Tender flowers of hope versus a ruthless bulldozer. That is how I picture the start of the year 2020 in India.
Among the hope-giving buds I include Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recognition, in the context of protests against the CAA and NRC, that India’s youth “dislike discrimination”. Modi didn’t admit that the careful exclusion of Muslims from the list of persecuted migrants whom the CAA is designed to support is the precise discrimination upsetting India’s youth. However, in today’s setting that’s the direct meaning of “discrimination”.
The physical and ideological descendants of Badshah Khan — the “Frontier Gandhi” who opposed imperialism, the Pakistan demand and the two-nation theory, thereby inviting imprisonment by the British before 1947 and by Pakistani regimes after 1947 — continue to face murderous attacks from Islamist extremists in Pakistan. If any of them wish to enter India, the CAA would deny them succour. For only one reason — they are Muslims. It’s a discrimination that India’s youth are unwilling to accept.
Another bud of hope was Venkaiah Naidu’s plea on December 29 for “enlightened, meaningful and constructive discussion” over the CAA and the NRC. A third was the call on December 28 by Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the Union minister for minorities, for “immediate action” against the UP police officer who had asked Muslim protestors to “go to Pakistan”.
A bigger blossom of hope had appeared on December 22, when Modi indicated at a Delhi rally that the NRC was not on the anvil. The biggest positive array, however, was formed by tens of thousands of students of all religious hues who spontaneously, and in almost every case entirely peacefully, rallied across India against the discriminatory CAA and the NRC — the latter now seemingly abandoned.
But the bulldozer has not been quiet. It has been particularly menacing in Uttar Pradesh, where Chief Minister “Yogi” Adityanath has threatened “revenge” on protestors who damage property. Bringing offenders to book is no doubt an administration’s task. Taking revenge on your own people is an offended ruler’s rage in full flow. The damage that UP’s protests caused was hardly unprecedented. Haryana in 2016, also under BJP rule, saw far greater destruction but invited no stern reaction. The crime last month of UP’s protestors was that they had been born to Muslim parents.
Also damaging to the image of Indian democracy has been the elevation to the new post of Chief of Defence Staff of General Bipin Rawat right after his public criticism, unprecedented for a military chief, of civilian protests.
In his nation-wide address to the youth (December 29), Modi asked them to introspect. Rights, he added, came with duties. Presumably it was introspection that had led Modi a week earlier to, sort of, drop the NRC. Has he the courage now to bravely rethink the CAA? It has to be redrafted to address the situation of all persecuted persons who might seek relief, or might have sought relief, by entering India. Naming specific religious groups as being entitled to relief, and deafeningly excluding Muslims, is probably unconstitutional and unquestionably un-Indian.
Some have tried to justify the discrimination by citing the circumstances of the 1947 Partition. Can circumstances 72 years ago justify inequality today? Moreover, those circumstances should be honestly recalled. The 1947 Partition was not designed to create two nations, one Hindu and the other Muslim. The Pakistan demanded by the League’s 1940 resolution, and the Pakistan to which the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League and the Akalis agreed, was a separated state for the Subcontinent’s Muslim-majority areas. It was not a Muslim homeland to which the Subcontinent’s Muslims would migrate. Nor was there any agreement that non-Muslims in the Pakistan area would migrate to India.
The 1947 Partition did not bring about a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan. It created a secular India containing a Hindu majority, and a Muslim-majority Pakistan which M A Jinnah hoped would be a secular state. While Jinnah’s hopes were belied, the free India envisioned by — to name only a few — Gandhi, Tagore, Nehru, Patel, Subhas Bose, Maulana Azad, Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar, grew as a pluralist and democratic nation. An amazed world had not expected that a long-colonised country with caste divisions that seemed greater than Africa’s tribal divisions, a linguistic diversity before which even Europe seemed unilingual, and a religious mix that appeared even more challenging than the Middle East’s brew, would remain democratic, with — at least on paper and often on the ground — equal rights for all.
That was India’s promise and feat. And that is what the bulldozer would now crush and bury into the ground.
In 2020, the Indian, and in particular the young Indian, will interact more than before with counterparts from North America, Europe, Japan, Australia, China, the Gulf and elsewhere. Indian women and men will represent us in international cricket, chess, badminton and other sporting contests. Indian artists will rub shoulders with global artists, Indian musicians will perform on the international stage. Tens of thousands of Indian students will enter universities around the planet.
Some hurtful images are bound to influence resulting interactions. Including of the German student who had to leave IIT-Madras abruptly because he joined fellow-students in a peaceful protest. And of the Norwegian lady who had to leave Kerala before she had wanted to because she too had stood along with other quiet protesters. What will an Indian student say in 2020 to a fellow student in Europe or America from another part of the world?
Within India, will a Hindu student in UP say to a Muslim student in her city, “Let us grow in democracy, free speech, equality, mutual respect, knowledge of each other?” Or will she say, “Too bad. Because Pakistanis have done bad things, and because centuries ago some Muslim rulers were narrow-minded and harsh, you cannot have equal rights.”
In the end, it’s a question of the meaning, in our minds, of “my people”. Is every Indian mine? Or only an Indian of a particular kind? In the long run, the tiniest shoot of compassion or courage will topple the heaviest stone. Meanwhile the bulldozer does its nasty work.
The writer is research professor at the University of Illinois
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