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In India it's still dīvide et imperā

"We the people," starts the preamble to the Indian Constitution, a phrase with instant resonance for many. But who exactly are the 'people' as a new Citizenship (Amendment) Bill attempts to refashion citizenship by stealth?

By VIJAY VERGHESE
Hong Kong, June 2018

Big Indian smiles - but they may disappear in all the machinations to make the country saffron

That Indian smile may be endangered if attempts to change citizenship by stealth continue in a land where the phrase 'unity in diversity' has been a badge of honour

CITIZENSHIP – a concept first fostered by the ancient Greeks before being codified into law by the Romans – is a hugely emotive, often misunderstood, subject that has arguably sparked more rows, riots, and religious wars than any other modern term. Dreams and persecution have been its twin drivers, be it Syrians fleeing to Europe, battered Rohingyas seeking a home, Latin Americans taking their chances with the Trump ‘wall’, boat people in Australia, or Bangladeshi labour crossing into India in search of work.

It is the bedrock of constitutions. ‘We the people,’ as the US preamble begins, is an oft-quoted phrase, drawing its strength from the collective voice of the citizenry. The preamble to the Indian constitution, which promises all citizens liberty, equality, and fraternity, draws similar inspiration from ‘we the people’ in whom ultimate power is vested.

Vijay Verghese

Vijay Verghese


The bill reaches out to ‘illegal migrants’ of minority faiths – Hindus, Christians, Buddhist, Jains, and Parsis – from neighbouring Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, making them eligible for Indian citizenship. Yet in all this good neighbourliness there is one egregious omission – Muslims

In India, where political discussion has taken an aggressively saffron turn, Hindutva proponents have declared the subcontinent the ‘Land of the Hindus’, drawing from the murky mists of myth and legend, if not factual history, to stake their claim. Some of the wonders of the new India border on farce, like the bold declaration that orbiting satellites and the Internet existed at the time of the Mahabharata, a moral treatise concerned more with the frailties of human nature than the wonders of WiFi. The Supreme Court has opposed nationwide bans on cow slaughter but this has not prevented so-called gau rakshak (cow protector) vigilantes from lynching those that attract their ire, often Muslims and lower castes. Unfortunately for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) juggernaut, which still commands a popular if fraying mandate, a Hindu homeland is not something the Constitution (or the law of the land) sets down, condones or accepts.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, now before a joint parliamentary committee, has sparked a furore, introducing by stealth what most sensible Indians oppose – another 'partition' of India. They are right to see this as the thin end of the wedge. Why? After all, the bill reaches out to ‘illegal migrants’ of minority faiths – Hindus, Christians, Buddhist, Jains, and Parsis – from neighbouring Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, making them eligible for Indian citizenship. Yet in all this good neighbourliness there is one egregious omission – Muslims (who form about 15 percent of the Indian population). Unseen below the iceberg is a rather unsubtle attempt to acquire and shape a grateful non-Muslim vote bank.

So who is an Indian? It is worth looking afresh at the fundamentals of Indian citizenship as envisaged by the architects of the Indian constitution.

The British Raj set sail on 15 August 1947 but not before a violent amputation of Muslim Pakistan, in great measure a consequence of the divide-and-rule machinations of the colonial administration and not a natural-born aspiration. With the freshly minted horrors of Partition heavy in the air, the jury was still out on the contours of the new citizenship. King George VI remained the head of state and, awkwardly, the erstwhile Viceroy Louis Mountbatten stayed on a full year as the first governor general of India while British officers (owing their allegiance to the crown while purportedly reporting to the dominion governments) remained in command of the Indian and Pakistani armies.

It was under their watch that Pakistan orchestrated the lashkar Pasthun tribesmen invasion of Kashmir on or around 20 October 1947. A vigorous Indian response to the invasion (the Maharajah of Jammu & Kashmir having signed a formal ‘instrument of accession’ in India’s favour on 26 October, 1947) was stymied by the army chiefs who conveniently cited a ‘stand-down’ order preventing British officers facing off against each other. Despite an unambiguous UN demand for the withdrawal of tribal irregulars and Pakistani forces – which went unheeded – a stalemate ensued creating a sore that has festered ever since with both sides invoking the threat of a Hindu India or a Muslim Pakistan to rally political support for assorted misadventures. The mutual distrust has only grown over time resulting in a convenient reservoir of hate to be exploited at any moment. In backroom manoeuvring at the time of independence it was clear the UK’s desire for a frontline buffer state against Russia that could also help win over a troubled Islamic Middle East outweighed Indian legal concerns.

At the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in London as late as October 1948, a newly independent India helmed by Jawaharlal Nehru was still debating the citizenship issue. Talk was intense, if muddled, partly over the issue of dual nationality (to the Commonwealth) and links to the British monarchy. According to a November 1948 report in the New York Times, “Pandit Nehru made it clear… that this matter must await the passage of the constitution making India a sovereign independent republic.”

The framers of the Indian constitution were clear that the country would be based on impartial laws for all and not on a theocratic model as in Pakistan. They never entertained the notion that India was a Hindu state to mirror or balance a Muslim Pakistan

As it turned out, Indians did not need to sing ‘God save the King’ for much longer as the republic was constituted on 26 January 1950, eventually going through various amendments to become the ‘sovereign socialist secular democratic republic’ of today guaranteeing to all its citizens justice, liberty, equality and fraternity ‘assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation.’

The words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ were added to the preamble in the controversial 42nd amendment in 1976 but from its inception, the framers of the Indian constitution were clear that the country would be based on impartial laws for all and not on a theocratic model as in Pakistan. They never entertained the notion that India was a Hindu state to mirror or balance a Muslim Pakistan. India was for all its citizens regardless of caste, colour, or creed. This was the vision of Gandhi, Nehru, Sardar Patel, and B R Ambedkar.

Nehru’s moving address to the Indian parliament at the stroke of midnight of 14th August 1947 is famously quoted as India’s ‘tryst with destiny’. Yet its more tangible and enduring lines came at the very end: ‘We are citizens of a great country... All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.’
 
An irksome crimp in the unfolding saffron script, Nehru, and Mahatma Gandhi have now been jettisoned by the BJP party apparatchik as well as its khaki-clad storm troopers who exercise with bamboo batons in ritual demonstrations of discipline, vitality, and might. The BJP has resurrected Sardar Patel the first home minister as a forgotten voice, though the sardar was vocal enough in his criticism of the RSS and BJP forerunners. In his own words: 'We are building a nation and we are laying the foundations of One Nation, and those who choose to divide again and sow the seeds of disruption will have no place, no quarter, here, and I must say that plainly enough.'

Congress parliamentarian and author Shashi Tharoor points out, ‘The Indian idea is that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, colour, conviction, culture, cuisine, costume and custom, and still rally around a consensus… The exclusion of the Muslim community and persons who do not identify with a particular faith from the list of communities which can aspire for Indian citizenship under this present bill is a gross transgression of the idea of India...’

The Muslim issue in India has long been a thorny subject. Amidst the frisson of dark suspicions and divided loyalties post independence arguments were raging on the nature of citizenship. The Constituent Assembly Debate on 11 August 1949 was highly emotive as the conclave weighed the merits of articles pertaining to citizenship of India – Article 6 (enabling Hindus from Pakistan to migrate to India) and the sensible but to some, incendiary, Article 7 (permitting Muslims and those of other faiths to return to India after they had left for Pakistan).

With Hindutva ideas insidiously slow-dripped into mainstream politics, media, entertainment and education, vote bank calculations have come to the fore. A Hindu homeland is no longer the stuff of mirthful myth but modern math. It is politics at its most cynical

Jaspat Roy Kapoor argued vehemently that ‘once a person has migrated to Pakistan and transferred his loyalty from India to Pakistan, his migration is complete.’ This was firmly countered by others like R K Sidhwa, who said: ‘Coming to the so-called obnoxious clause… It is not a question of Mussalmans; there are hundreds of thousands of Parsis and Christians today in Pakistan who may like to come back – why should you close the door against them?’ The latter argument won out in the final Constitution that came into force five months later.

The BJP's move to emulate Israel’s Law of Return (that guarantees all Jews the right to settle in a Jewish homeland) is both fanciful and at odds with its 2003 stand blocking the 213 Bangladeshis who had been pushed out by force by the Bangladesh Rifles into no-man’s land with the brazen demand that India accept them. BJP Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani had at the time stated unambiguously, ‘No country in the world accepts illegal migrants.’ Today the same party is strenuously fighting to evict ragged, homeless, Rohingya refugees. Altruism?

More than a decade later with Hindutva ideas insidiously slow-dripped into mainstream politics, media, entertainment and education, vote bank calculations have come to the fore. A Hindu homeland is no longer the stuff of mirthful myth but modern math. It is politics at its most cynical. Yet simply put, the Bill, for all its attempts to pluck at pliant heartstrings – and a very useful tool it is for mobilising the mob – remains patently unconstitutional.

As B R Ambedkar – an ‘untouchable’ – who rose to be a premier reformer, jurist, and the key shaper of the Indian Constitution, famously put it, “I like the religion that teaches liberty, equality and fraternity.” That must be India's aim if it is to lift itself out of poverty and a religion-mired morass to liberate the energy and resourcefulness of its human capital in order to play a major role in world affairs as a mighty – and hopefully moral – crusader.

Vijay Verghese started out as a reporter for the Times of India, a national daily, in 1979. He moved to Bangkok and thence to Hong Kong in 1984 as editor and publisher of a range of news, business, travel and lifestyle publications including Business Traveller, HOLIDAY Asia, and Asian Business. He launched Dancing Wolf Media in 2002 and runs the online magazines SmartTravelAsia.com and AsianConversations.com when not dabbling in avatars, music and virtual guff.

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