Citizenship play: Search for the enemy within

BJP President and Union Home Minister Amit Shah has said that even if the entire Opposition were to unite against it, the government “won’t budge an inch” on implementing the CAA. Party leaders and ministers of government have declared their commitment to continue with the process of preparing a National Register of Citizens (NRC) and reiterate that eventually the NRC will be implemented nation-wide.

What explains such determination to implement the CAA and the NRC?

Today, nearly 72 years after Independence, barring some minor insurgencies, India faces little internal challenge to its sovereignty and stability. By its own admission India also does not seek to expand its borders or conquer new territories. Yet, the process of nation-building has taken a new and dangerous turn with Narendra Modi’s rise to power in 2014. His party’s Hindutva ideology has created a need for a new self-definition of the Indian nation. 

The Hindutva ideologues were never comfortable with India choosing to define itself as a non-theocratic state after Independence. So it is no surprise that in the Modi regime, Muslims, the largest minority community in India, which was held up as the metaphor for Indian secularism has become the target of isolation and the symbol of its exclusionary principle of nation building. For legitimising it, the CAA and NRC are essential.

The recalibration of Indian-ness which will be carried out through these measures should not be seen in isolation from other developments and decisions such as building a Ram temple at the site of the destroyed Babri Mosque, passing a law against “triple talaq”, banning the sale of beef, forcing Muslims to chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, sing “Vande Mataram”, forbid Iqbal’s “Lab pe aati hai dua” as a school prayer, and to read anti-Hinduism into the iconoclastic verses of Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s “Hum Dekhenge”. This range of actions – some by the government, others by those drunk on Hindutva ideology --tries to demarcate compatriots from culturally alien non-patriots whose religious, dietary, linguistic practices cannot be accommodated into their vision of the Indian nation, defined as a ‘Hindu India’. 

As a multi-religious, multi-cultural and secular democracy, India did not need to create such an internal enemy presented as a constant and hidden threat to its majority religious community. But it is necessary to construct a ‘Hindu nation’, that is, to integrate those who naturally belong to the nation and exclude others who do not belong and are seen as a threat. They will have to be denied the rights of natural citizens.

India’s Muslims present themselves as the ideal “other” for the votaries of Hindutva.

How do you present Muslims as a continuing threat to the nation when Muslim rule and its purported acts of intolerance vanished nearly 300 years ago? That is done by presenting neighbouring Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan as intolerant Islamic nations committed to the annhilation of the Hindu nation in their midst. The subliminal message is that Muslims were intolerant of Hindus in the past and they continue to be so wherever they are in a majority. Their commitment to Islamic fundamentalism is highlighted by and the case for the CAA rests, on their persecution of Hindu and other non-Islamic minorities of sub-continental origin. 

Deliberately, the CAA does not include Buddhist countries of India’s neighbourhood like Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Myanmar although their persecution of religious and ethnic minorities is well documented and recognised. That would have made the BJP’s construct of the Muslim threat – fusing the past with the present and the threatening neighbourhood with the minority within– diffuse and ambiguous.

The full agenda of othering the Muslim population cannot be done without the NRC . The CAA will only be able to keep out Muslim immigrants. It is the NRC with its insistence on proof of hereditary origin that will be necessary to delineate and mark out the Muslims. The “insiders” who are essentially “outsiders” because they belong to the Ummah (the Islamic Commonwealth of Believers), their Holy Land is not in India as they aspire to go on pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia and who by their “clothes” according to the Prime Ministar’s memorable phrase, presumably from their skull caps to their above-ankle trousers, share cultural markers with co-religionists across national borders.

Masterfully, Prime Minister Modi has repeatedly managed to deflect tensions with Pakistan on to India’s minorities and the political parties which speak up for them. He constructs and projects them as the danger within, as fifth columnists. They are repeatedly challenged to prove their patriotism by rallying around the armed forces or the national flag. 

But the NRC is not just one more such hoop being set up for Indian Muslims. It will render them as a group, sufficiently visible- a potential enemy – the “sleeper”, the quintessential ‘insider outsider’, the pernicious domestic foe. This allows the promoters of Hindu nationalism to think of themselves as under threat not only at a subcontinental level from Islamic countries in the neighbourhood but also by the Muslim “lurking” within. 

The data collected by the expanded NPR itself , even without the NRC, will generate grids of surveillance of the ‘enemy within’. For example, by linking mobile numbers to residential addresses, the NPR will allow their communication to be easily monitored. It will generate a nationally available ready reckoner of political suspects who can be arrested at the time of any emergency or political crisis.

With the CAA and the NRC package, Indian Muslims will be deliberately burdened with proving their identity and solidarity with the nation on the one hand and simultaneously become potential targets of exclusion, on the other. If such measures frighten and force the community to withdraw from the public sphere as equal citizens, it will further consolidate the idea of India as a Hindu state that the BJP and its Hindutva forbearers long cherished. They never managed to win the Hindutva project because of the marginal role they played in India’s struggle for Independence, their inability to influence the Constituent Assembly, or to even have the numbers to amend and remake the Constitution. Until now.

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