Some are more equal in new India

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Some elitist clubs and hotels in British India, the last surviving bastions of the Raj, until not long ago famously proclaimed: “Dogs and Indians Not Allowed!”

We have certainly come a long way since those discerning times when men and their social standing were determined on the basis of the color of their skin. Today, as India proudly celebrates its 70th year of independent existence, we couldn’t be freer as a people. However, as borders become increasingly irrelevant in a globalized, networked world, for some there is no getting away from discrimination on the basis of religion, gender, caste and color.

One of the magnificent obsessions of Prime Minister Modi has been his urge to reach out to the enterprising and economically influential Indian diaspora and talk of the enduring emotional and cultural bonds with the motherland that have stood the test of time. It is a mutual love affair indeed. He has been mobbed and lustily cheered by Indians, wherever he goes on his frequent escapades.

True to his worldview, the narrative and discourse of these sermons to the choir are almost always overwhelmingly exclusivist in nature and appear inspired by the conviction that all Indians and people of Indian origins everywhere are Hindus.

So while these grand monologues rightly hail the famous dedication, can-do spirit and ingenuity of Indians abroad, they also talk about the sacred essentials like Gita, Tulsi plant and holy water of Ganga that, according to the dear leader, keep the Diaspora bonded to the motherland.

Hardly surprising then that in the run up to the 2014 general elections that catapulted him to power, Modi repeatedly harped on the inherent right of the oppressed Hindus around the world to demand Indian citizenship when and if they decided to “come home,” even if their ancestors had migrated centuries ago.

He drove home the message again and again during his electoral rallies in the northeastern states bordering Bangladesh while warning against “illegal Bangladeshis” – all Muslims living in the entire northeast for centuries in the view of the BJP and the Parivar are all Bangladeshis – who are out to steal the land and livelihoods of the people of the northeast.

In his interview with the almost reverential Arnab Goswami, otherwise known for his big, loud mouth and smug intolerance, Modi went to great lengths to explain why Hindus who migrated to places like Fiji and the Caribbean have an Indian birthright while Muslims living in states like Assam and West Bengal for centuries are essentially Bangladeshis or terrorists until proven otherwise and hence not welcome.

The BJP government has already initiated drastic changes to the Indian Citizenship Act that will turn this saffron-tinted vision of India into a reality.

“The Hindu” newspaper reported that “in a move that will have far-reaching implications in Assam and some parts of northwest India, the Union Home Ministry will amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, to grant citizenship to undocumented migrants who fled religious persecution in Pakistan and Bangladesh.”

The migrants who are thus welcomed would include “not just Hindus but also Buddhists, Christians, Zoroastrians, Sikhs and Jains.”

To realize this goal, we are told, the government will bring in legislation that would enable the communities mentioned above to migrate legally to India although the External Affairs Ministry has cautioned that the move could upset some of India’s immediate neighbors.

Now who would have any issues with this noble idea? Indeed, governments – all governments and nations – ought to come forward to help and embrace all those persecuted and discriminated against because of their beliefs, birth and color. All humanity is one family and when any of its members are in distress it is the duty of the entire family to take care of them.

This is why America’s founding fathers in their early idealism welcomed everyone to the brave, new world. The iconic Statue of Liberty in New York still offers, in the immortal words of Emma Lazarus, to take in the wretched and rejected lot of humanity from around the world:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:

I lift my lamp beside the golden door

But long before America became El Dorado and the most coveted destination on the planet, India beckoned and embraced dreamers and the dispossessed from around the world in equal measure. So if the Aryans, Arabs, Afghans, Mughals, Turks and the Europeans conquered it and were in turn vanquished by its charms, it also welcomed the persecuted Jews, Christians and Parsees or Zoroastrians without fussing too much about their origins or religious beliefs.

Not anymore.

The BJP government’s outreach to the vulnerable and persecuted minorities in the region and people of Indian origins around the world pointedly excludes Muslims.

I agree that the state of religious minorities, especially Hindus and Christians, in the Islamic republic of Pakistan is nothing to write home about. It’s appalling and makes all Muslims hang their heads in shame. If it’s any consolation, even the Muslims including the Shias, do not exactly feel completely safe and secure in the land of the pure.

But, as journalist Aakar Patel who now heads Amnesty International India points out, even if you assume that Muslims of Pakistan and Bangladesh, now that they have their own homeland, have no reason to complain, what about the Muslims of Indian origin elsewhere? Do they have no right to ever look to the land of their birth or that of their ancestors when in distress, like the Christians, Sikhs or Hindus of Indian origin?

How can a government that professes belief in the Indian Constitution and is mandated to protect and uphold it be so unabashedly and openly discriminatory in its approach?

It is worth pointing out that Articles 14 and 15 of the Indian Constitution promise in no uncertain terms equality before law:

“The state shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India. Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth: The state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.”

Written by the Dalit icon Dr. Ambedkar and his team that included some of the brightest and most farsighted men and women, the Indian Constitution is a fine document which has played a defining role in the way India evolved as a secular, liberal and diverse democracy after its Independence on August 15, 1947.

India has successfully weathered many a storm and survived self-serving politicians and their delusions of grandeur thanks to its robust and vibrant Constitution. Any attempt to change its character with discriminatory laws and selective empathy could have disastrous consequences.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award-winning journalist and writer. Email: aijaz.syed@hotmail.com


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