Is the BJP government seeking to create a Hindu rashtra — by jugaad?
Sushmita Dev, a Congress Member of Parliament, recently noted, “Anyone who applied to the National Register of Citizens [NRC] legally claimed that they were Indian. But now, under the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill [now an Act] they will have to claim they came from Bangladesh. This is a Catch-22.” This quote invites us not to see the NRC or CAA in isolation — but as a part of a collection of inchoate, haphazard laws and amendments to the Constitution in pursuit of what can be broadly termed as Hindu rashtra.
But what is this Hindu rashtra “we” seek? As political scientist Vinay Sitapati has explained, unlike Islam (or even Judaism), there is no clear, largely accepted alternate conception to the modern Indian democratic State in the Hindu nationalist ideology or Hindu scripture as to what a Hindu rashtra might be. Rather than appealing to any tightly-defined set of principles, the government is inventing its Hindu rashtra by jugaad (improvisation) — slowly, but surely, alienating Muslims. After the initial thrust, Kashmir is still in the throes of an Internet shutdown, with all of its major political leaders still under arrest — while the government has no discernible exit or normalisation strategy. When the NRC produced less-than-desirable results for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Assam, it pushed the CAA. Anticipating trouble in the Northeast, it then exempted key parts of the region from the Act. But protests still erupted, forcing the Assam government to assure residents that their rights will be preserved. The outcome of all of this is incoherent law-making and policies, borne more out of political benefit than any logical principles defining the Indian State.
After all, it is much harder to write a Constitution than it is to undermine one. While we may be upset with parts of the Constitution, it was the product of discussions and compromises over a period of three years with various stakeholders. So, by the end of 1949, we had a largely cogent, consistent view of India as a secular State that respected the rights of its minorities enshrined in the Constitution. Contrast this process to the current model of slapdash, “big bang” legislation, being pushed through Parliament. In its hurry to redefine the State according to its worldview, the government has unleashed poorly framed policies with unknown consequences, in contrast to the spirit of deliberation and compromise that characterised India’s constitutional moment.
Let us now consider the NRC and the CAA together to understand the challenges and contradictions that have been introduced into the system. To be sure, the government has categorically said that both are independent processes, and there has been no discussion on the NRC yet. But the interlinkages between the two are hard to miss.
Between the 1951 and 2011 censuses, the Muslim population grew about 36% faster per year than the Hindu population — numbers that Hindu activists have used to argue that India has an illegal (Muslim) immigration problem. However, the first National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) carried out in 1992-93 finds that Muslims have a total fertility rate (TFR) 33% higher than Hindus — a phenomenon that can largely be attributed to lower socioeconomic levels among Muslims. The gap was likely even larger before the 1990s, suggesting that, empirically, the difference in growth rates between Hindus and Muslims can almost be explained by differences in fertility rates, and not illegal immigration. To be clear, as incomes rise, fertility rates have been rapidly declining in the Muslim community and converging with those of the Hindu community.
Certainly, there has been some amount of illegal immigration, including of Muslims, but these are statistically negligible in a country as large as India. Are we willing to bear the cost to do an entire NRC and CAA exercise to find such a small number of people during a period of economic distress? What documents can we use to genuinely assess whether residents are here legally? Will the BJP accept the results if such a small number of residents are excluded from citizenship? How will the courts adjudicate matters if an implausibly large number of Muslims are denied citizenship?
Many have noted that these policies fundamentally alter the idea of Indian citizenship to an “Israeli model”, in which citizenship is granted on the basis of religion — in this case, for Hindus and not to Muslims. But the Israeli model effectively grants any Jewish person around the world the right to Israeli citizenship. Yet, if we are following an Israeli model, why is citizenship only being extended to non-Muslims (mainly Hindus) from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, and not Sri Lanka — where Hindus are also persecuted? What is the demographic impact of giving the 12 million Hindus of Bangladesh the opportunity to immediately become Indian citizens? What is the legal or constitutional principle upon which we can decide from which country to take Hindus?
In the haste to change India’s citizenship rules, the government has failed to articulate a fair and efficient manner in which the new rules can be implemented, failed to address its larger financial and demographic consequences, and failed to define clear constitutional principles undergirding Indian citizenship. Whether it is Kashmir or the NRC or the CAA, to argue that the recent policy changes have moved the country towards a Hindu nation is to give the BJP government too much credit. It is a muddle of poorly thought-out laws with only one aim — to isolate India’s Muslim community.
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