Irfan Ahmad is a senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen. Co-editor of The Algebra of Warfare-Welfare: A Long View of India’s 2014 Election (2019), he is the author of two monographs on Indian politics and religions and editor of the upcoming Are Anthropology and Ethnography Equivalent (2020).
To the question – What does the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) mean for the future of Indian democracy? – my response is that it legally solidifies the project of making India a Hindu nation-state (rashrta). Let me explain.
The CAA actualizes an exclusivist, ethnic, Hindu nationalism of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—a paramilitary organization at the core of which is the goal of Hindutva, establishing the supremacy of Hindus, with minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, relegated to second-class status. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a member of both RSS and Bharatiya Janat Party (BJP), the political wing of the former.
As the CAA is about citizenship, let us examine how citizenship figures in the weltanschauung of key ideologues of Hindutva: V.D. Savarkar (d. 1966) and M.S. Golwalkar (d. 1973). In Hindutva (1923), Savarkar made Indian and Hindu coterminous to define Indianness in religious terms. To Savarkar, whose portrait adores the Indian parliament’s hall and to whom A.B. Vajpayee, the ex-“liberal” prime minister, and Modi have paid their rich tributes, only s/he who considers India as holy land (punyabhumi) qualifies as an Indian. Christians and Muslims were thus non- and anti-Indian because for them India was not holy.
Long before M.A. Jinnah, the so-called father of Pakistan credited with coining the two-nation theory, Savarkar followed Lajpat Rai’s 1899 formulation to contend that Hindus and Muslims were separate nations. To Savarkar, the notion of Muslims as citizens was impossible. In 1942, he wrote that Muslims must be “treated as incipient enemies” of India as a state as well as nation. “They have no right either moral or legal by their own confession,” he continued, to demand “equal treatment.” Savarkar also justified raping women “of the enemy” as “the greatest duty.” Like Savarkar, Golwalkar too held that “the non-Hindu people…may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing…not even citizenship rights.”
To most CAA critics, the alternative is to rally around the purported inclusive citizenship presented by the Congress Party in the formative years of India as a republic. This position, however, is incorrect. The citizenship ideology and practices of the Congress, to which the British transferred power and which presided over Indian independence, were not free from ethnic-religious impulses. At that time, citizenship comprised tenets of both jus soli and jus sanguinis. While the former, based on birth and domicile, is civic and inclusive, the latter, premised on descent and blood, is ethnic-exclusivist.
Notably, citizenship gained momentum with India’s partition and the creation of Pakistan in mid-August 1947. However, India’s Constitution came into force later, in 1950, and the citizenship law much later, in 1955. Leaving the term citizen undefined, Part II of the Constitution dwelled on differentiating citizens from aliens, immigrants, and non-citizens. Anupama Roy, a citizenship scholar who calls the period until 1955 a “legal vacuum,” avers that Indian citizenship “in the Constitution at its commencement…emphasizes ethnic ties.” Two more amendments in the Citizenship Law in 1986 and 2003 further privileged jus sanguinis over jus soli. Reluctant to make religion as a category central to her analysis, much of the empirical cases Roy discusses, however, pertain to citizenship of people defined religiously.
It is important to note that the word secular did not exist in the Constitution during the reign of Nehru, deemed as the architect of India’s secularism. Inserted into the Constitution only in the mid-1970s, long after his death, Nehru’s verbal-personal secularism, I have argued, had least impact in policies. Stigmatized soon after its insertion, today the debate across the party lines is not about India as a secular state but whether or not one is anti-Hindu.
The CAA’s text substantiates my argument about its ethnic-religious character. It expels Muslims from its ambit by stating that any Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, or Christian from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, or Pakistan “shall not be treated as illegal migrant.” One may object to my contention by saying it also includes people other than Hindus. However, India’s Constitution does not regard Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism as religions separate from Hinduism. As for Christians, they did not figure in BJP’s discourses earlier. For instance, BJP’s 2014 election manifesto calls India the “natural home” only of Hindus. Inclusion of Christians was an afterthought, writes Edward Luce, to appease Western leaders, especially Donald Trump and Boris Johnson as champions of oppressed Christians. Parsis are too tiny a community globally to matter. Their mention gives a pretense of inclusivity to legitimize what is essentially a form of pan-Hinduism.
Instructively, the CAA’s notification in the government Gazette makes no mention of “persecuted Hindus.” The CAA partisans used “persecuted” only to justify the law. Much before the CAA, the 2003 amended Citizenship Act enacted this pan-Hinduism when Bangladeshis and Pakistanis were excluded from the definition of people of Indian origin to disqualify for the new category of Overseas Citizen of India. The placement of Bangladesh and Pakistan in the zone of exception validates Savarkar’s ideology of India as Hindus’ holy land. Comparatively, this pan Hinduism/Indianness resembles pan-Germanism before and during Hitler’s rise.
Space does not permit me to discuss the intertwining between the CAA, which the UN Secretary-General fears might make tens of thousands stateless, and the National Register of Citizens, the implementation of which in Assam has led to people thrown in subhuman detention camps. I end with observations on the women-led anti-CAA protest in Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim neighborhood in New Delhi that has become an emblem of countrywide protest. Adjacent to the famous Jamia Millia Islamia, a central university where I earned my bachelor’s degree in 1994, Shaheen Bagh then was almost unknown, particularly to India’s elites.
As an unprecedented moment in India’s democracy, now Shaheen Bagh puzzles liberals and elites. Have these women—old and young, veiled and unveiled, educated and uneducated—taken to streets by their own choice? Did their fathers/husbands allow them to occupy the road? How do they—many of whom are veiled but fluent in English and confident to speak to the media—simultaneously display their commitment to Islam and constitutional rights? How have these women shaped an alliance with people of other faiths who actively back and participate in the protest? How come they continue to peacefully resist even after Kapil Gujjar, a supporter of Modi and Hindutva, barged into protest camp in Shaheen Bagh, brandished his gun, and fired shots? Why does Shaheen Bagh continue to speak of humanity despite Gujjar’s proclamation that “only Hindus will prevail”? Is it not astonishing that Shaheen Bagh’s women pooh-poohed the violent discourse of “revenge” against the CAA protesters by Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk and chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, to continue to enact peace and democratic interreligious solidarity?
Shaheen Bagh is a living deconstruction of the prevalent Orientalism, which begets such questions. It is also a workshop of new possibilities about democracy, ethical solidarity, politics beyond party, autonomy, sociability, and more, which the available vocabulary is unable to fathom. To invoke Talal Asad, Shaheen Bagh embodies democracy as a sensibility and an ethos. Beyond the dualism of secular/religious, nationalist/anti-national, individual/collective, personal/political, Shaheen Bagh, it seems, has recast democracy in the metaphor of eagle. In Urdu, Shaheen means eagle.
Against the ethnic-nationalist, discriminatory CAA, the countrywide protest symbolized by Shaheen Bagh offers the possibility of reorienting democracy for a better future. Whether or not the power that be will allow this future is another matter.