At the dawn of Independence, India chose a sui generis model of secularism over the Hindu nationalistic brand to protect and cope with the country’s multiculturalism. The preamble of the Indian constitution lays down the aspirational vision for the country and the philosophy of the makers of the document. We are, undoubtedly, a “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic” nation. But, are we though?
In this context, let’s take a look at one of the most pressing issues in our country today – The National Register of Citizens in Assam. The final list of this register was published in mid-September, and around 19 lakh people were left out from the list. These 19 lakh individuals, who are at the risk of being pronounced ‘stateless’ have about 120 days to prove their citizenship.
NRC and Communalism – The Argument
The implementation of the NRC has been condemned for its human rights violations, disregard of the separation of powers principle, lack of clarity regarding the action to be taken by the State on those who become stateless, etc. A very subtle issue that underlies this procedure is the age-old communal issue of Hindus v. Muslims. I will argue that the current Government is using the NRC as a project of ethnic cleansing to further its Hindu nationalistic goals, i.e. the same ideals which were rejected at the time of our country’s independence.
There is strong evidence to suggest that Muslims, especially the Bengali Muslims, who arrived in Assam during partition and after that, have always been other-ed by the native Assamese population. In 1983, around 1,800 Muslims (unofficial figures are as high as 3,000) were brutally murdered by an armed mob that surrounded several Muslim-dominated villages. Several such anti-Muslim attacks have taken place since then, the latest one being in 2014. There is a certain normalization of this kind of violence in Assam, where the perpetrators are neither held responsible nor punished. These massacres occur whilst tagging the victim Muslims are “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants”. This sentiment of equating only Muslims with illegal immigration, by conveniently leaving out the Hindus, has been shared by the current government along with the Assamese population. In 2005, a clash between Assamese Bodos and Bengali Muslims was termed as a clash between Indians and “illegal immigrants” by one of the co-founders and the senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, L.K. Advani.
The BJP party had been eager about the outcome of the NRC updating process as it was hoping to see a majority of Muslims on that list. However, as soon as the final list was published, it was found that the majority of the 19 lakh individuals who were left out of the list were Hindus. This obviously caused anxiety among the ruling party members. They began assuring the individuals left out that they would not have to worry, as they would be given reasonable time and opportunity to present their cases. The Union Home Minister, Amit Shah and several Sangh Parivar leaders have been assuring all Hindus that would not have to worry about the consequences of being left out from the NRC at all. In another attempt to further the government’s Hindu nationalistic intentions, Shah, in a political rally in Kolkata was found saying the following – “I want to assure all Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Christian refugees that you will not be forced to leave India by the Centre. Don’t believe rumours. Before NRC, we will bring the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which will ensure these people get Indian citizenship.” Now, the mentioned Citizenship Amendment Bill is the Bill that seeks to grant Indian citizenship to all the non-Muslim immigrants, i.e. Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, Buddhist and Christian communities from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The Bill seeks to protect these communities as they are known to be facing “religious persecution” in these Muslim-majority countries. However, the Bill conveniently has no provision for Muslim sects such as Hazara and Ahmediya, whose members face persecution in Pakistan. It also has no provision for protecting Tamil Muslims and Hindus facing religious persecution in Sri Lanka and for Rohingya Muslims facing the same in Myanmar. This arbitrary selective anti-Muslim bill reveals the BJP’s sinister intention of destroying the weakening secularist principles of the country.
Protecting Secularism in India
The Supreme Court does not have a very good record with protecting the secularism of our country, but it did a commendable job with S.R. Bommai v. Union of India. In this case, the court validated the proclamations of the President dissolving the state legislative assemblies in three states on account of their unsecular actions. These state governments were guilty of offering overt as well as covert support to the kar sevaks who had demolished the “Ram Janambhoomi- Babri Masjid structure”. Identifying the acts as “unsecular”, the court held secularism to be a part of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution and any state government guilty of unsecular policies would be at the risk of being dissolved by the President’s proclamation. The court defined secularism to be “more than a passive attitude of religious tolerance”. It held it to mean a “positive concept of equal treatment of all religions”. If this is the fate of a state government behaving in an unsecular manner, should not the central government be made accountable in case of such breach?
But, today, in the case of NRC, there is little hope that the Supreme Court would come to the rescue of India’s secularism when it is needed. In the Sarbananda Sonowal case, the Supreme Court’s unflinchingly Islamophobia became evident when it held that Assam was at the risk of becoming a Muslim majority state and that it was only a matter of time before the state would want to be merged with Bangladesh. The court also remarked that there is a huge threat of Islamic fundamentalism and equated illegal immigration in Assam to external aggression. Another reason for the deteriorated hope in the Supreme Court is that the court is busy acting “more Executive-minded than the Executive itself” instead of undertaking its more important roles, viz. monitoring the actions of the other two organs of the State and protecting the country’s Constitutional principles.
All of this clearly directs us to pay attention to the ever-weakening India’s unique brand of secularism. Around 10 ago, Rajeeev Bhargava had proudly argued that “the Indian version of secularism is a modern alternative to its mainstream Western counterpart, one from which everyone may benefit in the future”. One can only call this deterioration process an unfortunate moment for all of us to witness.
Anushri Uttarwar is a 3rd year B.B.A. L.L.B student at O.P. Jindal Global University.