Regular-article-logo Monday, 05 June 2023

For Muslims, CAA is wrong target

It's futile for 150 to 200 million men, women and children to imagine their security lies in hiding from authority

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray Published 06.03.20, 06:46 PM
The CAA is the wrong target for Indian Muslims who truly fear persecution. Attacking the National Population Register and the National Register of Citizens is only marginally less misguided

The CAA is the wrong target for Indian Muslims who truly fear persecution. Attacking the National Population Register and the National Register of Citizens is only marginally less misguided (PTI photo)

When I bought a dongle the other day, the shopkeeper was doubtful if my passport would suffice for identification. He had handled only Aadhaar cards. He was even more dubious on finding the passport had been issued in London. For my friends in erstwhile East Pakistan on the eve of the 1965 war, however, this was the only reason why I was granted a visa to go there. They thought the place of issue helped to offset the holder’s nationality.

These conundrums come to mind in light of the news about the Unique Identification Authority of India asking 127 Hyderabad residents to prove their citizenship. It is part of the bigger but totally unjust and unnecessary uproar over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. It would have been excusable for Islamabad, Dhaka and Kabul to resent the imputation of persecution of minorities. It would have been understandable, too, if Indians of all faiths had objected that a government that squanders nearly Rs 447 crore on the prime minister gallivanting abroad, yet cannot provide basic facilities to 1.3 crore Indians, has no business saddling the exchequer with this additional burden.


How big a burden is unknown. We don’t know how many Stateless Hindus from the three countries are already in India waiting for citizenship. We don’t know if the present deadline is final or will be extended. If the latter, India must consider the possibility of eventually having to provide for about another 20 million Hindus mainly from Bangladesh but also from Pakistan and a handful from Afghanistan. The economic implications of what would amount to the often discussed but not attempted transfer of population merit consideration. So does the fact that there is no historical, political, legal or administrative justification for lumping Afghanistan with countries that shared a common colonial past, unless Bharatiya Janata Party fantasists are trying to claim that India and Afghanistan were both members of Asoka’s empire. Actually, Myanmar, Singapore and Aden are closer to India. The rationale for promising protection to Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis is another unexplained mystery. It’s understandable in the case of Sikhs who were politically a party to the Partition process and identified with India even if they reject the Hindu label. Jains and Buddhists can squeeze under the Hindu umbrella, but Christians and Parsis?

Given the basis of Partition, Pakistan emerged as the only country in the world apart from Israel to owe its existence to its religion. In the Muslim perception, India was (and probably still is) defined by its colloquial name of Hindustan, no matter how it chose to describe itself after Partition. The reconstruction of the Somnath temple, with Indian diplomats all over the world collecting consecration waters, showed that this particular view of India was not confined to Muslims.

Any differentiation on religious grounds is of course anathema to diehard secularists. It’s a matter of principle with Hindu intellectuals and idealists untainted by fanaticism. The European Parliament objects to the CAA because in its lofty internationalist view, “all migrants, regardless of their migration status, are entitled to the respect, protection and fulfilment of their basic human rights”. Amen to that. Nothing could be better than asylum for the weary and wounded of the world. But even the United States of America with its boundless resources is forced to draw a line under the Statue of Liberty’s promise to the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free. Some selectivity is inevitable. “God gave all men all earth to love, But, since our hearts are small Ordained for each one spot should prove Beloved over all...” For Kipling it was Sussex by the sea. For India it has to be Indians whom geopolitics overnight turned into aliens. I keep remembering the Hindu peasant who told me as he was sent back in 1972 from a camp near Kalyani, “Consider me an Indian resident in Bangladesh!”

Hindus in Pakistan (and Bangladesh) have been no more than that these 73 years. I absolutely cannot understand, therefore, why Indian Muslims should object so vehemently to the CAA. Could it possibly be the fear that an accretion of Hindu numbers, especially of people who claim to be fleeing Muslim persecution, would further reinforce the Hindutva ethos and even more firmly underscore their minority status? The 45 million Muslims who remained in India in 1947 were in the privileged position of being able to maintain a total way of life that is distinct from that of its non-Muslim neighbours. Today’s much bigger community holds fast to that unique right.

Minority exploitation is nothing new. It isn’t driven by a single factor. There are a variety of reasons, but today’s popular Nazi parallel isn’t the main one. The first and foremost impulse is avarice compounded by the well-known urge of all South Asians in authority, especially those in uniform, to throw their weight about. Sixty years ago — long before PAN and Aadhaar — I heard from friends in North Bengal of darogas demanding money from Muslim peasants by threatening to denounce them as Pakistanis. Muslims weren’t the only victims of greed. A passport officer complained of being powerless to stop policemen from dining for free and making merry night after night in a popular Chinese restaurant in central Calcutta whose owners were waiting for clearance to migrate to Hong Kong.

The Hyderabad contretemps might also involve genuine confusion over identity. Some of the people the UIDAI addressed are Rohingyas from Myanmar who are not physically distinguishable from many Bengali Muslims although a phoneticist like the CPI’s late Gopal Haldar would undoubtedly have been able tell a Rohingya from a rustic Bengali. A latter-day Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, Haldar claimed at our first meeting to detect in my speech the cadences of ancestral, but never lived in, Tipperah. Similarly, Bangladesh’s ‘Mehsooreen’ or ‘Besieged’, better known as ‘Biharis’, don’t have to go as far as Uttar Pradesh or Odisha, leave alone Bihar, to get lost. They can merge into the woodwork in the Urdu-speaking enclaves of Calcutta’s Park Circus.

The CAA is the wrong target for Indian Muslims who truly fear persecution. Attacking the National Population Register and the National Register of Citizens is only marginally less misguided. True, the data — all data for that matter — can be misused. But information is also needed for constructive purposes. It is childish and futile for 150 to 200 million men, women and children to imagine their security lies in hiding from authority. Muslims must make their presence felt like other Indians and take full part in the national discourse, not try to abort or silence it.

As devil’s advocate, I would say their voice should have been heard last November when the Supreme Court gave its final judgment upholding a fondly-held myth with nary a word for the wanton destruction of a sturdy place of worship that had stood on the spot for 464 years. Second, Muslims could also have argued that Article 370 underwriting the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and Article 35A sanctioning ‘permanent residents’ with special rights and privileges were integral to the solemn bargain whereby Jammu and Kashmir joined the dominion of India in respect of only three subjects — defence, communications and external affairs. Third, it is in the interest of Muslims to marshal legal experts now to claim that Article 44 supporting a uniform civil code cannot ride roughshod over the guarantees enshrined in Article 25 regarding freedom of religion and Article 26 on the freedom to manage religious affairs.

These should be the real targets, not the CAA which discharges a long overdue moral debt. One victimhood cannot gain comfort by denying another — and far worse — victimhood the prospect of some succour.

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