A little before the Assembly elections in five states, sants and seers with links to Hindutva groups at a meeting in Haridwar called for the elimination of India’s Muslims. A few weeks before, a Hindutva mob had attacked a Christian prayer hall in the district, alleging attempts at conversion.

The police treated the offenders in both cases with kid gloves, an approach diametrically different from the way opponents of the regime are treated.

What is in store for India’s Muslim and the Christian minorities after the resounding victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party in four of the five states that went to the polls recently? Will they be compelled to accept second-class status in the land of their birth and the land in which their forefathers were born? Will their plight be the same as that of Hindus and Christians in Pakistan?

The Indian Constitution, which our popular prime minister swears upon, promises equality, dignity and justice to every citizen, irrespective of religion, caste, gender or linguistic preference.

But as political scientist Ashutosh Varshney says, majoritarian politics cleverly utilises one vehicle of democracy – democratic elections – to push through the legislature laws to limit the freedoms guaranteed to the minorities by the Constitution.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays obeisance to the Consitution, in this photograph from May 2019. In the tweet accompanying the photo, Modi wrote: "Our only loyalty is to the Constitution and the values enshrined in it." Credit: Narendra Modi/Twitter

‘Second-class treatment’

A tale I have told before may bear repeating in the wake of the BJP’s assembly election victories. After I returned home to Mumbai in December 1989 from my last official assignment as ambassador to Romania, my Indian Police Service coursemate and good friend, DS “Vasant” Soman, said that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Sarsanghchalak, KS Sudarshan, was in the city and wanted to meet me because of my involvement in anti-terrorism operations in Punjab. I agreed to go to the home of Soman’s friend to meet Sudarshan.

Dinner had been laid out for 50 guests or more. Sudarshan welcomed us all, singling me for mention by name. He seemed to be bitter about what he felt was the “second-class” treatment that had been accorded to Hindus, though they formed 80% of India’s population. He repeated this peeve more than twice, which amazed me.

When the turn came for guests to speak, I said I could not follow the gist of his argument about the shabby treatment of the 80%. I had served the government for 40 years. I had never noticed discrimination against my Hindu colleagues by those in power, who also happened to be Hindus. Nor had I been discriminated against at any time by my Hindu bosses because of religion. Such thoughts had never entered anyone’s head throughout my 40 years in service. This was the first time I had heard of it.

Is it a coincidence or is it an article of faith with Hindutva followers that the 80% of the population, our Hindu brothers and sisters, should now be the ones to dictate to the other 20% how they should go about their daily lives in a Hindu country? Where and how is the line to be drawn on what the newly-created second-class citizens can do and – more importantly – cannot do?

Second-class citizenship is not defined in the Constitution, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi swears by. Does the BJP plan to insert articles about this into the document as soon as it comes to form all state governments?

New rules, ‘new’ era

What is in store for the minorities? We know that Muslims should desist from trading in cattle. They should stop consuming beef. Their young men should not fall in love with Hindu women. Christians should stop converting Hindus to their faith. These acts may be permitted by India’s Constitution but the book has been rewritten in practice in the Modi-Adityanath era and the new rules must be obeyed.

What else would second-class citizenship mean? Would Muslims and Christians compete in the civil service examinations like I did in 1952? Could they compete for commissions in the Armed Forces, like General Sunith Rodrigues, a Christian, or Air Chief Marshal Idris Latif, a Muslim, did in their time? Perhaps, they will be allowed at the entry point but restrained at the pinnacle. That would deter the really brilliant ones from joining the services.

What about appointments to the Supreme Court? Chief Justice Mathew Joseph of the Uttarakhand High Court was not cleared when the collegium recommended his name the first time. He was cleared only when it was certain that he could not have a shot at being chief justice of India.

Justice Akhil Kureshi of the Gujarat High Court faced similar hurdles to his advancement. His religion did him in. That was not something countenanced by the country’s Constitution. Yet, the justices had to accept the injustice being meted out to them by the new regime.

Of course, service chiefs, the Supreme Court judges and civil services all belong to the privileged classes. What about the less privileged who constitute the bulk of their co-religionists? How should they go about their daily existence in order to fit into this new idea of India? Will they be allowed to continue to worship in the way they are accustomed to?

Religion is a personal and highly emotional issue. Thinking individuals will admit that all religions are explanations for the unknown. The religion one follows is basically an accident of birth. Why can’t members of India’s minority communities not be left alone to believe what they were trained to believe by their parents, as long as they do not offend others by their utterances and actions?

The will of the majority

After he retired, my colleague in the Gujarat cadre of the police service, J Namboodhri, who had risen to be the director general of police, had a Muslim driver. During the 2002 Gujarat riots, Namboodhri received constant telephone calls from Vishwa Hindu Parishad workers demanding that he sack the man. He refused and housed the man in his own home for some months lest he be physically harmed by these extremists.

Is this going to be the life that minorities must lead in the new India, bereft of any form of employment and means of existence? Is this the true meaning of second-class citizenship? This is the question that the minorities want our rulers to answer.

In a democracy, voters have to accept the will of the majority. But there is a qualitative difference between living in a liberal democracy and a majoritarian state. That, we hoped, would be the difference between the democratic path chosen by India and the majoritarian one chosen by Pakistan, where the minorities are truly second-class citizens. Alas, the dark clouds seem to be gathering. One is not sure of what is in store.

The 80:20 gambit has proved beneficial to the BJP in its quest for power. As planned, India’s people are now well and truly divided. The 20% live in anxiety about what awaits them.

Julio Ribeiro served in several senior positions as a police officer and was India’s ambassador to Romania.