Union home minister Amit Shah has always worn his majoritarian outlook as a badge of pride. As a Gujarat MLA from Sarkhej – a Ahmedabad constituency with a large Hindu and Muslim population – Shah never baulked at being seen as primarily representing the Gujarati Hindu voter in the locality. I recount a story in my new book 2019: How Modi Won India of how when a few weeks after the 2002 Gujarat riots, a local journalist who lived in Sarkhej reminded Shah of the continuing instances of tension in the area, the pugnacious politician shot back: ‘Why are you so worried, nothing will happen where you live, whatever violence takes place will happen only in the Muslim neighbourhood!” Shah’s seeming political incorrectness was rewarded by the voter: he never lost an election from his bastion.
Seventeen years later, Shah’s political graph has risen dramatically upwards but he remains unswerving in his commitment to his core beliefs. During the parliament debate on the Citizen Amendment Bill, Shah was unbending when questioned about the inherently discriminatory nature of the proposed law. While making it clear that Indian Muslims had nothing to be afraid of, the home minister repeatedly emphasized that there was a basic difference between a Muslim immigrant (ghuspetiya) and a Hindu refugee (sharnarthi). This is part of a Hindutva-inspired Savarkarite worldview which in cultural and civilizational terms sees India or ‘Bharat’ as principally the homeland of the majority Hindu population. Align the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) to an all-India National Register for Citizens (NRC) (a ‘combo package’ as BJP’s Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma calls it) and the link between citizenship and identity politics becomes even clearer.
Which might also explain the fear in the average Muslim mind that the new law will potentially disenfranchise them. Few of the protestors have read the fine print in the CAA and an all-India NRC is still only in conceptual stage but the political messaging from the ruling elite has been such that a creeping polarization on the ground is inevitable. The CAA-NRC initiative, after all, comes on the back of the break up and downgrading of the country’s only Muslim-dominated state into two union territories, a Supreme Court order granting title of the disputed land in Ayodhya to the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas and a law that criminalises triple talaq.
The sense of fear among ordinary Muslims is matched by a growing anger and hostility towards a seemingly discriminatory state apparatus, a pent up fury that can be easily pushed over the edge. Then be it Jamia or Aligarh, or Seelampur in East Delhi or parts of Bengal, the fact that violent protests have occurred in several minority-dominated areas have only fed into a political propaganda machine that thrives on stoking the Hindu-Muslim divide for electoral gains. The prime minister may have been conspicuous by his absence during the parliament debate on the Citizenship Act but on the campaign trail in Jharkhand he seems to have got his voice back. Take for example Mr Modi’s controversial remarks during an election rally in Dumka: ‘people who are setting fire to property can be seen on TV. They can be identified by the clothes they are wearing..’ Can there be a more glaring instance of toxic dog-whistle politics at election time?
Two narratives then are running concurrently. The first views the Muslim as ‘victim’ of a divisive political agenda where state power is being used to relentlessly single out a community: the brutal police attack inside the Jamia university campus is another reminder of how the men in khakhi can run amok when caught up in a tensed up Muslim-dominated neighbourhood. The second is to see the Muslim as a lumpen radical Islamist who is a law and order threat: the images of burning buses and damaged railway tracks are replayed to stereotype an entire community as a security risk. Both narratives ensure that the communal pot is kept boiling and the heat can be switched on and off at convenience.
Lost in the increasingly vicious and polarized debate is the fact that the CAA-NRC plan is actually located in the fragile ethnic identity politics of the north-east where illegal cross-border immigration has long been as a sensitive political issue and not in the red herring of ‘persecuted religious minorities’ in three Islamic countries. The idea of ‘persecuted’ Hindu minorities from Pakistan for example getting citizenship have only symbolic value in the rest of the country – barely three per cent of Pakistan’s population is now Hindu – but the idea that the Bangladeshi Hindu migrant will also now get citizenship is viewed as an ominous sign across the north-east.
That the sustained protests in Assam have received far less news coverage than the violence in Delhi is a reflection of the ‘tyranny of distance’ syndrome where the North-East loses out because it remains on the periphery of national consciousness. Truth is, the CAA-NRC constitutes a flagrant violation of the commitments under the 1985 Assam Accord which set 1971 as the cut off year for ‘all’ immigrants without distinguishing between Hindus and Muslims. It is only to reach out to a Bengali-speaking Hindu voter – both in Assam and neighbouring Bengal – that the BJP has chosen to embrace a path that now makes a distinction between Hindu and Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh and offers the former fast track citizenship even if the fallout is a dangerous communalization of a long simmering ethnic conflict.
Both Assam and Bengal have elections in April-May 2021, less than 18 months away. While the BJP is the ruling party in Assam, Bengal remains the big prize, a state where the BJP has made rapid gains in the recent Lok Sabha elections but where the final punch is yet to be delivered. This is where the party has played an unapologetic Hindu card and where every attempt has been made to consolidate a Hindu vote bank. The CAA-NRC gives the BJP another talking point in the state where the electoral battle will be furiously fought now. The fires in the rest of the country in a sense are a ‘collateral’ fallout of this cynical political game that looks at the 2021 Bengal elections as the next big battle to be won. Just as winning an election in Sarkhej in Gujarat was all those years ago.
Post-script: As the opposition struggles to find a counter to the government’s CAA-NRC gambit, the only opposition politician who seems to have got it right is West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee. By focusing on the NRC in her protests and warning that it’s the poor Bengali who will have to struggle to get the relevant citizenship documents, Mamata has added a new narrative to the debate: Bengali sub-nationalism versus Hindutva nationalism, poor versus rich and not Hindu versus Muslim.