Anti-CAA agitators should have made it clear they were not against citizenship for immigrants who came to India to escape religious persecution
The Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA) permits non-Muslim immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh to become Indian citizens if they have lived in the country for at least five years but it does not grant the same rights to Muslim immigrants.The justification for this distinction given by the Government is that non-Muslims were minorities in these Muslim- majority countries and came to India to escape religious persecution, whereas Muslims who came into India from there could not be said to have come due to persecution but were “economic refugees” i.e. they came for a better life.
This reasoning is partially correct. Indeed, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and so on, are often persecuted in these Muslim-majority countries by forcible conversions and marriage of minor girls, misuse of blasphemy laws, Ordinance XX made by late General Zia-ul-Haq, and so on.
So the anti-CAA protesters should have clearly said that they were not against the grant of citizenship to immigrants who came into India to escape religious persecution, rather they support it and condemn the persecution of minorities in the aforementioned three countries. At the same time, they should have said they oppose denial of citizenship to all Muslim immigrants because some Muslim sects in Pakistan, like the Shias and the Ahmadiyyas, are often persecuted and that economic refugees is a worldwide phenomenon.
As many as 11 million Mexicans are said to be living illegally in the USA. Many Muslims who came from Bangladesh into Assam after March 1971 (the cut-off date under the Assam Accord) have now been living in Assam for decades, some for over 40 years and now have no roots in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Government has refused to take them back, so, surely they cannot be dumped into the Bay of Bengal. They, too, should be granted citizenship if they have lived in Assam for at least five years.
However, the anti-CAA protesters failed to clarify this and created an impression among many Hindus that this was only an agitation for Muslims. Secularism has to be a two-way traffic, it cannot be a one-way traffic. So it won’t do to condemn the persecution of Muslims but turn a Nelson’s eye to the persecution of Hindus. Most Muslims shout themselves hoarse if Muslims are persecuted in Palestine but they were quiet when much nearer home Kashmiri Pandits were hounded out of their homes in Kashmir in the 1990s.
This is the problem with most (not all) Muslims. When people condemn atrocities on Muslims, they clap and cheer. But when the same people condemn atrocities by Muslims on Hindus, Christians or Sikhs, they are immediately branded as communal. When people say there is nothing wrong in eating beef, they applaud. But when the same people say that the sharia, burqa and madrasas should be banned (for their good) many Muslims abuse them.
It is well known that in India Muslims were treated by crafty politicians as a vote bank, because of which such politicians adopted a policy of appeasement. For instance, Mamata Banerjee announced a monthly stipend of Rs 2,500 to each of the thousands of imams in masjids in West Bengal and Rs 1,500 to each of the muezzins but nothing for the Hindu priests. This decision was later struck down as unconstitutional by the Calcutta High Court.
Surely this antagonised the Hindus, as is evident from the fact that BJP won 18 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal in the 2019 elections, whereas it had none earlier.
The Hindus were further antagonised by the way many Muslims behaved. If one criticised Hindu extremism, they applauded but if one criticised Muslim extremism or fundamentalists like Zakir Naik they branded you as communal. People are often applauded for saying that a cow is only an animal, like a horse or a dog hence it should not be venerated and there is nothing wrong with eating beef. But when the same people say that there is no place for Wahabi Islam in India, they are viciously attacked by most Muslims.
Communalism had existed in Indian society even before 2014 when the BJP came to power. But till then it was latent and erupted only occasionally. After 2014 it has become open, virulent and continuous. Indian society is much more polarised now.
Keeping the above factors in mind, the anti-CAA protesters should have ensured that an impression was not created that the agitation was mainly driven by Muslims, for if that happens, most of the 80 per cent Hindus in India (except for some idealistic youths) will not join it. But that is precisely what happened. The messaging needs to be pointed if protesters want to blunt the BJP.
(The writer is a former judge of the Supreme Court of India.)