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India's skies have dimmed, says Harsh Mander

Activist Harsh Mander writes about how the Constitution had been under constant assault over many decades but it still endured. Now, with the Citizenship Amendment Act, the Constitution has been felled

Mander says our civilizational inheritance is flawed but still nurtured equality.
Mander says our civilizational inheritance is flawed but still nurtured equality. (Photo: Madhu Kapparath)

The skies over India have dimmed. A country I have loved intensely, even wildly, has been diminished. Its ethically centred struggle for freedom, its lustrous Constitution, its pledges of inclusive and humane nationalism, and its civilizational legacy of welcoming and nurturing every major religion in the world have been betrayed.

Under constant assault over many decades, India’s Constitution has endured till now, weather-beaten and broken, but still a symbol of hope for India’s dispossessed people. With the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), this Constitution has been felled.

Our civilizational inheritance has many failings. It legitimized savage inequality through caste in its religious texts in ways that none other has. It fostered injustice to women. But it has always nurtured an incandescent dissenting tradition of equality and love. This is the India of Buddha, Kabir and Nanak, of Ashoka and Akbar, of Gandhi and Ambedkar.

It is from this tradition that flowed the values of our struggle for freedom, of non-violence and truth, and the nation that was imagined through all those years of resistance. The idea that this would be a country in which it would not matter which god you worship, or if you worship no god: You would be an equal citizen in every way.

I was raised in a vastly different India from the one we have given to our children. There was prejudice but it was rarely aired. There was privilege but it was rarely flaunted. Diversity was treasured in our personal and political lives, in our cinema, our music and our friendships. There was no question that the duty of the state was to raise the poor and defend the minorities.

It was in the 1980s that India transformed decisively. The communal bloodbaths in Nellie, Delhi and Bhagalpur, the overturning of the progressive Shah Bano judgement,and most of all the violent campaign to demolish the Babri Masjid transmuted India into the one we live in today. A country where people flaunt their prejudice, bigotry and advantage, where leaders valorize hatred and lynching, courts fail to defend our minorities, and now Parliament passes a law which legitimizes a hierarchy of citizenship based on religion.

I have witnessed the incredible levels of suffering created by the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. Impoverished rural people, often landless and unlettered, staked all their meagre belongings and many years to gather documents to prove that they were citizens. These certificates of birth, schooling, land-ownership and voters’ lists dating back several decades are such that most of us would find impossible to muster.

Even a small discrepancy in spelling was sufficient for these documents to be rejected. The consequences of such rejection were catastrophic. You could be sent to detention centres for years, with no hope of release. Finding names missing from the NRC lists, or when loved ones were exiled to detention centres, several committed suicide in despair.

However, this pitiless manufacture of statelessness targeted the poor, not people of a particular religious identity. It is this that the CAA will change. In the nationwide NRC declared by Union home minister Amit Shah, now undocumented people of any religious identity except Muslim will be treated as refugees and given citizenship. Only undocumented Muslims will be treated as illegal immigrants, thereby externed in detention centres and in all likelihood divested of all citizenship rights—of voting, land ownership and social security. All states have also been directed to create detention centres.

This graded citizenship brings back, among other histories, terrifying memories of Nazi Germany. Another remembrance of those times is the silence and indifference of non-Jew Germans. Anguished young Germans interrogate their parents and grandparents even today: “How could you have remained silent? What did you do to resist?" Decades later, these same questions will doubtless be asked of us. What answers will we give our later generations?

It is not enough for all of us to boycott the NRC. If I don’t declare myself Muslim, I will face no consequences even if I don’t produce any documents to prove my citizenship, because the CAA is designed precisely to protect me. Being officially Muslim but with no documents to establish I am a citizen, I will be detained and denied all rights of a citizen. The only way I can stand in true solidarity with my Muslim sisters and brothers is to register with the state as Muslim, and then to boycott the NRC.

This will be a satyagraha to reclaim the equality and fraternity of our Constitution, indeed to reclaim our best selves. I am convinced that it is only such a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience and solidarity that can return to us the humane and inclusive freedom that our freedom fighters gave to us, which we have squandered. All is not destroyed forever. We will not let that happen. Maybe after a generation, maybe much sooner, we will collect the pieces from the moral wreckage of our republic again to rebuild the country which was so beautifully imagined, even if so imperfectly realized.

Harsh Mander is a former IAS officer and human rights activist.

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