Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Information War on Citizenship Act

In the past couple of weeks, the kind of reporting we have seen in Indian and in world media backed by several motivated academicians and politicians on the recent amendment to Indian’s Citizenship Act, can only be described as an Information War, that has been unleashed on the Indian state. It is well known that the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party is seen as a right-wing nationalist party. In India it is seen as a party with primarily Hindu voter base. In international media it is often described as a Hindu nationalist party which in their eyes is a negative portrayal. The ideological opposition to BJP is well entrenched in the left leaning English media in India and also in similarly inclined western media. In general, western media has a negative view of India as a result of cold war dynamics of the past, but off late with the political rise of BJP in India, they have a particularly negative view about India under BJP government.

Various reasons can be attributed to this entrenched opinion. Political positions viewed as right wing are automatically disliked by self-described left liberal media. Influence of Christian evangelical organizations on western and even local Indian media is another factor, since these organizations see the BJP as a less conducive to their evangelical project in India. Similar motive can be attributed to media organizations under influence of Islamic evangelical organizations and Islamic countries. When such motivations are at play then its is almost impossible to expect reasonable analysis of events in India from these media organizations. Their criticism however is often cloaked in the language of liberalism, pluralism, women’s rights, democratic values etc.

There is also a set of Indian urban population which has primarily grown cut off from the civilizational ethos of India under the influence of an education system that specializes in turning the mindset of people away from anything that is culturally Indian in general and Hindu in particular. There is a belief in this population that being less Indian, less Hindu is somehow being more modern. This population has long considered itself to be the guardian of “Indian secularism”. A term which is as difficult to define if not more, than the term Hindutva or Hindu-ness which BJP espouses. In this scenario those who consider themselves anti-Hindutva also consider themselves to be the sole guardians of secularism in India. This group is most turned off by the “Hindu nationalist” image of BJP and views every action by BJP with suspicion. They are also most easily influenced by the western media being English speaking themselves. Many among them consider themselves global citizens who happen to hold an Indian passport.

This urban Indian population especially students of humanities discipline in Indian universities have been under influence of certain ideological groups namely Ambedkarites, extreme Marxist, Islamists and to a lesser degree evangelical Christian groups. The influence of last of these is most subtle since it is not explicitly in Christian fundamentalist terms in most Indian universities but instead in the language of western universalism. This student population has seen BJP as antitheses of what they understand should be the future direction of India. With rise of BJP and loss of political space in electoral democracy to these ideologies they have chosen to combine forces in campus politics by projecting their most extreme form on impressionable college students who are easier to mould towards these ideologies due to a fertile ground created by absence of civilizational knowledge and cultural awareness. In short due to a lack of emic perspective in the humanities education in India these students are most prone to be turned towards these ideologies that are often described as breaking India forces (read Breaking India by Rajiv Malhotra, Aravindan Neelakandan) since they see the cultural underpinnings of India and the mainstream culture as oppressive and worthy of being thrown out.

Some of the recent political decisions by the BJP government like the law banning Muslim practice of triple divorce, curb on foreign funding of Indian NGOs which either work for evangelical purposes or influencing Indian political process, the revocation of article 370 which gave a separate constitution to the J&K state and the judicial decision on Ayodhya Ram temple case which went in the favour of Hindus, left these ideological groups completely shattered. It was unexpected by them that these important issues on which they had staked their entire existence had gone out of their hands completely. They were confident that no Indian government will be able to change the constitutional status of J&K, that their case on Ayodhya Ram temple was undefeatable and that no government will be able to touch the Muslim personal laws. They considered these issues to be the touchstone of Indian secularism and set back on these issues hurt their cause greatly.

Under this back drop one must see another issue that these forces see as important which is the status of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India. Whether you look at the liberal left, or the Islamist both see that inaction by GOI in the problem of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants is the happy state of affairs. No government in past had been able to deal with this problem even when there was a widespread movement in Assam to deal with this problem of forced demographic change in north eastern states especially Assam. One of the reasons for this inaction was the difficulty of dealing with this problem without also affecting the Bangladeshi Hindu population which had come to Indian since the 1971 genocide of Bengali Hindus. It is now well known that 80% of the 10 million refugees of the Bangladesh war that came to India were Hindus so were the approximately 3 million victims who were killed in East Pakistan by the Pakistani army. It would not be wrong to say that it was genocide particularly of Bangladeshi Hindus which is easy to see if one compares the census figures of Bangladesh from the pre and post war periods. 

The recent change to the citizenship act which was done by the BJP can be seen as an attempt to solve this conundrum. How to protect the population of religious minorities from Bangladesh living in India from any legal action for deportation back to Bangladesh, where they are vulnerable, but at the same time be able to act on the illegal economic migration from Bangladesh, which has changed the demographics in North eastern states in particular, but has also led to creation of settlements of Bangladeshi populations in several cities in rest of India? This law which provides a faster path to Indian citizenship to religious minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh and prevents their deportation on grounds of illegal entry or lack of valid documents of entry is a safety net to protect this population for any future state action against illegal economic migrants living in India. A vast majority of such migrants are Bangladeshi.

This distinction between refugees escaping religious persecution a majority of whom happen to be Hindus and the illegal economic immigrants a majority of whom happen to be Muslims does not go down well for the self-described liberal secularists in India. Thus, the Citizenship Amendment Act and the expected national register for citizens which would follow was seen as the final nail in the coffin of secularism by them. They first argued that the CAA is not permitted in Indian constitution which is secular. When it is pointed out that the same constitution permits special consideration to religious minorities when its comes to freedom of operating their educational and religious institutions which Hindus don’t get, or how it is permitted for the state to provide special scholarships and run state funded educational institutions which provide reservations based on religion, how it can run a special minorities affairs ministry and can tolerate separate personal laws, these inconvenient questions are completely avoided by them. The question of legality of this law has been challenged by them in the courts, which has for now refused to stay the act and given the central government one month to respond to the objections.

Without waiting for the court decision to arrive they immediately cried foul of the motive of the government in bringing the CAA in conjunction with yet to be announced pan India National Register for Citizens. While their concern is that with the difficulty of Bangladeshi Hindu refugees being resolved by CAA the illegal Bangladeshi economic migrants now become vulnerable to state action in any future NRC, they chose to project the CAA and NRC exercise being somehow against Indian Muslims. Their weird argument was that Hindus and other religions except Muslims are protected by CAA safety net in any future NRC. Which is completely wrong since CAA is for foreign refugees not for Indian citizens. No Indian will ever choose to apply for naturalization using the CAA route just because his or her name is missed in any future NRC due to lack of any required documents. Naturalization is a longer process and will require clearance by intelligence agencies etc. If such an application is rejected that this person will be left in the lurch despite being an Indian citizen for several generations. It would be utterly foolish for an Indian national to do this rather than produce a community certificate or witnesses from the community in lieu of government issued ID. This was also clarified by spokesperson of the home ministry.

On this rumour that NRC+CAA combine will disenfranchise Indian Muslims in particular they ran a nation-wide campaign against CAA. In this media war the central government of India was projected as being of fascist intent that wishes to put Muslims in detention camps also called in some circles as concentration camps. Such absurd claims and hijacking of the movement by radical Islamists lead to large scale rioting in several urban centers of the country with higher concentration of Muslims. The international media outlets have carried front page articles, editorials and oped criticizing the Citizenship Amendment Act as a “Muslim ban”. When the reality is that it simply provides a faster path and easier process for naturalization to persecuted religious minorities from 3 Islamic countries in the subcontinent. It does not take away any opportunity for anyone no matter what their background on seeking Indian citizenship by naturalization etc by the existing process. What they have described as an action being taken by India for the first time is also not correct. While there was no law as such, it has been the policy of GOI to give special consideration to religious minorities from Pakistan in particular for providing then Indian citizenship by registration or naturalization. It has been seen a commitment by post partition India to provide a refuge to people escaping the Islamic state created in India after partition. This was provided specifically to the non-Muslim communities coming from Pakistan. One is not able to fathom how the executive action remains in the realm of secularism even if favours a particular religion but a legislative action is suddenly a threat to the secular principles of the state.

Given the level of misinformation that is being spread on this issue in India as well as world over, one is struck by the vulnerability of the Indian state to information war of this kind. No matter how many clarifications are given by several quarters, whether state institutions or private individuals, the rumour and the fear mongering around it refuses to die. Riots and protests by university students against the CAA continue unabated. Several lives have been lost, corers of rupees of public property has been damaged and India’s reputation abroad is tarnished in the campaign which has flimsy factual grounds. While one would have understood the academic disagreement on the approach or the legal questions raised on the Law which could have been discussed and resolved in rational manner, the irrational public outrage at display has every marking of an information war that the Indian state needs to better prepare itself for and be able to pre-empt and counter in future, through appropriate communication strategy. The grip of combined breaking India forces on Indian universities is also a cause for worry and the long-term security risk for India that needs to be solved by introducing the emic perspective in Humanities education and making it the mainstream perspective rather than the fringe perspective it currently is. It is only though giving primacy to civilizational knowledge systems in humanities education can this be done. Which is of course another battle ground for the “secularists” who will resist it at every level in the name of it being Hindu.

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