By Durdana Najam
In his attempt to put things in the right perspective, Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP and writer, has introduced a private member’s Bill in the Lok Sabha seeking to protect freedom of literature. Its objective is that “authors must be guaranteed the freedom to express their work without fear of punitive action by the State or by sections of society.” It seeks the removal of three Indian Penal Codes sections, including 295A—a blasphemy law about, “Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.
Over the last five years, since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assumed power, the section 295A has been blatantly used to harass, intimidate and curtail freedom of expression. Books were withdrawn, pulped or sanitized of offending content while writers and thinkers were targeted and/or killed. Anything the ruling party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ultra-right wing Hindu nationalist group, found repugnant to Hindu values has been dealt with brutally.
In this context, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2016 passed by the Lok Sabah smacks prejudice. Though the Act talks about giving citizenship rights also to Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians, it is the anti-Muslim narrative of the bill that makes it controversial.
The citizenship act of 1955 is amended to give passage to the minorities, excluding Muslims, persecuted for their religious belief in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. However, the rhetoric used by the BJP leaders do defend the amendment also alludes to the historic mistake of partition that the right-wing Hindus find difficult to forget.
India’s Union Minister Rajnath Singh, while debating on the bill said, “Some people ask why Christians were included in the bill. But they have also suffered since the partition, so we have included them in the amended bill.”
During his recent visit to Silchar in Assam, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also invoked the partition grudge and said, “The bill is not in favour of anyone. It is penance for injustice (Partition) done in the past”.
Rights activists, opposition parties and the people of Assam are opposed to the bill, which they believe is being used to consolidate Hindu vote in Muslim dominated districts of Assam. A large population of Muslims now living in Assam had migrated from Bangladesh when it gained independence from Pakistan on March 24, 1971. Assam shares 165 kilometer-long border with the former East Pakistan.
The citizenship bill is in direct contradiction to the Assam Accord, signed in 1985 by then Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi. According to the accord, all those who could not prove that they had been living in India before March 24, 1971, were to be deleted from the electoral list and later expelled from India.
During the National Register of Citizen (NRC) drive, four million people were unable to prove their status. These people have been living in Assam as Indian citizens, either using forged documents or no documents at all. The issue, however, remained dormant and no action was taken, until the BJP government resurrected the citizenship issue in 2014.
Ever since coming to power, Indian PM Narendra Modi has been talking about deporting illegal Muslim immigrants and accommodating the Hindu immigrants. Taking cue from the NRC drive that had done the preliminary work of sifting the illegal residents, the BJP government is using the Citizenship Act to rid Assam of as many Muslims as possible.
In the run-up to the passage of the Citizen Bill, the NRC posted a promotional song on Facebook that confirmed the fears of those worried about the Hindu nationalist witch hunt. “A new revolution, to defeat the alien enemy, is beckoning,” a young woman sings, “bravely let us shield our motherland.”
Assam has the second largest Muslim population after Jammu and Kashmir. For decades now, every Indian government has attempted to alter the demographics of both the states. The BJP government has, however, given a new trajectory to this issue.
The divineness of policies on matters relating to religion and caste system make India a country of conflicting ideologies, each used by the state for electoral and religious domination.
How far will India succeed in balancing its population in favor of Hindus, only time will tell? In the meantime, India is fast losing its secular face in the comity of world nations.