Secular State

By basing asylum policy on religion, Modi government has set a dangerous precedent

The Centre has marked out Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Jain, Parsi and Buddhist refugess for special treatment allowing them to stay in India even without any visas.

“Pseudo-secularism” was a term invented by Bharatiya Janata Party supremo LK Advani, ostensibly to attack the misuse of secularism in India. In reality, the phrase functioned as dog whistle and was used by people who had no desire to correct Indian secularism but who intended to remove it altogether.

Advani is now out of the picture but the wheels he set in motion have gathered a lot of momentum. Narendra Modi might now be a political adversary of Advani’s but they still remain fellow travellers. In keeping with the pseudo-secular spirit, therefore, Modi’s government this week announced an asylum policy based explicitly on religious lines.

In a notification issued on Monday by the Ministry of Home Affairs, it was announced that people from Pakistan and Bangladesh who had sought shelter in India before December 31, 2014, “due to religious persecution or fear of religious persecution” would be allowed to stay. The notification also took great care to list out the religions whose followers were eligible for this relaxation in the rules: Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists.

Weak justification

Of course, that the rationale of “religious persecution” is only half the story, as is obvious from the glaring omission in the list: Muslims. (Or, put another way, is shown by the fact that you needed to have a religious list at all). Shia Muslims, by any standard should be categorised as under “religious persecution”: more than 150 members of the community were murdered in Pakistan in just the first six months of 2015 . Most of these killings were gruesome: in May 2015, terrorists attacked a bus and killed 43 Ismailis, a sub-sect of Shia Muslims. The killing of a Shia ethnic group, the Hazara, has reached a point where a number of commentators have taken to calling it a genocide. The Hazara, desperate to escape, ironically look to far-away Australia as a refuge – a country that has accepted them, citing the persecution they face in Pakistan. Neighbouring India, a country with which the Hazara have historic links – there was even once a Hazara regiment in the British Indian Army – is not even an option.

The Ahmadis – a small Muslim sect – has been facing continuous persecution almost since Pakistan was formed.  Today television shows openly denounce Ahmadis as so-called infidels. In 2014, 11 Ahmadis were killed by religious fanatics. Ahmadis are often pejoratively called “Qadianis” after the town of Qadian, the birthplace of founder of the Ahmadi community. Qadian is, incidentally, located in India now but India has no policy of offering asylum to this persecuted group.

Hindutva and elections

Clearly then, India’s claim of offering asylums to people suffering from “religious persecution” is only half true. The other half is driven by India’s internal considerations: majoritarianism and, also, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s own electoral chances.

Majoritarianism here would mean a Hindu equivalent to the Law of Return that allows any Jew anywhere in the world to migrate to Israel. The BJP’s ideology of Hindutva assumes a religio-ethnic definition of Indian which excludes so-called foreign religions from its purview. In its election manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the party had declared India to be "a natural home for persecuted Hindus" who "shall be welcome to seek refuge". Even the addition of “Christian” in the current list is largely for cosmetic purposes since Christian numbers are too small in Pakistan to even figure a blip on India's refugee radar. Indeed, in its first year in power, the Modi government granted citizenship to 4,230 Pakistanis but not a single one of them was Christian (they were either Hindu or Sikh).

The Bengali Hindu vote in Assam

The other driver: the upcoming Assam elections. The Bharatiya Janata Party is angling for the Bengali Hindu vote in the state and the detention of illegal migrants from Bangladesh is a major issue in Assam, driven by the Assamese-Bengali ethnic divide. No sooner had this notification been issued that Ram Madhav, national general secretary of the BJP, immediately bought in the political demand that illegal Bangladeshi Hindus detained by the Assam government be released.



Of course, ethnic Assamese are chaffing under these new rules. Migration of Bangladeshis, both Hindu and Muslim, has been a contentious issue in Assam almost since 1947, and has lead to much violence. The 1985 Assam Accord, an agreement between the Centre and political forces in Assam, had come to a settlement on this regard, agreeing to accept Bangladeshis who had come into India before 1971, but not after. Many Assamese see these new rules issued by the Modi government as a dilution of the Assam Accord. The Assam Tribune reports that the All Assam Students Union would launch an agitation against the notification. Similar agitations in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s had often sparked off anti-Bengali violence in Assam.

Basic policy unit

Apart from Assam, the notification will also have deep ramification for the nature of the Indian state itself. In 1947, when the Congress accepted the division of British India, it implied a de facto acknowledgment of the “Two Nation Theory”. However, India’s leaders at the time never even considered accepting it de jure. Becoming a “Hindu Pakistan”, in the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, was anathema and the Indian state always sought to define itself as secular.  In fact, even Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the poisonous theory’s biggest backer till 1947, sought an eleventh hour panicked withdrawal in his famous August 11, 1947 speech, remarking that “in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus, and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State”.

Of course, for Pakistan, it was a textbook case of far too little, far too late. Nevertheless, almost seven decades after all this should have been buried in India, why is the Modi government now making policy that treats religious categories as political? Why is the Indian state using religious communities and not individuals as policy building blocks? Have no lessons been learnt from history at all?

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