NEW DELHI — If the sceptre of a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC) had rattled Muslims, the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) had stoked their worst fears, says Umar Khalid, who, since his days as a student leader at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, has emerged as a vocal critic of the Narendra Modi government.
In a conversation with HuffPost India, the 32-year-old doctoral graduate said, “It makes you feel as if you are being ruled by a group of thugs who don’t care about the rule of law or the idea of the rule of law, co-existence, fraternity and democracy.”
The Bill, which makes religion the basis for citizenship and violates the principles of India’s secular constitution, was passed in the Bharatiya Janata Party-dominated Lok Sabha shortly after midnight today. Under the proposed bill, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Buddhists and Jains from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who were living in India without papers, will be eligible to apply for Indian citizenship. Muslims will not. The Bill will now be tabled in the 245-member Rajya Sabha, where the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is close to achieving a majority, but isn’t quite there yet. The past month has seen protests across North East India and in Assam in particular.
Home Minister Amit Shah says the Bill protects communities facing religious persecution in these three countries, but the Narendra Modi government cannot explain why communities like Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, for instance, are not included. At the passage of the Bill in the Lok Sabha, Shah said the NRC is coming.
Even if the NRC in conjunction with the CAB is implemented nationwide, Khalid, who was shot at by two men last year, Khalid said that he would not give his documents to anyone. “After having lived all my life in India, if i have to prove my citizenship, it attacks my very basic dignity...” he said.
“It makes you feel as if you are being ruled by a group of thugs...”
When did you first hear of the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB)?
I heard it for the first time from the mouth of our present Home Minister in one of his speeches which I saw on television about a year ago when he was talking about how Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs and Christians need not worry and they would be given citizenship (if they were left out of the NRC in Assam). He purposefully left out one community.
How did that make you feel?
It makes you feel as if you are being ruled by a group of thugs who don’t care about the rule of law or the idea of the rule of law, co-existence, fraternity and democracy.
Did you feel Amit Shah was just saying so with the general election in mind or he was serious about carrying it out.
Their electoral politics and ideology and not two different things. They are true to their ideology. They are trying to institutionalise the Hindutva vision of India. The Hindu Rashtra is an unending project. It does not have a stop point. You keep on intensifying it.
“The Hindu Rashtra is an unending project. It does not have a stop point. You keep on intensifying it.”
You felt the BJP government would go ahead with the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB).
I actually believed they would try everything in their capacity to implement CAB. It is also on us and how much we are able to resist it. This entire idea that Hindus will be rehabilitated through CAB is an eyewash. No matter which community you come from, you will be put through a lot of pain and anxiety by the current government. You are going to be put through a maze to prove your citizenship. It will create chaos in society. There will be claims and counterclaims in which any high scale bureaucratic exercise is entangled.
Imagine a Hindu going through an NRC panel where he is saying that he is not from Bangladesh, but an Indian citizen living in India, and then going under the CAB in which he is saying he has come from Bangladesh or Afghanistan or Pakistan where he faced religious persecution. The same person will have to give two contradictory statements. That’s the basic contradiction of the NRC and the CAB. The messaging and propaganda around it is going to be anti-Muslim, but it’s not going to benefit the Hindus. That’s an illusion. That’s something you need to see through.
“The messaging and propaganda around it is going to be anti-Muslim, but it’s not going to benefit the Hindus.”
Where does all this leave an Indian Muslim citizen like you?
One reason why they are not shy of putting their agenda in public is because of the capitulation of Opposition parties which call themselves secular. The BJP knows they will not find any roadblock in pursuing that agenda. The “secular parties” for fear of losing Hindu votes will not oppose them. This is the biggest ideological victory of the BJP and the RSS in India. Irrespective of whether they lose Maharashtra or their seats are reduced in Haryana or whether they have to do horse trading to form governments or whether they are pushed out of power tomorrow at the Centre, they are institutionalising their anti-Muslim ideology. That makes Muslims in India feel like political orphans. Barring a few small parties, there are no mainstream parties to whom Muslim lives matter. For them, we are just a vote bank. Our lives don’t matter. Our aspirations don’t matter. Attacks on our lives and dignity don’t matter. You feel humiliated. You feel angry. But at the same time, you feel the need to create an alternative politics in India.
It is not said in public but this argument that Muslims need to step back because that helps Hindutva consolidate Hindus — so let the others take on Hindutva for the moment — I don’t think that is going to work. Men cannot take the onus of fighting patriarchy without women being in the forefront. Casteism cannot be fought with Brahmins leading the fight. Majoritarianism cannot be fought unless you bring minorities to the forefront of the fight. A community that does not assert is going to perish. Muslims have to get organised and ask for what the Constitution guarantees them. While the situation is pretty bad, I don’t feel hopeless because I’m a political activist, but a common Muslim might go into cynicism and hopelessness. India is a plural society. India is a multicultural society. That is the fight you have to fight.
“Muslims in India feel like political orphans.”
What ‘others’ are trying to take on Hindutva?
Hindus take on Hindutva.
Which Hindus are trying to take on Hindutva right now?
That’s an abstract figure.
How is this fighting back as you put it realistic or possible? Leaving aside Asaduddin Owaisi, I can count the Muslim activists in the English speaking circuit who take on the government, that too mostly on social media.
Of course it is realistic and possible. The tragedy of Muslims in India has been that post-partition Indian Muslims have never had a choice in determining who their leadership would be. It’s always been those in power who as per their convenience decided their leaderships. Now, this might be the clergy or the elite Muslims. You won’t find leaders who have emerged out of mass movements. There is a vacuum that needs to be filled. All of us young Muslims have a role to play. We speak in a rights-based language. We speak on different issues. There is need for grassroots work. But I think the new politics that articulates the aspirations of Muslims in India has to bring back the focus to what the Sachar Committee said about Muslims being one of the most underprivileged and discriminated against when it comes to health, education and government jobs. You won’t find their representation anywhere except jails. The new politics that seeks to address the Muslim question has to be rooted in social economic issues as well.
“We speak in a rights-based language. There is need for grassroots work.”
With 370, the Ayodhya verdict, the communalisation of the NRC, the CAB looming, there seems to be an urgency to this moment. Those advancing the Hindutva agenda are well on their way and you are speaking of starting a movement. The little bit of existing activism is confined to social media.
I agree with you. This is a long term plan. And a long term plan can only be successful if it can intervene in the here and now. I think the here and now involves multiple levels of intervention. I put this question to those who call themselves secular, the Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party, the RJD, the SP and the BSP. This question needs to be posed to them. They need to stand up for secularism. If they don’t, it will be a long and painful battle ahead.
When Amit Shah announced that he intended to implement the NRC nationwide, what were the concerns expressed in the Muslim community.
The nationwide NRC is still something that is being spoken about, but what the level of brazenness of this government has done — from my experiences of people around me, my family, my friends and their families — there is panic and anxiety. Messages are circulating in Whatsapp groups saying what all documents you need to have even though there is no cut off date for the nationwide NRC, but the messages are still floating around.
I live in Jamia Nagar, which is a segregated Muslim colony, called a “ghetto.” I walk on the street and see an NRC awareness camp set up. I feel what is this — it’s not even come and people are already so scared. You have some voluntary groups that are saying they will get documents made. If I were to describe the mood among Muslims, it is panic.
What are dinner time conversations like?
Before answering that, one thing I’ve been telling people, my family and others, is that we have to ignore these messages which say kya document chahiye. We have to launch a civil disobedience against the NRC because it is impossible for 20 crore people to have their documents ready. There is no organisation that has the resources to get their documents made. You will have to fight this battle. It’s not something that you think you can cooperate with and come out of it.
The dinner time conversations are also about what to do. For example, just an hour back, I was with my relatives who were also discussing how can the Home Minister make such unconstitutional statements where he takes the names of all communities and purposefully leaves out one. People are saying that CAB is not about rehabilitating refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh. It’s about undocumented citizens of India. Some are being given the assurance that you will be rehabilitated and others are being told that we don’t care about you. But I think the panic is highest in West Bengal. One, it has a high Muslim population, and second, it is difficult for them to call me a Bangladeshi Muslim who has illegally infiltrated. But Bengali speaking Muslims are going to be the first targets.
“We have to launch a civil disobedience against the NRC because it is impossible for 20 crore people to have their documents ready.”
Giving that we both come from a place of privilege and live in Delhi, how is my getting papers ready for a potential nationwide NRC different from your experience?
I think the present political atmosphere makes it different. Within the NRC, you have the Home Minister saying that we don’t care about you. And you will have to go and prove your case in Foreigners Tribunals if you are excluded from NRC. When Amit Shah makes that statement in a climate when we have seen mob lynching convicts being garlanded by a Union Minister, when we have seen mob lynching videos being circulated, when you see a climate of impunity, when you see an atmosphere in which crimes against minorities are being rewarded, you feel like a second class citizen living in a majoritarian state. It is different because things are so arbitrary. When you see the history, you don’t expect fairness. You feel there is an agenda.
Now, if you take away that privilege.
I’d like to make three points. It is terrifying for the entire country to have to go through this process. There is no need for the NRC. There are no credible figures which say that India is getting run over by “infiltrators.” Even in Assam, Amit Shah used to say that there are 50 lakh (40 lakh) infiltrators. There were 19 lakh in the final count, so what was the 50 lakh number all about? Muslims are going to suffer because of the climate that is being created around it. What was not a communal exercise in Assam has been picked up and communalised. Even among Muslims, the people who are going to suffer the most are poor people — artisans and daily wagers — they don’t have their old documents. It is an attempt to attack those who are at the margins financially.
If the horror unfolds and we are unable to stop it, you are also creating a huge pool of cheap labor. Despite what Amit Shah says that we will deport each and every infiltrator, India is not going to deport anyone to Bangladesh. Last year, the Prime Minister assured the Prime Minister of Bangladesh that India is not going to deport anyone to Bangladesh. So, then what is this exercise for? This exercise is for creating a huge reserve of surplus population without rights.
“If the horror unfolds, you are also creating a huge pool of cheap labor.”
What ticks you off more — the communalised NRC or the CAB?
The NRC is communalised through the CAB...
The NRC could be conducted without the CAB.
It’s a combined package.
What do you make of the argument that India is the homeland for Hindus?
India is not a Hindu country. That is the basic premise of India as enshrined in the Constitution. If the idea is about rehabilitating those who are facing persecution on religious lines, then it has to be for everyone. This very act of bringing religion as a marker is against the constitutional promise made to us.
“This act of bringing religion as a marker is against the constitutional promise made to us.”
Were you surprised to hear Amit Shah include Christians?
I think they don’t want to diversify the communities they are projecting as the other. That is my analysis. They want to keep it anti-Muslim. If they bring more communities into it, that will just divert the core message. This is the polarisation that is reaping the biggest electoral dividends for them. Ideology plus electoral arithmetic works here.
Does that reinforce the Muslim community’s isolation?
We feel most isolated not because they are attacking only Muslims. We feel most isolated because those who claim our votes do not speak for us. That is what is leading to isolation. Otherwise BJP is doing what it is expected to do.
You said the reaction to CAB should be civil disobedience, but if you see the reaction to Article 370, the Ayodhya verdict or even the lynching, its all become muted over time.
I understand where the question is coming from. In 370, the Kashmiri Muslim and Muslims in the rest of India have had different trajectories, different histories. It’s a difficult question for Indian Muslims to address when our patriotism is being questioned every day. When it came to the Ram Mandir and the Ayodhya verdict, when I was walking the streets on the day that the judgment came, everyone was dejected, disappointed, hurt, but in this atmosphere of communal polarisation, people had this reaction — okay, it’s something that happened in the past, we can move ahead. People like me were saying that no it’s not something that happened in the past, it’s a process that began then and the past and the present are connected. Fear contributed to these kind of reactions. But when it comes to the NRC, it becomes about your very existence itself. I don’t expect Muslims to launch a civil disobedience movement on their own. You would need a Gandhi like figure to initiate civil disobedience. What I’m saying is that political agency would be required. But something that needs to be made clear to the people is that the process they are putting us through is maddening. And it’s not just Muslims who need to understand this, everyone has to understand this. Why do we need to go through this entire process? It’s pointless. We have to stop it. Right now, when it’s not even a law, we need to raise our voice. I’m clear I’m not giving my documents to anyone. Even if I have them, I’m not giving those documents.
“I’m clear I’m not giving my documents to anyone.”
You are saying that even if there is a nationwide NRC, you won’t give your documents.
As a protest.
This is of course theoretical at the moment, but that could have serious repercussions.
Yeah. This is not even my original call. This is a call given by former IAS officer Karan Gopinathan. We will go to the detention centre together. After having lived all my life in India, if I have to prove my citizenship, it attacks my very basic dignity and I’m not going to attack on that. Why should I produce my documents when you have ministers who can’t produce their degrees. That’s completely abhorrent.
You speak about this figure to initiate a civil disobedience movement. Do you see yourself in that role.
It has to be a collective effort. There is no individual messiah that is there. It’s mostly a media creation like Anna Hazare was. I don’t see myself as that figure but I see myself as part of that collective process. You spoke of privilege. I feel like I’m a minority within a minority who has access to education. Very few Muslims have had access to higher education, who have been able to do a PhD. I think that puts some responsibility on my shoulders. This resistance might not come from the most underprivileged of Muslims. This resistance will have to begin from those who have had some access to resources, to knowledge. It will have to be a collective battle.
You are talking about beginning things, but one cannot escape the feeling that the agenda of the Hindu right is well on its way. It’s not that there was no time to mobilise as you say. The BJP came to power in 2014 and after Mohammed Akhlaq it seemed pretty clear where we were heading. But apart from Twitter, six years on, one does not see any sustained resistance.
You are right. You are right about the fact that we are talking about beginning things while it seems as if their agenda is being institutionalised. It’s not just about 2014, I think right from the 1970s-80s, we are paying for the compromises made by a previous political generation, which made compromises with the BJP and the RSS. We gave them legitimacy in mainstream India which failed to create alternatives to parties like Congress which were making these compromises. That is why in 2019, we have to go back to the basics. You are right, this will not happen on Twitter, social media or English journalism. This has to be a grassroots movement. The reason I talk about the Sachar Committee report and socio-economic deprivation is that the moment you address the concerns of Muslims via that prism you automatically build bridges with other marginalised communities based on their socio-economic and material needs. Speaking only about identity will not create organic solidarities. We have to talk about lived realities also.
“Speaking only about identity will not create organic solidarities.”
Are you Shehla Rashid, Kanhaiya Kumar, Anirban Bhattacharya still connected or as it happens after college, friends go their own way.
The connections are very much there. This current regime is what brought us together in the first place and that is what will continue… earlier, before this regime came to power, we used to have political differences and have fights amongst each other in JNU politics, but that changed post 2016. We’re very much in touch.
What did Kanhaiya Kumar’s loss in the 2019 general election convey to you?
It was disappointing. The overall result of the 2019 election was disappointing. I think Kanhaiya was able to mobilise a lot of opinion, but it just goes to show that this is not going to be an easy battle. Grassroots work is important to dismantle the BJP because when it comes to money, they have more money. When it comes to star power, they have one person in whose name they ask for votes all over the country. They have made the entire election presidential, where local candidates don’t matter. So, we will have to work much harder. We cannot be under an illusion that this is going to end soon.