Fasting against a right decision does not make it wrong, Ms. Dutt

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Rohit Dhankar

“Gandhi would be fasting against India’s discriminatory new citizenship law” declares Ms. Barkha Dutt in Washington Post (where else?) on 8th October 2019. There is a lot of concern regarding Home Ministers repeated statements regarding giving citizenship to Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians coming from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh; and keeping Muslims out of this list. Ms. Barkha Dutt has written on the same issue and calls this anti-Muslim and “an Islamophobic campaign”. In her wisdom she proclaims “Even if the proposed new law does nothing to diminish their [Indian Muslims’] rights, there is great humiliation in just one religion — their religion — being kept out of the mix”. And most confidently declares that if Gandhi “were alive today, he would most certainly have been sitting on a “satyagraha” against citizenship laws that discriminate on the basis of religion”. Well, let us grant that she knows her Gandhi and he would have been as predictable as she concludes.

But, one, fasting against something, even with the name ‘satyagrah’, does not make it morally and legally wrong. And, two, we should examine her charges of discrimination against Muslims and Islamophobia seriously.

The bill (which was placed in the Lok Sabha and expired before being placed in the Rajya Sabha) she refers to is called “The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2016”, Shah has said many times that it will be brought before the parliament again. One, what this bill was supposed to do is to change the definition of “illegal migrant”. According to the Citizenship Act 1955 any one entering India without passport or other travel documents or staying beyond the permitted time period is an illegal migrant. As per the new bill “Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan … shall not be treated as illegal migrants”. Note that the list of exempted communities does not include Muslims.

The second change, relevant to the present discussion, it makes is that of duration of naturalization from 12 years to 7 years, again for “persons belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan”, Muslims are not part of the list.

The bill also makes changes regarding “Overseas Citizen of India Cardholders” but that is not of interest in the present discussion.

The issue is: do these changes in the Citizenship Act, 1955 constitute unwarranted discrimination against Muslims and “Islamophobic campaign” as Ms. Dutt claims?

Ms. Dutt admits that “every country has the absolute right to control immigration”, please pay attention the terms “absolute right”. Thus, her objection is not “control of immigration” as such; but, according to her “the basis to accept one population and reject another cannot be religion”.

First, let us note that the bill is not about giving citizenship directly, it is about ‘making people of minority communities’ in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh ‘eligible’ to apply for citizenship without legal travel documents and/or with expired travel documents; and reducing the naturalisation period from 12 years to 7 years. The Muslims who are coming from these countries can apply if they have valid travel documents only, otherwise will be considered illegal immigrants. Also, Muslims from these counties will have to wait for 12 years to become naturalised citizens.

What is the basis for this preferential treatment to “Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians”? It is not religion, though they are identified by their religion. And this identification by ‘religion’ is made by “Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh” through systematic and sustained persecution of these communities in their countries. India is only offering to make things easier for these oppressed people.

Ms. Dutt understands this, but she objects to “the assumption that in the South Asian neighborhood only Hindus, Christians or Buddhists are at the receiving end of oppressive Islamist regimes”. Her argument is that “Shiites, Ahmadis, Balochis — all Muslims — have faced violence and disenfranchisement. And what of the Rohingya? Targeted ethnic cleansing of this Muslim community in Myanmar makes them the textbook examples of persecuted minorities in their country”.

This is a good and worth examining argument. But before that, let us note that the citizenship law as it is can be used by all these communities, all that is being done for the oppressed minorities in the three neighbouring counties is making it easier for them. But still, why not make it easier for the communities Ms. Dutt mentions? First, let us understand that there is a difference between operation due to political struggle and systemic oppression due to one’s religion. The Balochis are fighting a political battle. If India agrees with their political position then can consider it for granting refugee status or political asylum. And then they can go through the normal citizenship procedure. For Shiites and Ahmadis one has to first see if they are fleeing the countries in question like the six religious communities mentioned in the bill. There seem to be no significant cases of such phenomena. If it becomes as bad as the six communities mentioned in the bill the government may think about it. At the present moment their persecution looks like the internal rift of Muslim communities, which they should resolve in their own country.

Rohingyas is another case that is mentioned by Ms. Dutt and also debated by many skewed-secularists[1]. In using the “absolute right” of a country, which Ms. Dutt accepts, one also has to think of pragmatic grounds for granting citizenship to illegal immigrants. Such arguments could be one’s economic condition, population pressure or capacity of the country to handle the problem. In the case of Rohingyas one has to analyse the history of Rohingya unrest in Myanmar very carefully. There are two versions of their history. One, preferred by the skewed-secularist, is that they are the oppressed minority. The other, is that they have been a serious problem for Myanmar, have demanded Shariya rule in their little pocket of majority, have created violent unrest to merge with Bangladesh, have unleashed a campaign of terror, murders, abduction and rape on Rakhine population. All I would say is that before granting special favours to Rohingyas one has to understand all this and see what problems such favours may create for India.

Looking from this angle (which will surely invite the charge of being communal or at the least of being skewed-secularist for me) there is no reason to see any “humiliation” (Ms. Dutt’s word) for Indian Muslims. And I am not sure if they do see any humiliation in this. The grounds for granting the favour for the six religious communities from three countries are all sound, rational and consistent with secular ethics. Ms. Dutt’s charges of discrimination, “Islamophobic” and “humiliation” are all either due to lack of understanding or due to deliberate undue criticism for some interest of her own. I do not know which, but would like to consider due to “lack of understanding” so that no debate is curbed.

Ms. Dutt also repeats a chant one often hears from skewed-secularists and Muslim leaders like Mr. Owaisi. It is “when given a choice in 1947, this is a community that chose India’s pluralism over Pakistan’s narrow linking of Islam to nationhood”. This is unnecessary comment to create a certain unjustified perception. My suggestion would be that people like Ms. Dutt and Mr. Owaisi should refrain from chanting this. For two good reasons. One, because it is only a half truth. It is true that Indian Muslims did have a choice and chose pluralistic India over Islamic Pakistan. But before they made this choice, they voted overwhelmingly in favour of creating Islamic Pakistan. This is the unmentioned part of the truth, and that is what makes it a half truth.  

The claim that Muslims voted overwhelmingly in favour of Pakistan can be easily substantiated on the basis of elections held in 1945 and 1946. We must remember that these elections were held on the basis of separate electorates for Hindus and Muslims. Muslim voters could vote only for Muslim candidates. Congress and Muslim League were the two main parties. Congress did field candidates in Muslim constituency. And the elections were almost entirely on the issue of partition.

For the Central Legislative Assembly, the “Muslim League won all Muslim constituencies”.[2] The results of the provincial elections held in January 1946 are given in the table below.[3]

Province Muslim Seats Muslim League % Of Muslim Seats won by Muslim League
Assam 34 33 97%
Bengal 119 113 95%
Bihar 40 34 85%
Bombay 30 30 100%
Central Provinces 14 13 93%
Madras 29 29 100%
North West Frontier Province 38 17 45%
Orissa 4 4 100%
Punjab 86 74 86%
Sind 34 28 82%
United Provinces 66 54 82%
Total 494 429 87%

That does not leave much doubt regarding Muslim opinion on partition at the time of these elections; that is, they favoured creating a Muslim state of Pakistan. A spurious argument against this logic is that: the voting rights were restricted to a very small percentage of population (perhaps around 2.5%?), to only those who had property and paid a certain amount of tax. This is a very weak argument. The political leaders who could take tax paying voters along them could as easily would have taken less privileged people along them. Therefore, yes, the forefathers of Indian Muslims chose to stay back in pluralistic India, but before that they voted to partition India.

 Repeating this chant of choosing India over Pakistan will also invite another politically incorrect statement, which the skewed-secularists and Muslims will not like. That is, it were the majority Hindus who chose to keep this nation pluralistic and secular even after partition on the basis of Religion. Had it been otherwise there were no chances of a secular India.

Therefore, Ms. Dutt’s charges of discrimination, humiliation and Islamophobic campaign can not be sustained at the least on the basis of this proposed legislation. Ms. Dutt knows Gandhi better. I am not sure, but he might have sat on a fast. However, the facts and arguments can not be refuted by a fast any more than they can be refuted by holding a gun to one’s temple. Yes, they can be unreasonably and undemocratically trampled under feet through fasting by someone as respected and popular as Gandhi. I am not sure if Gandhi would have committed this crime, as Ms. Dutt imagines.

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11th Oct 2019

[1] Definition: skewed-secularist is someone who applies principles of secularism in a biased manner to favour a certain community.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1945_Indian_general_election I am looking for a more reliable source, if any one has please forward to me.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1946_Indian_provincial_elections as said above looking for more reliable source.