Vineet Goel, a Dublin, Ohio-based IT worker from Uttar Pradesh went door to door last month along with friends, dropping Indian government-published brochures on the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act to educate people on why they should welcome the just-passed legislation.
In Austin, Texas, Venugopal Uppala, a software engineer from Hyderabad organized what he called a “spontaneous rally” in support of India’s citizenship act which he says is a humanitarian gesture by India’s BJP government, giving hope and a new life to persecuted religious minorities from neighboring Islamic countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Rallies supporting the new act were also held by Indian Americans in Seattle, Washington and in Times Square in New York on Dec. 29. A rally is also being organized in Chicago on Jan. 4 by Indian American Heritage & Cultural Foundation.
There are also seminars and panel discussions being organized by local organizations in various cities by supporters of BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A global petition drive was launched on Dec. 28 in support of the citizenship act.
“We need to vehemently fight against the vested interests and politicians, who have joined hands in India to spread lies and malign the Modi government just for the sake of getting votes in elections. Even here in the U.S. there are some Indian Americans who are seeking to mislead and misguide the community by giving it a religious color and claiming the act to be anti-Muslim which is not true at all,” Arvind Modini, a Charlotte-based IT professional from Hyderabad, who has been in the U.S. for some 20 years, said.
The law allows granting of fast-track Indian citizenship to those minorities who came to India before Dec. 31, 2014, including Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, Jains and Parsis from the three neighboring Islamic countries and have suffered religious persecution.
What has created concern and consternation among those decrying the government move is the exclusion of Muslims from the list of those who are eligible to seek Indian citizenship. They feel it is not only discriminatory against Muslims but may also be an indication of India becoming a Hindu nation someday in future, discarding its long tradition of a constitutionally-guaranteed secular nation.
The issue seems to have divided the community into two opposite camps of one group opposing the move on grounds mainly of religious discrimination against Muslims and the other hailing the Modi government’s magnanimous gesture for minorities who have suffered religious persecution in the neighboring countries.
A week after protests and rallies decrying the citizenship act, the defenders of the act intensified both their campaign and their voice last month in support for the act both in India and also in the United States.
Indiana-based medical doctor Bharat Barai, believed to be a close friend of Prime Minister Modi and who was one of the main architects of the massive public reception for the prime minister in 2014 in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, said he is surprised that people who are protesting against the citizenship act are not asking the most relevant question to Islamabad: why they treat minorities in such a way that they have to run away from Pakistan.
“The anti-citizenship act demonstrators are trying to blame BJP, in stead of thanking it for what it has done for the hapless minorities in these countries, and instead of looking at the root of the problem, which is persecution of religious minorities like Hindus, they are blaming Modi. If you ask me, ultimately the plight of minorities depends on how a country treats that population,” Barai said.
“In the U.S., for example, minorities do not run away from the country because they’re treated well here and Muslims, who are minorities in India, do not seek to escape from the country to go to Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan because they are treated well there too. Actually, as far as India is concerned, what is happening is the other way around because minorities don’t seek to escape from the country, but they come from other countries to live there,” he pointed out.
According to Barai, Bangladesh was declared to be a secular country by SheikhMujibur Rahman, the first president of the country and later as prime minister, but after his assassination, it became an Islamic country where minorities like Hindus Christians or Buddhists have suffered religious persecution. The problems would not have arisen today if they had treated their minorities well.
Both Barai and others interviewed for this article claimed that Modi has given concrete shape to what has been long been proposed by politicians, including former prime minister Manmohan Singh who have advocated on the floor of parliament citizenship for these persecuted people fleeing their countries and taking asylum in India.
“These people have been living in India in some cases for some 20/25 years and are stateless refugees whose children have grown up, but they cannot go to any college for education and end up doing odd jobs like in restaurants. It is very much like the situation for undocumented people in the U.S. So, this act that gives such people citizenship and its accompanying benefits should be looked as a humanitarian gesture by the Modi government,” Barai said.
Asked why in that case the Muslims, who suffer religious persecution in those countries have also not been welcomed along with other minorities, Barai said the citizenship act is meant only for minorities who have faced religious persecution in these countries.
“How it is possible to claim that in an Islamic country Muslims have faced persecution because of being a Muslim. That argument is just not tenable. Also, this is a onetime exception for expedited citizenship like the DACA introduced in the U.S. by former president Barack Obama,” he said.
Others like Archana Sunil, one of the organizers of a Dec. 22 rally in Seattle, Washington, in defense of the citizenship act said there are a lot of misconceptions about the new citizenship law, and peoples’ protests against the measure are based on either ignorance or are influenced by the ongoing misinformation campaign launched by those opposing Modi and his policies.
What people fail to understand, she said, that the act has a very limited scope as it is meant only for minorities who have suffered religious persecution and have been in India on or before a specified date.
“How can one even argue that there is religious discrimination against a Muslim in an Islamic country? The argument that a Muslim is facing persecution in an Islamic Muslim defies all logic. It is absolutely wrong to claim that this law will seek to perpetuate Jinnah’s infamous two-nation theory — India for Hindus and Pakistan for Muslims and that it divides countries along religious lines,” Sunil said, in response to a question.
However, she said that Muslims can still apply for Indian citizenship, but they will have to use other immigration channels because they just don’t qualify for Indian citizenship under the new law.
Barai pointed out that celebrated singer Adnan Sami , who relocated from Pakistan to India some 18 years ago, has been given Indian citizenship and the Modi government has said India is going to give citizenship to Bangladeshi author-in-exile, Taslima Nasreen. “There are individual exceptions. In the past few years about 4,013 Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan have been given Indian citizenship based on religious persecution but they had to apply individually. It is not a blanket thing,” he said. “This proves that the citizenship act is not against Muslims at all.”
Others like Satya Dosapati, a staunch Hindutva supporter and a member of Global Hindu Heritage Foundation, said he does not see absolutely anything wrong in Modi’s initiative in getting the citizenship law passed and allowing only minorities facing religious persecution in the neighboring Islamic countries get Indian citizenship.
“It is just not possible, or even credible that a Muslim has fled from an Islamic country to escape religious persecution. While Hindus came to India to escape religious persecution and torture, Muslims have mostly infiltrated into India mainly because of economic and other factors but not religious persecution. But if one can prove that s/he came to India to escape persecution in an Islamic country like Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan, then definitely we should give them citizenship,” Dosapati said, in response to a question.
Barai likened the new act giving citizenship to minorities to what U.S. and Canada have done in terms of giving asylum to many Christians during and after the Iraq war because as minorities they faced religious persecution in that country but none of them gave any shelter to any Iraqi Muslim because there was no question of a Muslim being persecuted in Iraq because he was a Muslim.
“What is missed in this debate is the unspeakable persecution of Hindus/Sikhs/Christians/Buddhists going through. The Pakistan population of Hindu/Sikhs reduced from around 20 percent in 1947 to about 1.5 percent today, while the same in Bangladesh came down from about 25 to 30 percent to about 10 percent in 70 years.
“This is genocide. In Pakistan, they brutalize in the name of blasphemy laws, kidnap the young minor girls and married off to older Muslim men and make a living hell to the minorities. Are any of the Muslim populations facing anything like this?” Dosapati said.
He said the call for providing refugee status for minorities in the Islamic countries was made by Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru in 1950, Bhupesh Gupta of the Communist Party of India in 1964, Tarun Gogoi of Congress party from Assam and Prakash Karat of Communist party of India (Marxist) in 2012.
“Did any of them even suggest that Muslims in the Islamic countries should also be provided citizenship? How can anyone say that this is a proposal made by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah and the BJP,” Dosapati said. “I think it is in this context of the persecution of Hindus in Islamic countries that Home Minister Amit Shah said that if India does not give shelter to Hindus who else will,” Dosapati said, when asked to clarify Shah’s recent reported comments on the subject.
So, is India on the path to becoming a Hindu nation discarding the idea of secularism, as has been feared by many since the passing of the citizenship act, or should it become one?
The responses varied.
Barai flatly denied that at some point India will become a Hindu nation, noting that if one looks at the country’s 5,000-year-old philosophy, Hindus have basically been people who respect all religions and they have lived together.
Sunil, who describes herself as a “liberal Hindu,” said she personally does not think that there is anything wrong in India becoming a Hindu nation.
“My personal opinion is what is wrong with India being a Hindu nation. I think it is absolutely okay for us Hindus to call one nation as ours, and as a Hindu nation it can lift the Hindu traditions where all other religions and communities cometogether because that is what makes you a true Hindu with a truly liberal mindset. I think it will benefit the world to have a fully Hindu nation,” Sunil, who runs her own healthcare and insurance business, said, when asked if the BJP ultimately wants to turn India into a Hindu nation or if it should become one.
Despite assertions that all religious communities can live together even in the case of India becoming a Hindu nation, people like U.P. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s reported statements in the past that he would install idols of Hindu gods in every mosque and that minorities in U.P. “must behave” have raised questions about its viability.
Goel, who hails from U.P., said allegations against the chief minister being anti-Muslim is completely wrong as Indian news media often do biased reporting. For a proof, he said, one can see the news reporting in Calcutta Telegraph and other newspapers on the citizenship issue and state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s stand who has deplored both the citizenship act and the National Register of Citizens. “Unfortunately, journalists are also divided in their opinions and many of them do fake reporting,” Goel claimed. However, he declined to give his opinion if India will become a better place if it becomes a Hindu nation. “I can’t predict the future, but I know that there are so many other important things that need to be corrected in India like unfair distribution of national resource and education, and child healthcare before this debate about Hindu Rashtra,” he said.
He said there had been testimonies from leaders of many other religions in India who say India is a great place because it has supported pluralism and that is why study of all religions were possible in the country. “All this was spoiled by the Marxists and Congress party combine,” he said.
People like Dosapati, on the question if India should become a Hindu Rashtra, said the question can be answered only when one has clarity about what ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ mean.
He said Hinduism inherently accepts all forms of worship of the divine which implies that while one worships in a form one choses, one also accepts as true or acknowledge the rights of others’ to worship in any form he or she chooses to.
“From that perspective, India should be for those people who or whose ancestors are born in India, those who acknowledge their ancestry to India and accept that while he worships in the form he chooses, he also accepts and respect the rights of others in worshiping in the form they chose to worship. We can call it then ‘Hindu Rashtra’ or whatever name we want to call it,” Dosapati said.
“If a Muslim/Christian or followers of any other religion say they have nothing to do with their Indian ancestry and/or their religion is the only true religion and the religion of others in India is not true or will not accept the rights of others, then they should go somewhere else and not be in India” he said.
Asked to comment on reported statements by Adityanath and other BJP leaders that Muslim and other minorities should be obligated to say, “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, Dosapati said what Aditya Nath said is his personal opinion. “But the most important thing is whether you feel you are part of India, you feel you are son or daughter of this soil, respect the rights of other Indians to worship in the form they chose, you acknowledge your ancestry to India. Once you have done that, words are just an expression whether you say it or not.”