Rigorous historical analysis is needed to comprehend contemporary politics

Opinion by Vibhav Mariwala
Jan. 23, 2020, 2:10 a.m.

The Citizenship Amendment Act is inherently discriminatory, and its supporters’ arguments lack historical and cultural depth.

A recent article in The Stanford Review titled “Why Stanford protestors are wrong about India’s citizenship bill” argued that the premise of the recent Stanford protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was faulty and informed by false information. I’d like to argue that this article lacked historical context and analysis in explaining the dangers of this act.

As a student of Indian history pursuing a thesis on the creation of the modern Indian state, I was disappointed by the arguments made, mainly because they propagate the same false narratives espoused by the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) and its supporters in India. The argument forwarded by the Review article lacked historical depth.

The only point I agree with the article on is that the CAA needs to be viewed in its historical context. However, the author of the article possesses an incomplete and poorly researched idea of how modern India was formed. Moreover, the CAA must be analysed through the lens of the BJP’s policy of Hindutva, which essentially advocates the creation of a Hindu state in which religious and ethnic minorities are not considered equal citizens.

The CAA provides fast-track citizenship to select minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan but fails to specify a pathway to citizenship for Muslim minorities from the same countries. In essence, it allows Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians an expedited Indian citizenship process. The government claimed that the CAA would be used to help those fleeing religious persecution. However, the Act does not mention persecution at all

There were several opportunities for legislators to craft a more inclusive bill. In December, as I stayed up late to watch debates on the bill in Parliament, several amendments were proposed, including one which would have allowed all religious minorities, including Muslims, to be covered by the Act. This proposed amendment failed. Additionally, there was an amendment proposed to include minorities from other countries including Sri Lanka, where thousands of Hindu Tamils fled the Sri Lankan War to India, Bhutan and Nepal, but that also failed. So here is a question I pose to any supporters of the CAA: What is the problem with including Muslims in a bill that is meant to help minorities?

The Review article reads, “Most importantly, the CAA does not affect existing Indian citizens. Anti-CAA propaganda at Stanford has painted an apocalyptic picture of an India in which Muslims are relegated to second-tier status. This mischaracterizes the bill. The CAA does absolutely nothing to curtail the rights of any existing Indian citizen, Muslim or otherwise.”

The writer has failed to even mention the creation of National Register of Citizens (NRC) and how that process is discriminatory and undermines the rights of Indian citizens. The NRC officially instituted a state-wide register of citizens in the Indian state of Assam following the 1951 Census of India. It was created in response to large-scale migration to Assam after the Partition of India and Pakistan (and present-day Bangladesh) in 1947. This migration disrupted relations between the Assamese, Muslims and Bengali Hindus. The aim of the 1951 NRC was to compile a list of legal citizens in the state and remove illegal immigrants from Bangladesh given the state’s ethnic and religious factions. Contrary to fundamental democratic principles, the burden of proof fell on individuals to prove their citizenship, rather than the state to disprove their claims to citizenship. The NRC was carried out at significant costs and left out 1.9 million individuals from the registrar, many of whom are Hindus. The process has proven to be extremely burdensome to the people of Assam, with many committing suicide because of the prospect of being locked up in detention camps or spending their savings in legal fees. 

The CAA will allow disenfranchised Hindus under the NRC to regain their citizenship, while leaving Muslims at a disadvantage. One of the many reasons for the recent uproar in India over the Act is that many Muslims view it as a direct threat to their citizenship. How? The Act disenfranchises millions under the tedious NRC process, in which citizens are expected to provide papers that prove their ancestors entered the country before a particular date, which most poor and illiterate Indians do not possess. However, unlike disenfranchised Hindus and non-Muslim minorities, Muslims will be left in bureaucratic limbo and might not be able to get their citizenship back under this law, while Hindus and other religious groups will be granted expedited citizenship. To the writer’s point about Muslims being able to apply for citizenship through other means: this does not negate the fact that the priority that the CAA gives non-Muslims still makes it discriminatory. 

The writer also mentions that the CAA does not undermine Indian secularism. However, it undermines fundamental components of the Indian constitution, whether it is Article 14, the equality clause or its secular preamble. Moreover, the Act undermines the intentions of the founding fathers, which was to create a state that upholds rights equally, to all its citizens. When citizenship was debated in the Constituent Assembly of India in 1947, Sardar Patel, then Home Minister, made his intention of making citizenship a non-issue clear.

Patel said, “There are two ideas about nationality in the modern world, one is broad-based nationally and the other is narrow nationality. Now, in South Africa we claim for Indians born there South African nationality [referencing the Apartheid regime]. It is not right for us to take a narrow view.”

The CAA propounds a narrow view of citizenship that Patel himself was against. Making religion a basis under which some individuals are prioritized over others contradicts the view expressed above. While I agree that minorities in Pakistan and other countries have been persecuted by the state, why not broaden the parameters of citizenship? Why limit it only to religion and not other factors? 

Another broad generalisation many other pro-CAA supporters make is that because Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan are Islamic states, Muslims cannot be persecuted there. This analysis is flawed and can be refuted by a simple Google search. It assumes Islam is a coherent, homogenous religion. It is not. Indian Muslims have lived on the subcontinent for centuries and have become a constituent part of Indian culture. Just think Bollywood music, chicken tikka, Mughlai food and Indian clothes. Shia and Sunni Islam and very different in their practices, and these broad categories include further sub-divisions. Saudi Arabia and Iran are both Muslim states, but they are still opposed to each other because Saudi Arabia is a Sunni-majority state, while Iran is a Shia-majority state. Some Muslims are discriminated by others in these “Muslim states”; the CAA washes over these important distinctions within Islam. The writer of the Review article mentions that India recognizes Ahmadis as Muslims. However, they are unable to sit on the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, which is the body recognized as the representatives of Indian Muslims by the government. Moreover, Pakistan declared Ahmadis to be non-Muslims in 1974, so by definition, they should be recognized as minorities (which the CAA does not). 

Finally, the Review article fails to make mention of the nationalist ideology of the BJP and its anti-Muslim ideals. Since Modi took office in 2014, hate crimes against Muslims have increased exponentially, and after his re-election in 2019, his government has exacerbated its anti-Muslim actions. On Aug. 5, his government stripped the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy and demoted it to a Union Territory controlled by the Central Government. The BJP-led central government also imposed an internet blackout when it stripped the state of its autonomy, suppressing all forms of dissent in the state. The blackout has persisted for longer than 150 days, making it the longest that a democratic region has seen. In protests against the CAA in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s largest and most populous state, Muslim homes have been targeted by the police, while militant Hindu groups have been able to roam scot-free. Are these actions taken by the state not discriminatory?

I would suggest that the Review writer, along with other CAA supporters, take a class or two in source analysis and read some seminal works on the modern Indian state. Some of these include “The Indian Constitution: A Cornerstone of the Nation” (it has chapter-wise breakdowns of fundamental rights and other provisions) and “The Discovery of India” (specifically the last two chapters), two works that explain the political and social context under which India was founded. It would be worth also reading AG Noorani’s anthology “The Muslims of India: A Documentary Record” to understand how the differential interests of minorities were reconciled in the country (it is also a treasure trove of primary sources!). India’s founders strove to avoid incorporating religion into the state’s activities to ensure that all Indians, regardless of their cultural, religious or ethnic backgrounds were allowed to participate in the experiment of Indian democracy. Finally, I would recommend reading the section on Fundamental Rights in the Constitution of India itself. It is an expression of what India ought to be and the work that needs to be done to make it a truly sovereign, secular, democratic republic.

If you are a student interested in learning more about South Asia, I would recommend taking HISTORY 296E: “Modern South Asia,” HISTORY 296C: “The Making of Modern India,” HISTORY 297D: “Oral History and the Partition of India” and HISTORY 297G: “Rulers, Reformers, Radicals: History of India in Two Centuries.” I hope the University offers more classes on South Asian Politics; they are needed.

Contact Vibhav Mariwala at vibhavm ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Vibhav is a senior staff writer from Mumbai, India. He is a history major writing an honor’s thesis on the Indian Constitution and Indian economic policy from 1947-60. When he’s not reading history books, Vibhav enjoys sailing, kayaking and hiking.

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