Of late, many within India — and many more outside of it — have likened the country to a “Hindu Pakistan.” This description used to sound like a lazy cliche from the grammar book of Orientalism. Despite domestic developments that have triggered robust criticism at home, I believed this was essentially a caricatured way of looking at India without recognizing it as a complex and diverse country, where many contradictory truths can exist simultaneously.
But today, for the first time, I must admit: India just officially cast itself in Pakistan’s image.
A contentious new citizenship legislation, tabled in parliament by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and passed by the elected Lok Sabha (or lower house of Parliament), has just upended the entire premise of India’s nationhood. It will validate what the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, called the two-nation theory: the belief that Muslims and Hindus needed to be organized into separate countries.
The law allows “persecuted” religious minorities of three Islamic nations — Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan — to gain fast-track citizenship within six years of residence in India. But there is a caveat: These migrants must be non-Muslim. Under the new legislation, even if Hindus, Parsis, Christians, Sikhs or Buddhists enter India from any of these three countries without valid documents, they will no longer be jailed or deported, and they can apply for citizenship. Coupled with a parallel pet project of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — a proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) that seeks to identify and “expel” those Home Minister Amit Shah calls “infiltrators” — it means that, for the first time in India’s history, citizenship has been linked to religion.
This goes against the Indian constitution, which promises equality to all irrespective of religion. It also collapses the defining difference between India and Pakistan: Pakistan is a theocracy, India a constitutional republic proudly rooted in pluralism and diversity. When the British drew a line of blood across the Indian subcontinent, the architects of modern India accepted the inevitability of Partition. But they never accepted religion as the basis of nationhood.
The prime minister avows that the contentious new law will somehow compensate for the searing pain of Partition and bring home the “children of Maa Bharti” (Mother India) who were forcibly separated from their country by the violent disruption. But why, then, are the Muslims of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan also not regarded as “children” of India? By implicitly saying that India is the natural home for non-Muslims of the region, isn’t the government reinforcing the Pakistani vision of nationhood? And what signal does this send to the country’s 200 million Muslims?
My father’s family was among the millions who were uprooted from everything they had during Partition, arriving in India without a roof over their heads. Growing up in a “refugee” neighborhood of Delhi, I, like many others, was brought up on the horrific tales of Partition and its sudden, terrifying rupture. Far from healing those wounds, the categorization of migrants, illegal or otherwise, into Muslim and non-Muslim will only exacerbate fault lines — and may even rip them wide open.
The question Indians must ask themselves now is this: Will everything that we proudly claim separates us from Pakistan end with this legislation?
The subtext of the Indian government’s project is clear. What the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is saying is that persecuted Muslims have Muslim nations to seek refuge in, and they don’t need to knock on India’s doors. Effectively, this means that, when the citizenship law and NRC project are implemented, the “illegal” migrants interned in camps and detention centers, or sent back to their countries of origin, will almost exclusively be Muslim. Other communities will most likely be able to claim “persecution” in their home countries and stay on.
Of course, the worst hit will be poorer Muslims who will now have to find paperwork to “prove” their Indian-ness per the NRC. With the potential disenfranchisement of Muslims who have lived in this country for decades, India is staring down an abyss.
The court-mandated NRC project has already been attempted in the eastern state of Assam, with chaotic results that did not suit the BJP’s political goals. When 1.9 million people found themselves left out of the registry and declared noncitizens before an appeals process, there were many Hindus among them. Many believe the current citizenship bill will let the BJP amend this politically inconvenient outcome, allowing Hindu migrants to cite persecution while leaving Muslims isolated and on the margins of the redressal system.
But the government is discovering that religion is not the only marker of identity in a complex and diverse country. The BJP is already dealing with simmering protests in India’s northeast, where indigenous communities that share a border with Bangladesh fear being culturally overrun by Hindu and Buddhist migrants. This forced the BJP to add exemptions to the proposed new citizenship law in the more sensitive northeastern areas. This in itself contradicts the government’s stated “one nation, one law” standard, which propelled the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status in August. It reveals that the government has not fully thought through the consequences of the journey it is embarking on.
The home minister insists that Indian Muslims are unimpacted by the new legislation. But there is no good explanation for why Myanmar’s Rohingya — or Pakistan’s Shiite, Balochis and Ahmadis — do not qualify as persecuted minorities. And if it’s about upholding our history of assimilation and being a generous neighbor, why does this bill only apply to the religious minorities of three Muslim nations? Why not the Tamil Hindus of Sri Lanka, for instance — 60,000 of whom already live as stateless residents in camps in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu?
If the bill clears Parliament’s upper house — and the numbers are stacked in the BJP’s favor — it is up to the Supreme Court to protect the constitutional vision of India’s freedom fighters. Either that or we accept that we have fundamentally changed as a nation.
And Mohammed Ali Jinnah must be smiling from his grave.