As the year peters out with both the bang of clashing beliefs and the whimper of injured innocents, a feeble flicker of hope is still evident amidst the chaos and confusion. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act is anathema to thousands of protesting Indians as well as to some foreign governments and international organisations. But whatever the intent, the CAA must be welcomed as the harbinger of a more merciful world order that promises belated justice to the orphans of Partition who have been neglected all these 72 years.
With the violence at home matched by protests in unlikely places like Boston, Chicago and The Hague, India enters 2019 with its image as the world’s largest liberal democracy more than a little tarnished. Global opinion, which had once hailed Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the architect of reconstruction, now sees him steeped in bigotry. Despite the wounded idealism of India’s youth and the alarm of harassed Muslims, even a misunderstood CAA would not have created that impression if it hadn’t been for what came before and after. The abrogation of Article 370 — and, even more, the stringent clampdown that followed — was proof of New Delhi’s intolerance of political and religious pluralism. The Ayodhya verdict confirmed that impression. Official waffling over the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register only increased the fears about a police state.
The CAA is wrongly blamed. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom says that using religion as the path to citizenship betrays “religious pluralism”, and demands sanctions against Union home minister Amit Shah. One of the two resolutions tabled by Rashida Tlaib and Pramila Jaypal in the House of Representatives criticised India for unilaterally changing “the status of the Kashmiri people without a direct consultation or consent of the Kashmiri people”, thereby breaking with the US practice of treating Kashmir as India’s internal matter. With key Democrats like Adam Shiff and James McGovern also condemning India, the US-India strategic alliance based on “democracy, individual liberty, rule of law, freedom of expression and practice of religion and protection to minorities” faces stormy weather.
With 27 European Union delegates as New Delhi’s honoured guests in Jammu and Kashmir at a time when domestic politicians couldn’t set foot there, the EU was less outspoken. But stressing “the importance of steps to restore the rights and freedoms of the population in Kashmir”, it didn’t forget to include its disapproval of the CAA. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation inevitably accuses the CAA of discriminating against Indian Muslims. Equally predictably, China joined Pakistan to oppose “any unilateral sanctions that complicated the situation”. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delayed his visit pleading conditions in Assam. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad lamented the “withering of secularism” in India.
Perhaps critics do have a point in accusing the Modi-Shah duo of not being moved by any lofty ideal in enacting the CAA. Perhaps with one state after another slipping out of their grasp, they wanted to assure the Sangh Parivar voters that the holy grail of Hindutva is alive and well. That might explain the Muslim panic and — what is infinitely worse for it casts aspersions on the National Democratic Alliance’s credibility — the reportedly brutal response by a police force that has from colonial times always been ready to anticipate its master’s wishes. But however mala fide the intention, the liberal new citizenship regulation cannot be faulted even though the immediate beneficiaries will be only the 25,447 Hindus, 5,807 Sikhs, 55 Christians, two Buddhists and two Parsis — 31,313 in all — who fled to India before the deadline.
But once the principle is accepted, 17 million Hindus in Bangladesh — mainly peasants and fisherfolk of the Namasudra and Majhi castes — can expect to be rescued if the need arises. That hope is shared by 2.5 million Hindus languishing in Pakistan, where many people attribute Bangladesh’s secession to a “Hindu conspiracy”. Surprisingly, too, since New Delhi has no residual obligations in a country that was not a part of British India, the CAA covers over a thousand Hindus in Afghanistan. Another surprise is the listing of Parsis and Christians as also being eligible for fast-track citizenship. Since British India was divided on religious lines, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains can be bracketed with Hindus, but the inclusion of Parsis and Christians seems odd, like extending the right to people in Afghanistan.
However, this is not the time of year to be niggardly about saving people from the disaster they may be facing. The long-overdue CAA suggests that we may be nearing the conclusion of a dismal argument that started before the first inter-dominion conference on stranded minorities that took place in Calcutta in April 1948. One suggestion was a population exchange, as between Greece and Turkey under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which uprooted two million people. “That the transfer of minorities is the only lasting remedy for communal peace is beyond doubt”, was Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s view. Indian citizenship for all Hindus in Pakistan, which was also mooted, would be wonderful news for people like the Hindu East Bengal refugee who was reluctant to return after the Bangladesh war. Asked whether he regarded himself as Indian or Bangladeshi, he shot back astutely: “Consider me an Indian national resident in Bangladesh!” A third suggestion was that East Pakistan should cede territory west of the Padma as a homeland for its unwanted Hindus.
Whatever their motives, in framing the CAA, Mr Modi and Mr Shah lived up to the hospitable legacy they inherited: having given refuge to 29,500 “hill country Tamils” from Sri Lanka and 100,000 Tibetans, India cannot contemplate the idylls of breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul that Dr Manmohan Singh once spoke of as long as this human legacy of Partition haunts us. They were Indians once. Their ghar wapsi in the new year is worth celebrating....