The moral concern expressed over the suffering of a carefully defined group of persecuted religious minorities in India’s amended Citizenship Act, which seeks to naturalise non-Muslim undocumented migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, shares worrying similarities with the rhetoric and policies of the German state between 1929-1940.

The differential legal mechanisms in the law, which was signed by President Ramnath Kovind on Thursday, for obtaining Indian citizenship discriminate on the basis of religious identity and express the different moral worth of Hindus and non-Hindus. The methods of enactment are different from the German state in the 1930s, but the ideological work performed by the rhetoric and policies of the German and Indian states share disturbing continuities.

The policies of the German state unfolded in the wake of World War I, which witnessed the fragmentation of multinational empires like the Ottoman Empire following widespread inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence, including the Armenian genocide of 1915-’16. The Eastern European successor states like Poland and Czechoslovakia were granted recognition by the League of Nations provided they submitted themselves to an internationally monitored and enforced minority rights regime. The regime required the states to guarantee cultural rights, like freedom of religion, to ethnic and religious minorities. Unlike contemporary individual human rights, these rights were vested in collective ethnic and religious groups. They were directly enforceable by the League against the state.

Trustee rights

Germans constituted the largest ethnic minority in Eastern Europe at the time, spread over Czechoslovakia, Poland, Greece and parts of the USSR and the Balkans.The German state, the Weimar Republic succeeded by the Nazi state, tirelessly raised the issue of the oppression faced by German minorities in these states –claims that were rooted in reality. They spearheaded the position that the “League must protect minorities and respect their [minority] rights” by enforcing the minority rights regime against states like Poland. However, this moral concern was strictly restricted to those “members of [the] in a foreign environment”, that is, German minorities living in Eastern European states.

In October 1933, the representative of the newly formed Nazi state to the League clarified that the German nation had “a natural and moral right to consider that all its members – even those separated from the mother country by state frontiers-constitute a moral and cultural whole”. Continuing the pursual of this policy after their withdrawal from the League, the Nazis claimed to protect their “racial comrades” either through invasion (Austria and Sudetenland) or via the acquisition of “trustee rights” in their Danubian client states that gave Germany, the “mother country”, the right to intervene to protect “the folk-group”.

The Nazis used moral concern over the plight of German minorities abroad to articulate a racialised national polity, where the unifying force of a shared racial identity transcended state boundaries. In the words of a pan-German theorist: “Blood is stronger than the passport.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. Credit: Money Sharma/AFP

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi lauded the Lok Sabha passing the citizenship legislation by tweeting that the “Bill will alleviate the suffering of many who faced persecution for years”. His tweet is symptomatic of the classificatory system of citizenship enshrined in the Citizenship Act being couched in an overtly moral discourse by his Bharatiya Janata Party. In his Parliamentary speeches, Home Minister Amit Shah emphasised the necessity of the law to provide rights, including the right to equality, for groups who have been subjected to atyachaar (suffering/oppression) by Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh due to their religious identity.

Shah hailed the law as realising the “dreams of crores of deprived and victimised people…[by] ensur[ing] the dignity and safety [of the] affected people”. He argued that the minorities under the umbrella of the law “had to constantly live in fear of extinction” in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. This law is an olive branch “to extend them [minorities] dignity and an opportunity to rebuild their lives”. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are constructed as helpless victims whom India must save from the tyranny of intolerant, Islamic theocratic states by easing the procedures of Indian citizenship for them.

The ruling dispensation has actively avoided including Muslims within the Citizenship Act through several manoeuvres. This included rejecting the Joint Parliamentary Commission’s proposal to replace the list of groups with “persecuted minorities”, which could have included persecuted Muslims and Tamils from neighbouring countries. Shah dismissed the exclusion of persecuted Muslim groups in neighbouring countries as red herrings raised by political opponents.He cited the supposed logical impossibility of Muslims being oppressed by an avowedly Islamic state (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan) for the exclusion. However, this is patently untrue, as evidenced by the Ahmadiyya sect in Pakistan. Shah’s riposte also fails to address why the law does not extend to Myanmar or Sri Lanka – neighbouring states culpable for the systemic oppression of Rohingyas and Tamils respectively.

Businessman Shiv Nadar with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat at the Vijayadashami function in Nagpur in October. Credit: PTI

Modi described the passage of the legislation as a “landmark day for India and our nation’s ethos of compassion and brotherhood”, claiming that it is “in line with India’s centuries-old ethos of assimilation and belief in humanitarian values
. The brotherhood of Modi’s India clearly does not extend to persecuted Muslims. These exclusions tell us that the suffering of the Rohingyas, Sri Lankan Tamils or Ahmediyas does not matter to the Indian state. Akin to German policies in the 1930s, the objects of moral concern for the national community help articulate a racialised conception of the nation – the Hindu Rashtra.

Who is a Hindu?

Sympathisers of the law may point to the six religious identities listed in the law (as Shah did ad nauseam in Parliament). However, “Hindu” is not a mere religious category for the Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. VD Savarkar, the intellectual founder of the Hindu Right, argued that a “Hindu means a person who regards this land of Bharatvarsha, from the Indus to the seas, as his Fatherland as well as his Holyland”. For Savarkar, Hinduism included “all religious beliefs that the different communities of the Hindu people hold”. Therefore, Savarkar categorised Sikhs and Jains as “racially and nationally and culturally” part of the same “polity and a people” – Hindu people.

Hence, the repeated statements by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat that “all people living in India are Hindu by identity” regardless of their religious beliefs should surprise no one. Savarkar was careful to exclude Muslims and Christians from the racial category of “Hindu” regardless of the length for which Muslims or Christians inhabited the subcontinent because the subcontinent is not their Holyland. Since they were not Hindus, Muslims and Christians would have to live as subordinate members of the Hindu political community, according to Savarkar.

This more expansive, racial definition of Hindu aligns almost perfectly with the groups included by the Citizenship Act, except for Christians. (Perhaps a numerical insignificance in the broader reshaping of the polity, or a political compromise to avoid excessive brazenness?) The BJP is thus racially redefining the basis for membership within the Indian political community. They are invoking moral rhetoric to protect fellow nationals (in the Hindutva imagination) regardless of state boundaries by granting them citizenship through the Citizenship Act (if only in law, not fact).

Rishabh Bajoria is a law student at the University of Melbourne who is interested in questions of citizenship and discrimination.