Revisionism Stirring a Hornet’s Nest in India

What started out in the state of Assam as a citizenship determination exercise, has now snowballed into a national and constitutional crisis. The government at the Centre justifies its stand on the grounds that they are correcting a historical wrong and are meeting an election promise. And they are determined to make both CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and NRC (National Register of Citizens) pan-India exercises, as stated by the Home Minister, Amit Shah, several times at political rallies and in Parliament.

It is quite remarkable that spontaneous protests have erupted in cities across India, and there is no sign of any let up. The protests have forced the government to step back, or at least rethink NRC, because the Prime Minister in his Delhi rally recently denied that there was any plan to bring in NRC, quite clearly contradicting his own Home Minister, who a few days later also fell in line and said there was no final decision yet. It is quite clear that the government was unprepared for this kind of response when the Home Minister only weeks earlier had claimed that CAA and NRC had the endorsement of 130 lakh Indians. Now, hopefully they know that 1.3 billion Indians do not support these policies and that their votes cannot be mistaken for a carte blanche on policy.

Anti-CAA protests in Guwahati, Assam; Ankur Jyoti Dewri CC by SA 4.0 on Wikimedia Commons

The CAA only narrowly passed in the Rajya Sabha (upper house of parliament) by a margin of 21 votes, as The Economist has reported. There is enough already said and written about the unconstitutional nature of these laws and several state governments have also refused to enforce them as a mark of protest. What I would like to focus on in this piece is what was the need for such policies in the first place? Shouldn’t our country’s economic growth and welfare be the top priority for the government and wasn’t that also a key election promise made in the NDA’s first term in 2014, which it woefully failed to keep and has now conveniently forgotten? Aren’t CAA and NRC non-issues for most ordinary Indians, with the exception of politicians who gain from divisive politics?

I also marvel at the arrogance of such policies: a country that can barely look after its own people wants to be extra magnanimous to foreign nationals. That too, foreign nationals of certain select religions of which India rather incorrectly claims spiritual home. It is nothing but foolish political grandstanding. Let’s start with the “correcting the historical blunder” argument. Many in the government and its supporters argue that because three Islamic states in our neighbourhood persecute their religious minorities, India is somehow obliged to offer them sanctuary. Well, first of all we are not obliged to do so in any way, so the government had better shed its presumptuous attitudes. Nobody in those countries is clamouring for a home in India. And those who are, can surely be considered for citizenship under the existing laws and rules that apply.

The other strand of the “correcting a historical wrong” argument is that India was partitioned along religious lines, and these policies are steps in correcting that. Well, those people need to read up on their history and not distort it, as this government is wont to do. It is well known that Jinnah was forced to look at the option of a land for Muslims, well after seeking to form a separate party in India first, the Muslim League, since the Indian National Congress was unwilling to accommodate many of his wishes at the time. We then had separate electorates in India, under the British, based on ethno-linguistic and administrative lines. And finally, when Jinnah did get his Pakistan, it is important to remember that he always wanted it to be a secular and democratic country, not the Islamic state that it unfortunately became. In a speech to the Pakistan Constituent Assembly in 1947, as quoted in Christophe Jaffrelot’s book, The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience, Jinnah says:

“You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the state… We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one state… Now, I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time, Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but the political sense as citizens of the state.”  

That said, those who would like to return home to India should be allowed to do so in ordinary circumstances. After all, didn’t Germany welcome back all the Jews who had fled persecution in the country during the Nazi years, and isn’t the country doing so even now? That is correcting a historical blunder; this is merely Hindutva politics flexing its muscles.

Protests against CAA and NRC gather momentum in Ernakulam, Kerala; Image: Ambadyanand CC by SA 4.0 on Wikimedia Commons

And finally, when was Afghanistan ever part of India, for us to have any kind of claim over their peoples? The British, despite their best efforts, couldn’t fight and defeat the Afghans, as far as I know. And Americans are discovering the same lesson for themselves, now. Instead, why aren’t we looking east at our neighbour, Myanmar, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas are fleeing persecution? Oh, of course, I forget one small detail: they are Muslim, and the ruling government in Myanmar is Buddhist, and that completely alters the equations in the Hindu nationalist mindset.

Leaving the self-righteous “correcting historical blunder” argument aside, let us now look at the other reason for these policies: fulfilling an election promise. What about the other more important election promises? All the talk of millions of jobs for Indians, development – albeit the Gujarat model, which has proven to be inadequate on many counts. Where are they now? And then, as we hear pompous boasts of a US $ 5 trillion economy by 2024, let us also look at the dismal state of the Indian economy as it has been for the past four years.

Looking at the economy, we find that this government can only throw money at the problem; there are no solutions in sight and the few policies in their new term have all been ill-conceived. The corporate tax cuts haven’t boosted investment, as expected, and neither have the sops to the real estate sector helped. Money has come rushing back into the equity markets for sure, as I had written in a previous post, and as we stare at an abyss in economic growth, the stock markets are the only ones looking up. Any hopes of the second half of this fiscal year being better than the first are also fading away, with the latest advance estimates released by the CSO (Central Statistical Organisation) a few days ago indicating a paltry FY20 GDP growth of 5%, the lowest in 11 years. The highest unemployment in four decades and the lowest GDP growth in 11 years, are the harsh realities facing India today.

The CAA and NRC policies – red herrings, at best – will be more devastating to India, than demonetization was, because it affects the very social fabric and ethos of our nation that was designed to be a democratic and secular republic with equality for all, under our constitution. These policies are also ill-suited as they will be deeply destabilizing in nature, something the country can do without.

Protests reach India’s financial capital, Mumbai; Image: Onir CC by SA 4.0 on Wikimedia Commons

In such a scenario, imagine what welcoming so-called persecuted immigrants from neighbouring countries and incarcerating local illegal immigrants in detention centres in India will do to our economy. I wonder why no one in the Indian media has bothered to analyse and report on the long-term economic costs of CAA and NRC and its implications for the Indian economy in the future. One article that I did read on this looked at approximate costs for implementing NRC in Assam and it seems even a conservative estimate would put the cost at around Rs 12,000 crores. That is one state alone, in one year.

Imagine where so much of our taxpayer money will be going in the years to come, when it should be spent on alleviating poverty, creating jobs, mitigating climate change, and more. As citizens of a democratic country, do we not have the right to question how the government spends our money?

The Indian media have also not bothered to report on what the ongoing protests and police action, as well as imposition of Section 144 in cities across India, the shutting down of internet services, etc. have cost India in economic terms. Scores of people have lost their lives, several have been blinded or maimed, and it astounds me that India Inc is silent on the subject. Corporate India has nothing to say on the matter; they are simply waiting for the next set of tax breaks, their return present from the government which they will no doubt receive in the forthcoming union budget.

The government must be hoping that personal income tax cuts – also on the anvil – might quieten down the protests a little. I hope they don’t introduce them because they are not going to help improve consumption. I also hope the protests don’t stop because of an income tax goodie, especially now that we know where a lot of that tax money will be going anyway.

The government has stirred a hornet’s nest with its divisive and revisionist politics and it has been stung to the quick. Regardless of which way the Supreme Court rules later this month, when they decide on 65 petiitions before them, the government should be forced to withdraw these legislations and at the same time reconsider their idea of a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Nation). That will be a tough ask of a regime that resorts to distorting facts, fooling people, suppressing data, rewriting history to suit their toxic politics, sowing discord among people, and doing little to improve people’s lives.

The modern nation that we are came into being on the 15th of August 1947, under Gandhi, Nehru, Sardar Patel and Ambedkar. They are the architects of modern, independent, India. We have spent too much time and expended too much energy on irrelevant issues, when frankly, we should be getting back to work and showing ourselves and the world what a truly great nation we can be when we decide to put our minds to it, and work together.

Revisionism must be rejected at all costs.     

The featured photograph at the start of the post is of students at Jamia Milia University, Delhi, protesting against CAA and NRC by Diplomat TesterMan CC by SA 4.0 on Wikimedia Commons. It was police action against protesters here that sparked protests across the country.

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