To those with limited knowledge of South Asian politics and history, the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) might seem right at first glance: It seeks to expedite Indian citizenship for those refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who have taken shelter in India after escaping religious persecution in the neighbourhood.
Accepting refugees is a noble humanitarian cause – one which India has championed for generations, starting with the Tibetans. Yet, as countless commentators have pointed out, the CAA fails all logical tests of humanitarianism: It leaves out Muslim sects such as the Ahmadiyyas and Shias in Pakistan, or even rationalist bloggers in Bangladesh. It also turns a blind eye to Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka who have long been at India’s doorstep. Even more tellingly, it covers up the government’s mistreatment of the stateless Rohingyas.
Humanitarianism dictates that states provide an equal opportunity to all those who are persecuted, without valuing one life over another on the basis of identity. Any government that is serious about humanitarian concerns would extend asylum – or citizenship – to individuals based on a case-by-case assessment, rather than through a law which clubs them together in clumsy groups based on their name.
Supporters of the Act have argued that the law’s religious discrimination has its roots in the Partition of India. Speaking in Parliament, Home Minister Amit Shah said, “These three neighbouring countries are Muslim majority nations and Islam is enshrined in their constitutions. Hence, they (Muslims) cannot face religious persecution like other communities do.”
The argument that Muslims are not persecuted in these countries for their identity is demonstrably false, but it is consistent with the Hindu nationalist logic of Partition: that Partition created a Muslim state of Pakistan and a Hindu state of India. This narrative forms the basis of calls for a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ – a nation of, by and for the Hindus as a corollary to the Muslim state of Pakistan.
Yet, the logic of India as a Hindu corollary to Pakistan is ahistorical and a gross violation of India’s founding principles. Indeed, the creation of Pakistan was more a secession from the multicultural ideals of India’s freedom movement than just a partition of territory into two religious nations.
For decades, India’s freedom fighters stressed on the multicultural nature of their vision. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Hindus and Muslims are sons of the same soil of India.” When the Indian National Congress – the party of the freedom struggle and which had the largest reach and membership at the time – adopted its resolution of Purna Swaraj (or complete independence) in 1929, it did so in unequivocally universal terms, with no mention of religious conditions in its demand for human rights.
The movement for the creation of Pakistan, on the other hand, rejected these ideals and instead propounded the two-nation theory, arguing that Hindus and Muslims could not belong in the same nation. Starting from the 1920s, its ideologues began seceding from the larger national movement.
The demand for Pakistan did not, however, draw much popular support for several years; indeed, until the 1940s, it was no more than a fantasy of a section of the Muslim aristocratic class. Several Muslim organisations and leaders spoke out against the demand, including the All-India Azad Muslim Conference and the redoubtable Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan.
The Muslim League – the principal party of those who sought Pakistan – suffered heavy electoral losses year after year. As late as in the elections of 1936-37, it drew a blank in Sind and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). In Bengal, it won less than a third of the seats reserved for Muslims. In all, the Muslim League garnered less than 5% of the Muslim vote across the country.
When Pakistan was finally created, it was not through the force of ballots, but through the force of fear and violence. The dubious nature of the two-nation theory lies in the fact that Muslims were so well integrated across the entire geography of undivided India that, for several years after independence, India had more Muslims than Pakistan, despite forced mass migration.
In the aftermath of independence, Pakistan proclaimed itself an Islamic Republic, in line with its values of religious nationalism. Yet, India did not become the Hindu Republic of India, staying true instead to the multicultural values of the larger freedom movement.
There was, however, some dissent in the ranks. In 1937, the proponents of Pakistan received ideological support from their direct counterparts of Hindu nationalism – the Hindu Mahasabha. That year, its president said, “India cannot be assumed today to be a unitarian and homogeneous nation; but on the contrary, there are two nations in the main, the Hindus and the Moslems, in India.” (Shortly thereafter, when the Indian National Congress quit the provincial governments, boycotted British state institutions and later launched the ‘Quit India’ movement, the Hindu Mahasabha formed coalition governments with the Muslim League in Sindh, NWFP and Bengal).
The Hindu nationalists were, however, not as successful as the Muslim League and its leaders could not assert themselves in defining the Indian republic on religious terms. For two generations after independence – most notably including the generation that suffered Partition directly – Indians continued to reject Hindu nationalism at the ballot box.
That is now changing: The ruling political ideology in India has now pledged allegiance to the ideals of Pakistan – that Hindus and Muslims belong in two separate nations, or that (as with the Citizenship Amendment Act), India should at least exclude whatever identities Pakistan claims to include.
If the secession of Pakistan turned one part of the subcontinent into a religious nation, the ongoing current of Hindu nationalism is turning the other part into its Hindu reflection. This would be the completion of Partition – and a triumph of those who spearheaded the secession of Pakistan from the Indian freedom movement.
As Shashi Tharoor wrote recently, “That was a partition of India’s soil; this has become a partition of India’s soul.”