WOULD Malala Yousafzai make the grade for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s high-octane promise of citizenship for a select few — a violent and divisive reality being breathed into life by the heavily disputed Citizenship Amendment Act? No, she wouldn’t (not that she craves Indian citizenship under Modi’s watch.) Malala — left for dead by men often shored up by the state — would be shut out, despite a near-fatal shooting by extremists. All on account of her identity as Muslim.
What about Junaid Hafeez? Wasn’t he handed the death sentence last week by a Pakistani court for alleged blasphemy? Barring an appeal, he would be hanged by the state, with private operators just as eager to put him to the sword. Junaid is one of a steady stream of intellectuals targeted by fellow Muslim adjuncts of the state and private zealots. It may not have any meaning for Modi, but Junaid, an erudite lecturer, was apparently targeted by extremists over an opening at the university where they wanted their own to be placed instead. Junaid’s gritty and tireless lawyer Rashid Rehman was brutally murdered days before Mr Modi became prime minister in May 2014. Fanatics threatened him for defending Junaid. The lawyer remained committed to his cause.
The former Punjab governor Salman Taseer’s murder is equally precariously placed against the poisoned chalice of the Indian citizenship law. His security guard gunned down Taseer for defending Aasia Bibi, a poor Christian woman accused of blasphemy. Aasia was convicted by a Pakistani court for a crime she denied committing. Luckily, she was freed by the Supreme Court, left the country with the help of well-meaning officials and now lives peacefully in Canada. Aasia stands ‘protected’ under Modi’s law of citizenship, extended only to Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and Zoroastrians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Taseer being Muslim, would fail to qualify.
The new laws are blatantly not about ‘helping people in distress’.
Adding insult to injury, Aatish Taseer, (his son with an Indian journalist) was stripped of his rights as a non-resident Indian recently. A New York-based journalist-author, Aatish had called Mr Modi out in a Time magazine cover story, a departure from his mother’s flattering write-ups. The debate surrounding Aatish losing his rights as a person of Indian descent could be elevated to one with a higher purpose though. Not discussed enough is that laws governing citizenship in India are pointedly patriarchal. Consider the fact that in the case of couples with mixed nationalities, it is the father’s origins that count for their offspring’s claim to citizenship in India, an abominably anti-women assertion, and one that’s worth questioning.
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Bangladesh Muslims are excluded from India’s promised citizenship bonanza. That’s the nature of the communal beast. Bangladesh has had its share of fine people falling to violence inflicted by religious extremists. India says it wants to help. However, if the survivor happens to be Asif Mohiuddin, a self-described ‘militant atheist’, what then? Asif was stabbed viciously by bigots but he survived. Ahmed Rajib Haider’s body, on the other hand, was found mutilated in Dhaka, a victim of Islami Chhatra Shibir, a students’ front of the country’s Jamaat-i-Islami. On Feb 26, 2015, Dr Avijit Roy, ostensibly a Hindu, and his wife Bonya Ahmed, apparently a Muslim, both US citizens, were attacked with machetes. Roy died but his wife survived. Another oddity in Modi’s mission for those that need to be saved from persecution are the Ahmedis of Pakistan. They are missing from the Indian list even though Pakistan doesn’t regard them as Muslims.
Hazaras in Afghanistan and the Rohingya in Myanmar abutting north-eastern India are another set of people who belong to the Muslim faith, are persecuted, and denied equality before the new Indian law because of how they identify. While it was Nehru who gave sanctuary to Tibetan Buddhists fleeing communist rule in China, Mr Modi is wont to take credit for it. What he won’t do is speak up for the Muslims in China who are being sent en masse to re-education camps. Bullies are cowards, and the BJP is no stranger to the aphorism.
A region that mocks India’s mealy-mouthed citizenship overtures is Nepal. The erstwhile Hindu kingdom has become a thriving secular democracy after overthrowing a theocratic monarchy in a bloody struggle, a monarchy that had the support of India’s Hindu right. Run by its majority Hindus, Nepal has given sanctuary to Indians escaping political tyranny for centuries. That impoverished landlocked nation has displayed a large-hearted variant of Hinduism by providing succour to Muslims from India. The icon of the 1857 revolt against British rule, Begum Hazrat Mahal, lies buried in Kathmandu where she got sanctuary from the Hindu ruler of the time.
The new laws are blatantly not about ‘helping people in distress’. Violently disrupting lives woven into the fabric of India on religious and ethnic grounds points to a brazenly divisive agenda.
As protests led by students of every ethnic and ideological stripe sweep India, fatalities from police action are multiplying. The protesters know that the new law flows from a costly clerical error. The Modi government had planned to evict Muslim ‘termites’ from Assam using the National Register of Citizens. The NRC was meant to identify ‘illegal immigrants’, delete their names from the register, and expel them to goodness knows where. The government then threatened to expand the NRC to the entire country. The NRC in Assam, however, trapped manifold more Hindus than Muslim migrants. The citizenship law was thus proposed as a return ticket for those erroneously earmarked for expulsion by the NRC filter. Only Muslims would be handed a one-way passage.
There’s one glitch in the plot though. The Jharkhand assembly election results coming in suggest that the new law has boomeranged on the BJP in the electoral theatre. And that’s a useful hint that Mr Modi’s persistence with divisive politics may be running out of steam.
The writer is a Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, December 24th, 2019