With the National Register of Citizens (NRC) the Right in India has taken its first step to move from cultural mobilisation to legalising its vision of a Hindu Rashtra. The NRC is not just about Assam or Bengal. Its ramifications are much wider—that of reducing Muslims in concrete terms to second-class citizens.
The NRC in Assam has declared 19 lakh people as illegal residents. They have to appear before the Foreigners’ Tribunals to determine their final status on the basis of documentation. However, it is now quite evident that more Hindus have been excluded by the NRC than Muslims. This outcome does not favour the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for it had envisaged in the NRC a project to demonstrate that the Muslims are ‘infiltrators’.
One has to wait and watch how the BJP would negotiate this new reality and whether it would use the outcome to push for a new consensus on the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Through this Bill, the government aims to accommodate Hindu, Buddhist and Jain refugees from a handful of neighbouring countries, but not Muslim immigrants.
This is why it is unlikely that the outcome of the NRC will stop the BJP from extending it to the rest of India, especially to places where Muslims reside in sizable numbers. The Right wants to normalise its idea that Muslims are ‘outsiders’ to India. Linking citizenship to religious nationality via the Citizenship Bill is one way to cement this idea via legislation.
Therefore, the NRC is not just about Muslims “from” Bangladesh. Drumming up and inflating the idea of immigrant influx from across India’s borders is just the starting point of the politics to be played over this issue. The ultimate aim is to place a question mark before the very citizenship of Muslims anywhere in India. This is what makes any NRC-like exercise the first major legal step towards fructifying a Hindu Rashtra. So far, this idea has remained only within the limits of cultural mobilisation, public lynching, fear and intimidation and engineered riots. Now it is in the legal territory.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS continues to be plagued by a troubled psyche, haunted by memories of the Partition and the two-nation theory offered as its justification. Its members continue to live the fantasy of mass migration that history bears witness to. In fact, those declared “illegal” by the NRC exercise cannot be moved to any other nation. The second option is to move to internment camps all those who are unable to prove their citizenship. However, it is doubtful if the current regime is planning even this: camps are not a feasible option for 19 lakh people.
The only viable alternative then seems to be to withdraw their citizenship rights: mass disenfranchisement, withdrawal of social security measures, eligibility to welfare policies and employment and holding public offices and Constitutional positions.
A precedent to these sort of measures could well be cited with regard to Kashmir. If “outsiders” cannot buy land in Jammu and Kashmir and Balmiki “Hindu” migrants from West Pakistan cannot be eligible for Permanent Resident Certificates (they are only eligible for Class-IV jobs in government), why cannot this criterion hold, to begin with, for Muslims who are alleged to be “outsiders” and then to all Muslims. This is the argument that has been widely propagated by the Right and will surely be trotted out again.
This is why recent developments in Kashmir are preparatory measures for steps to be taken under NRC. The contrast, in the popular imagination, between the rights of Hindus in Kashmir versus the rights of Muslims in India makes for—as the Right wing would have us believe—great optics. It is an optics that serves to convince the Hindu majority that if a threat perception stops Kashmiri Pandits from being resettled in the Valley, how is it fair to allow Muslims to settle in the rest of India? Thus, by default, India becomes “Hindu India”.
The backdrop of these developments, whether in Kashmir or Assam, is the style of governance under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Governance has taken the form of a soap opera, with a new “story” offered every week that keeps the suspense going. By the time the consequences and meaning of a proposed change are figured out, the next “episode” is launched.
However, as in a soap opera that has had a long run on television, there is always a bigger story behind the twists and turns of these weekly episodes. One cannot miss this bigger picture while seeing the weekly episodes as if they are standalone features. The various episodes of triple talaq, Sabarimala, Kashmir, mob lynching, and now NRC are linked by the obsessive imagination of creating a Hindu Rashtra.
We have not only to connect these episodes but also parse their details in order to make sense of what is being proposed and why it might gain popular consent. Further, those who stand opposed to the narrow vision of a Hindu India need to preempt the possible next steps—or episodes—that emerge from the imagination of the Right. To be caught up with each issue in itself would be a great loss to efforts to counter-mobilise: Therefore, unless the implications of NRC are linked to other episodes, a mobilisation against Hindu Rashtra will prove impossible.
For example, there is a connection between creating a monolithic Hindu society and the recent attempts to demolish the Ravidas temple, a revered place for dalits. This demolition took place even as the Right pitches for building a temple in Ayodhya dedicated to the Hindu god, Rama. Similarly, even as the “special status” of Kashmir is withdrawn, it has consequences for other “special provisions” such as reservations for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and backward classes.
The BJP and RSS are testing the waters with the demolition of the Ravidas temple. They did they same by taking the position that the protective provisions for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes under the 1989 Atrocities Act were watered down by the judiciary and not by the government. A similar position was taken when it promoted reservation on economic rather than caste or class criterion. (The NRC was a Supreme Court-mandated and monitored process and the Atrocities Act was also read down by the court. Yet, in their statements, BJP leaders indirectly referred to Muslims in Assam as infiltrators and worse. The BJP undid the court’s watering down of the Atrocities Act under tremendous public pressure.)
The RSS has an imagination of a Hindu monolith and a divided and weakened Muslim society. Its understanding of religion and society is that the Hindus have “suffered” because they were “divided”. They read plurality as division and uniformity as unity. This in turn comes from the RSS’ understanding of Islam. RSS borrows its imagination from the European vision of nation and nationalism and from the Islamic idea of religion and culture, even as it, ironically, bemoans “thousand years of slavery and colonisation” of India. This deep sense of self-imposed inferiority and imitative behaviour today lends a so-called sanction to its use of violence for reclaiming a “lost glory”.
Hindu Rashtra will not be declared one fine morning. It is taking shape in quotidian moves and gradual legal changes that have already been set in motion. It will include demolishing all public monuments signifying “Muslim rule”, which are presumably to be replaced with Hindu names and structures. Building of a Rama temple is only the first step in that direction.
There is a possibility that the RSS could enforce compulsory military training [of the Hindus] in order to offset its sense of Hindu effeminacy, make the reading of religious texts, such as the Bhagvad Gita, mandatory in school textbooks, and so on. The key point is that the Right uses differences within castes and communities to trigger consent for a homogenous idea of a Hindu nation.
To pursue its vision of a Hindu Rashtra and impose it on the country, the RSS is appropriating the principles and the language of justice, inclusion, dignity, and freedom. Those opposed to this cannot offer mere moral critiques against majoritarianism. They will have to find ways to counter the appropriation of progressive principles for regressive politics. Opposing the NRC is important, but it needs to be done by demolishing the political and historical “justifications” that the Right is building.
That can only happen by connecting the dots to convince the majority that what they do not oppose today will return to haunt them some day. Those who supported the repeal of Article 370 cannot justify, for instance, reservations, demands for smaller states or special status for individual states. The challenge for progressive politics is to make these complex linkages a matter of everyday common sense.
Ajay Gudavarthy is associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. His forthcoming edited volume is titled Secular Sectarianism: Limits of Subaltern Politics. Views are personal.