New Delhi – Coinciding with President Donald Trump’s India visit, a storm was brewing in the capital city of New Delhi and was set to explode. Sure enough it did. Now, with over 600 in jail, over 300 injured, and as of date nearly 50 dead, habitats charred, the post mortem continues in print, visual and digital media.
In hushed or loud tones within homes or in media, pundits and politicians alike are desperate to pin the blame on someone. The conspiracy theories run two-ways.
One theory suspects the opposing parties to the Prime Minister Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), who chose the moment of Trump’s arrival to use hostile violent protests as a compelling way to undermine Modi’s credibility as a popular leader and challenge his presentation of India as a secular democracy.
The other theory entirely ignores the Trump visit link instead presenting the riot outbreak as a calculated sadistic way of the ruling party to punish Delhi’s residents for giving the Aam Adami Party (AAP) a landslide electoral victory and decimating Modi’s party.
In the former version, opposition parties mobilized anti-Modis to carry out “resistance” much like the American anti-Trumpers did and continue to do in the US. In the latter version, Modi’s supporters and BJP leaders deliberately provoked counter-resistance to the resistance movement. In this divisive setting, the controversial, poorly explained and inadequately understood Amendment to the Citizenship Act (ACA) worked like a match to a pile of dry timber.
The genesis of ACA lies in the politics underlying Indian and South Asian demographics and socio-religious ethos. A Hindu majority country but characterized as secular, India is eternally sitting on a time bomb that is quickly and cheaply triggered by something as trivial as a rumor of a measly piece of beef being thrown into a temple, or a shred of pork flung into a mosque. India’s inter-faith tension gets exacerbated by the internal politics of neighboring countries.
Non-Muslim minorities in every neighboring country viz., Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, etcetera, have experienced victimization, genocide and eviction. Except in the most recent large-scale oppression and eviction of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, minority Muslim’s expulsion from self-proclaimed Islamic countries is rare.
With the above in mind, in its manifesto for the 2014 Indian general election, the BJP promised to provide a “natural home” for persecuted Hindu refugees specified as Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Parsis, and Buddhists. After failing to deliver on that promise in an earlier tenure, the BJP government passed a bill amending the existing Citizenship Act in both Houses, which after receiving the President’s assent, went into effect on January 10, 2020.
The Amendment makes those Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who fled religious persecution and took refuge in India on or before December 31, 2014 eligible for fast-track citizenship, with the residence requirement reduced from 11 years to 5 years.
In a country the size of India, the demographic impact of the bill reportedly is miniscule impacting no more than about 32,000 persons. But opposition can always be stirred up by miscreants and idealists whether for noble or ignoble reasons. Because Muslims from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are not offered eligibility for citizenship or for its fast-tracking under the new Act, the Amendment has provoked strong criticism. Questioning the exclusion of Muslim minority sects such as Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan and Hazaras in Afghanistan, critics have condemned it as racist, fascist, and a blatant attempt to saffronize and Hinduize India.
The Government has defended by countering that the three countries cited in the Act have declared themselves as Islamic States, which by definition makes them protective of all Islamic people and sects, to the exclusion of all Non-Islamic people.
A more reasonable charge is that the Amended Act does not include migrants from non-Muslim countries fleeing persecution to India, particularly Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar, Hindu refugees from Sri Lanka, and Buddhist refugees from Tibet/China.
In defense one can argue that the Act is not intended nor does it claim to be all encompassing. It targets and is limited (one could add for now?) to just those three countries and the six faiths listed. Such limited enactments are neither unconstitutional nor unusual as seen for example in the USwhere its Religious Persecution Relief Act of 2016 declares, “Syrian nationals who are religious minorities in their country of origin shall be classified as refugees of special humanitarian concern” and “eligible for priority processing.” If non-Syrians regard that as fascist and racist, that does not make it so!
In tandem with the Amended Act, in November 2019 the BJP Government declared its intention to implement nation-wide the compilation of a National Register of Citizens (NRC), the process for which was delineated by the Citizenship rules enacted in 2003, and in that sense it is not a recent innovation or aberration inflicted on the nation by BJP.
The NRC is meant to document all legal citizens while enumerating those that are not so identified as illegal immigrants or “foreigners”. The BJP’s rush to implement it, without first clarifying and publicizing its intent, scope, eligibility criteria, documentation and residency requirement made it ill-thought and disastrous.
Widely perceived as confusing, arbitrary, and socially disruptive, the measure has caused heartburn as many feel they are at risk of being deemed “foreigners” merely because their documents are deemed inadequate. Confounding this confusion is the deliberate misrepresentation in political and media circles that the NRC discriminates against, and incriminates Muslims.
With misgivings not always grounded in facts, the phobia and “Zionism” implied or associated with the two initiatives has put India squarely in the line of fire. Starting with Assam, open protests against the CAA/NRC have surfaced in New Delhi and in other key cities and states with students, political and human rights activists taking to the streets claiming the laws marginalize, and are prejudicial to, Muslims.
Proponents have led equally passionate and loud marches throughout India. Clashes among supporting and opposing groups were and continue to be instigated and inflamed by appealing to the old Hindu-Muslim divide sentiment.
On February 24 in particular, wishing to damage Modi’s openly favorable and extravagant wooing of Trump, violent clashes surfaced or were consciously triggered among CAA’s opponents and proponents in some parts of Delhi where people of all faiths live cheek by jowl in passive peace that is vulnerable to planned or spontaneous, external or indigenous provocation.
Fiery vituperative speeches by self-serving elected representatives from BJP, and either ignored or secretly endorsed by the police and by other political players and communal forces, caused mayhem. Beastly acts of violence disrupted the coexistence of people of all faiths in the affected “sensitive” areas.
Eager to find scapegoats for what happened, at whose directive or with whose calculated negligence, the media blamed BJP-led Central Government, whose Home Minister holds the law and order portfolio with the Police and Intelligence reporting to him. So if no preventive or punitive action was taken to quell the riots, he is culpable. But most punditry failed to charge the opposition parties with complacence or even complicity.
Whenever communal disturbance occurs, Indian leaders have always known or should know how to respond. They need to act with alacrity to defuse the situation by being at the site personally and leading peace marches and interfaith dialogue to achieve immediate truce and prepare to return to normalcy.
As Delhi burnt, and thousands of SOS calls to Police to intervene or send ambulances and fire brigades stood unanswered, and elected representatives chose to stay away, the savagery and damage to property and human life worsened.
Amidst the charred ruins of city dwellings, schools and shops, and injured bodies, lie the sad trails of twin legal initiatives gone wrong, and a democratic polity gone awry.