During his Vijayadashami speech on October 25, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat has invoked the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. He said that “before the issue could be discussed further, the focus shifted to coronavirus”.

Five days earlier, Bharatiya Janata Party president JP Nadda had asserted that the coronavirus delayed the implementation of the CAA and it would be implemented soon.

It is obvious that the BJP and the RSS want the new citizenship law – which introduces a religious test for Indian citizenship for the first time – back in the political discourse, what with assembly elections due in West Bengal next year.

The argument that the divisive CAA should be reconsidered in the face of enormous opposition to it and especially since India is facing a serious threat at the border from China is unlikely to have any effect on the RSS and the BJP.

However it is important that we ponder over one dimension of the CAA that has not received adequate attention – that the majoritarian impulse behind the CAA undermines and in fact damages India’s stated positions of fighting radical Islam.

Hostility to secularism

If there is one thing that western liberal democracies have been doing consistently and that has well served their purpose of fighting radical Islam, it is the unflinching support they have always invariably lent to the people it victimises the most. The Narendra Modi government’s politics, however, which led it to amend India’s citizenship law, does the exact opposite.

Embodying a hostility to secularism, the CAA exposes an aspect of Hindutva politics that readily ignores (if not embraces) – Islamic fundamentalism.

The first and most obvious target of radical Islam are not non-Muslims but liberal Muslims. There is a long list of Muslims including writer Salman Rushdie and education activist Malala Yusufzai persecuted by Islamic fundamentalists and protected by western democracies. This has not come without a cost to these countries. But they know that the hard-earned victory of the secular states in curtailing religion in the public sphere is a civilisational achievement worth the price.

Radical Islam finds its first targets in Muslim countries. This is evident in the numerous bomb blasts that Pakistan experiences in Sufi dargahs as the Sufi sect of Islam endorses individual freedom in the realm of spiritualism. Likewise, attacks on Ahmadis, Zikris and Shias are the result of Sunni-Wahhabi intolerance towards any kind of diversity within Islam.

While Islam continues to struggle with modernity in the 21st century, Hinduism too has foregone its liberal bent and has been increasingly witnessing a rapid radicalisation, a brittle intolerance manifested in the rise of a violent “sanatani” tendency.

Like radical Islam, its main target again is liberal Hindus – figures like Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh. Noted Maharashtrian public intellectual Narhar Kurundkar has made a razor-sharp observation: Freedom-era Muslim personalities such as Kasim Rizvi or Jinnah “were never the target of the pistols of Hindutva. After 1920 they didn’t fire a single bullet on the British. That bullet, it seems was reserved only for Gandhiji.”

A rally in support of the Citizenship Amendment Act in Chennai in January. Credit: Arun Sankar/AFP

The politics of Hindutva stifles liberal tendencies among Muslims by communalising secular issues and intensifying polarisation. If we had to choose one example of such clever and immensely successful politics of reframing the political battle between individual liberty and Islamic orthodoxy into one between two religious communities, it has to be found in LK Advani’s response to the Shah Bano case.

Following the decision of the Supreme Court in 1985 that upheld the right of a divorced Muslim woman named Shah Bano to claim maintenance from her former husband, Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi was seen to give in to pressure from Muslim clerics as he brought in a new law to deny Shah Bano justice under secular law. Through this action, her autonomy as an individual was subordinated and relegated to her identity as a Muslim.

Advani seized this political opportunity and descrbied this constitutional amendment as “Muslim appeasement”. This formulation cleverly glossed over the fact that when half of the Muslim population – Muslim women – were being deprived of their individual freedom, this could hardly be seen as appeasing the entire Muslim community. The issue of Muslim women’s rights was of no consequence for him. Had it been so, he would have fought their battle against Muslim orthodoxy and Rajeev Gandhi’s response to it.

Through the coinage and by popularising terms like “pseudo-secular” and “minority appeasement”, Advani succeeded in cultivating a sense of victimhood among Hindus. The roots of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation and the violence that followed have their roots in this cunning reframing of the Shah Bano episode. The consequences were tragic and detrimental to the Muslim community. It strengthened the hold of the Muslim clerics on ordinary Muslims. After the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the riots that followed in 1992, many Muslim women were put under the bourka.

Crocodile tears

A closer look at the Citizenship Amendment Act shows that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his close associate, Home Minister Amit Shah, are toeing the line of their Hindutva mentor, Advani. By denying citizenship to religiously persecuted individuals belonging to sects such as Ahmadiyas, Shias, Zikris from countries that neighbour India., they are relegating the individual autonomy of these victims to their religious identity. Like Advani, Modi and Shah are refusing, in principle, the right of these victims of Wahhabi Sunnis to demand justice.

When the parliament debated new citizenship law, Amit Shah blithely claimed that “Muslims can never be persecuted in Muslim countries”. He conveniently forgot that his party spokesmen had waxed eloquent only a few months before about the plight of minority Muslim sects in Paksitan, especially in Baluchistan..

The CAA not only discriminates against the minorities in India, it also exposes India’s insincere stand and lack of concern for minorities in Pakistan. The emotional rhetoric of sympathy for the minorities in Pakistan now appears as nothing more than crocodile tears. Both our spirit of nationalism and our commitment to the Constitution demand that we fight against this sinister, divisive politics.

Milind Murugkar writes on economic and political issues.