldn't have been less propitious a time for US President Donald Trump to arrive in Delhi on the final leg of his 36-hour visit to India. Some parts of Delhi were burning as riots broke out in northeast Delhi. As of February 27, the figure of death has reached 35 and several hundred suffered serious injury. The fire was further stoked by incendiary speeches of some BJP functionaries, so much so that the gravity of the situation has caused even the Delhi High Court to express fear that the situation in the capital might degenerate to another 1984-like situation (which saw bloody anti-Sikh riots) if it is not handled with judicious alacrity.    

In fact, in the face of the alleged inaction of the central government and the police looking up to the government for direction, the Delhi High Court has taken upon itself to issue certain operating instructions, like to the police to lodge FIR against four BJP leaders for making hate speeches. Reportedly, police arrived on the scene well after the violence had begun and many people had already died—which is reminiscent of police action and reaction or lack of it during the 2002 Gujarat riots—waiting for the Chief Minster's instructions as to where to go and where not to. Allegedly, police action in this instance, as in Gujarat, was dictated by an institutional communal bias.   

And all this because of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), India's new citizenship law, passed in December 2019, which came on the heels of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam with the ostensible aim of cracking down on "illegal immigration." The CAA makes religion the benchmark for determining the basis for granting Indian citizenship. Not surprisingly, the issue has galvanised the people of India as reflected in the demonstrations and protests in Delhi and in other parts of the country.

The citizenship act is exclusivist in nature as it grants amnesty to peoples of six religions who had entered India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan before 2015, and who may not have the necessary papers. The sticking point is that Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, and Parsi settlers are not needed to be subjected to verification through the citizenship authentication process that the NRC and NPR (National Population Register) obligate—but Muslims and atheists are.   

BJP has been steadfast in its effort to turn India into a Hindu state with the RSS's active support on the ground through the "goraksha"and the anti-love jihad programme, among other instruments of violence and intimidation against the Muslim minorities. In fact, the issue of secularism, Hindutva and Hindu nationalism has been central to the BJP philosophy. It has been the party's singular political objective, and has been so since the party won, for the very first time, two parliamentary seats in 1984. The us-versus-them philosophy, marginalisation of minority religions and even the lower castes, the resurrected Golwalkar-Savarkar slogan of India being for Hindus only, and the shrinking of religious space for the Muslims compel many to suggest that the Hindu right has never been more enfranchised at every level of government than now. 

Some Indians wonder whether, in the present context, 1947 appears with a new meaning. One also wonders whether BJP's Hindutva policy is proving the protagonists of the Two-Nation Theory, which led to the partition of India, right. It appears after all that the breakup of the subcontinent on religious grounds may not have been without justification. One also wonders whether the BJP's policy of "India for Hindus only" demonstrates the prescience of those Muslim leaders that had called for two states for two nations.  

One cannot say for certain who is having the last laugh. Is it the British who left India truncated beyond repair, and open to further truncation? The British had all the reasons to sneer at us for having to let go of the jewel in their crown. Were it not for the Second World War—or, to be exact, for the fact that the war had reached the doorsteps of India with the fall of Singapore in early 1942, with Burma next in line, enhancing the strategic relevance of India—Churchill may have never agreed to consider self-rule for India. In the end, a divided India turned out to be a weakened India, and the British had expected the two divided parts of their largest colony to look up to them for survival.

It couldn't have been Gandhi who had never relented in his opposition to the partition of the country. It is also true that Nehru's intransigence (and the Congress' rejection of the Cabinet Mission Plan, because the Muslim League had been given disproportionate representation in the plan) contributed to the scuttling of any prospect of a constitutional arrangement that would have given the Muslims the right to self-determination within an undivided India. The Muslim League first approved the plan; but when Congress declared that it could change the scheme through its majority in the Constituent Assembly, it rejected it. Even moderate minds could not prevail. Rajagopalachari's proposal that Congress should recognise Muslim separation in some form for the purpose of negotiation did not resonate with either Nehru or the Congress.

History records that Jinnah at the beginning was not serious about the Lahore Resolution, and to Jinnah, an Islamic state was an anathema as much as pronouncing it publicly was politically incorrect. This has been substantiated by the accounts of one of his very close associates.

In fact, the authorship of the Two-Nation Theory has been wrongly attributed to Jinnah, who at best appropriated it from prominent Hindu nationalists, including from not only Savarkar's enunciation of what a modern India should be, but he and some of the leaders of Muslim League borrowed the idea from the words, actions and policies of Hindu social and political leaders that preceded them by almost half a century. Savarkar, his supporters argue, was merely stating the reality and had never suggested that the country should be divided along communal lines. But an eminent scholar and politician argues that "Savarkar said a Hindu was somebody for whom India was his pitrabhumi, the land of his ancestors, and his punya bhumi, his holy land. So, by that definition, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains filled both the categories but Muslims and Christians did not, and that Hindutva explicitly rejected the Constitution."

As matters stand today, India is going through a serious turmoil. The syncretic character of the society is threatened by the attempt to transform a secular state into a Hindu majoritarian country. And there is a battle on to regain India's soul as the protests show. Indians are asking whether a government that can't understand India can hope to govern it. But an even more important question is whether India's soul can be regained in the face of—as one commentator puts it—its historic identity being challenged by its own leaders.


Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd) is a former Associate Editor of The Daily Star.


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