Introduction of a religious test for citizenship signals a u-turn from our Constitutional ideals and independence movement
Last Updated at December 10, 2019
Jinnah’s two-nation theory lay discredited with the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. With the Citizenship Amendment Bill, the BJP government has given it a new lease of life
Abdus Salam was a brilliant Physicist, a rare prodigy who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. He was born in 1929 in Punjab in what was then undivided India. Salam can also be considered the father of Pakistan’s nuclear and space programs, which he anchored till he left the country, in protest. Salam was a devout Muslim of the Ahmadi sect. In 1974, the Bhutto government in Pakistan pushed through the Parliament a resolution that declared Ahmadis to be non-Muslim. He was never to return to Pakistan, his homeland. By every account, Salam was a patriot. He returned only after his death when he was buried next to his parents. The epitaph on his grave read, “the first Muslim Nobel laureate”. The epitaph was defaced and the word ‘Muslim’ scratched off. The Pakistani constitution bars Ahmadis from identifying as Muslims and denies other religious rights to the community.
Salam’s story is one of the less tragic ones from the Ahmadi community in Pakistan. Ahmadis have been lynched, their mosques bombed (they are also barred from calling them mosques) and massacres have taken place across Pakistan. The minuscule community (estimated to be less than 2 per cent of Pakistan’s population) fulfills every criteria to be recognised as a persecuted minority which is discriminated against by state sanction.
Last night the Lok Sabha passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill with 311 votes in favour and 80 against. This comes within a fortnight of Constitution Day which is celebrated every 26 November. The Constitution was adopted by the Constituent Assembly on 26 November, 1949 and came into effect on 26 January, 1950. The conception of India as a modern, secular, liberal republic was one of the greatest national experiments undertaken in history. It is an experiment that not only sought to break the shackles of colonial slavery but also sought to move on from a feudal past. It was the culmination of an enlightened independence movement led by giants who decided that it would be a constitutional republic that wouldn’t differentiate on the basis of faith. The Constitution doesn’t create a perfect republic by just existing, it doesn’t even ensure freedom from discrimination but it offers a protection and provides an ideal for us citizens to strive for. For the Republic of India, the Constitution is the lodestar.
On December 9, 2019, the Parliament took the first u-turn from this ideal. The Citizenship Amendment Bill has introduced a religious test for Indian citizenship. A religious test that screams that only Muslims aren’t welcome.
In an essay, Secular Common Sense, Mukul Kesavan quotes Isaiah Berlin who says that all thinkers are either hedgehogs or foxes. “The hedgehog had one big idea with which he ordered the world while the fox had a series of insights that explained it.”
The BJP is a hedgehog, writes Kesavan, possessed by a single idea (Hindutva), and a single goal (Hindu hegemony). The Citizenship Amendment Bill emanates from this hedgehog’s idea of a Hindu Rashtra. This is not a new debate but one that had been conclusively settled in 1947 with the last nail being hammered in 1950 with Constitution coming into force. While Jinnah’s Muslim League sought to create a country based on an exclusionary principle in the form of Pakistan and succeeded, the RSS and ideologues like Savarkar lost to the Congress in India. With its stewardship of the independence movement, Congress leadership that included Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Azad refused to cast India in the mirror image of Pakistan.
If it was Iqbal arguing the two-nation theory in Allahabad in 1930, it was Savarkar propagating this theory of a Hindu nation in his book Essentials of Hindutva in 1923. The RSS’s absence from India’s independence movement however came in the way of melding this thought of Hindutva with the Indian Constitution. Better men and women debated for two years in the constituent assembly and envisioned a modern nation that would celebrate its diversity and wouldn’t discriminate. They gave it a Constitution with Article 14 that prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, gender, caste or place of birth. The idea of a Hindu Pakistan was expressly rejected.
With its dominance of Indian politics in this decade, the BJP seeks to reopen this settled debate. It seeks to litigate the past. While tabling the bill in the Lok Sabha the home minister even blamed the Congress for having accepted the partition of the country on communal lines in 1947. He can perhaps take a look at Ram Manohar Lohia’s book Guilty Men of India’s Partition to read about the role played by Hindu right in enabling partition. “The opposition of fanatical Hinduism to partition did not and could not make any sense, for one of the forces that partitioned the country was precisely this Hindu fanaticism. It was like the murderer recoiling from his crime, after it had been done,” wrote Lohia.
Or the home minister could read one of Sardar Patel’s speeches where he says, “It is good that we have agreed to partition in spite of all its evils; I have never repented my agreeing to partition. From the experience of one year of joint administration when we have not agreed to partition, I know we would have erred grievously and repented if we had not agreed. It would have resulted in a partition not into two countries but into several bits.” The founding fathers accepted partition but rejected the two-nation theory. And the device they chose to express this rejection was the creation of a modern, plural, liberal republic.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill also demonstrates the difference between political parties. It exposes how ludicrous the nihilistic argument that equates all political parties is. With this move the BJP is pushing its ideology forward from a position of political strength. There are other parties that have taken a stand against this transparently unconstitutional step. Often parties take politically expedient positions that may blur the difference but on a matter as fundamental as this, the political spectrum has revealed its colours and the difference is stark.
On its own the CAB is dangerous in an academic way but in step with the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) it becomes incendiary. At the first step, NRIC simply seeks to distinguish between people who can prove they are Indian citizens and those who can’t. But CAB then provides non-Muslims amongst those who can’t a chance to become Indian citizens. Only Muslims, who may have been born in India or have lived here for decades will be left out. This will be a success of the two-nation theory propounded by Jinnah and the Muslim League before independence.
When Salam won the Nobel Prize in 1979, he requested the Indian government to locate a teacher who had taught him Mathematics in college in Lahore. Two years later, he visited Prof. Anilendra Ganguly in South Kolkata. Prof Ganguly lay on bed as Salam put his medal in his hands and said, “This is your prize, Sir. It’s not mine.” If Salam was alive today, he would’ve been excluded from the purview of CAB.