With its political fortunes at an all-time peak, Hindutva in India has regurgitated its age-old discourse of ‘refugees versus infiltrators.’ In right wing politics, both are referents to different socio-religious groups. How does this discourse function with regards to migrants in South Asia?
An understanding of the political relationship between Hindutva and migrants is important for two reasons.
First, it provides us some idea of the different equations Hindutva politics has with groups in various parts of the country who are themselves oppressed by the mobility control technology of the state apparatus, whether Matuas in West Bengal, Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh, or Bengali Muslims in different cities.
Second, it allows insights for the purpose of political articulation in the collective opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019 and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). This is especially urgent because even at the height of anti-NRC and anti-CAA protests this year, some have maintained an anti-immigrant stance, thus inadvertently allowing Hindutva groups to claim a faux pro-migrant justice politics.
The project of CAA 2019 and NRC
The CAA 2019 introduced by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) aims to provide fast track citizenship to non-Muslim (Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Parsi, Christian) religious minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.
The political purpose of this is clear: to target Muslim-majority countries as perpetrators of religious persecution of Hindus and further a demographic shift in India that is imagined as ‘Hindu Rashtra’ (Hindu nation) which will include Hindu refugees.
The NRC is effectively a disenfranchisement exercise based on a distinction between ‘citizen’ and ‘foreigner’ that has already created havoc for more than 19 lakh people in Assam, particularly those belonging to Bengali-speaking communities among other groups. The proposed all-India NRC, if unleashed, will also similarly target the most precarious across caste, class, religious, and gender lines while specifically targeting Bengali-speaking Muslim migrants in various parts of the country.
Both these are crucial to BJP’s project of Hindu Rashtra. It is state technology intervening in demographic restructuring in the most explicit manner.
Immigration control has remained peripherally instrumental to the Indian state so far. Crucial changes in immigration and citizenship law include the implementation of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) (IMDT) Act, 1983 that shifted the burden of proof from the accused (as it is in the typical Foreigners Act, 1946) to the accuser or the police accusing someone of being a foreigner.
Next came the CAA 1986, which undermined the principle of jus soli from Indian citizenship, moving to jus sanguinis citizenship. These were responses to certain political developments. Here, the state did not take the political initiative to make an elaborate system of governance for the migrant populations. The standard mechanism functioned through the normal system of immigration law alongside the contingent orders put in place to deal with refugee populations at particular historical junctures.
While the issue of religious minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan are important, they have existed for many years. Similarly, cross-border migration is an almost natural process across the world. The deployment of CAA 2019 and the proposal of NRC are meant to render immigration control central to the state apparatus and its governance in an unambiguous mode.
The importance of migration
The question of migration in some or the other form has been pivotal to Hindutva, as is evident from the issue of Aryan invasion or migration theory. While early proto-Hindutva or Hindutva was open to the idea of Aryan migration that seemed to support the claim of some proto-Hindus being the harbinger of civilisation to Indian subcontinent, recent Hindutva ideologues have been critical of any such claim.
This is because nationalisms that sought to attain sovereign status by the mid-20th century were increasingly identifying with a discourse of autochthony, claiming an indigenous status for themselves that justified their decolonising struggles through a politics that was nativist in orientation. In this regard, any tint of foreignness signalled illegitimacy in matters of political belonging. This has happened with Hindu nationalism, too.
But even with regard to issues of migration in the recent past, Hindutva groups have routinely spearheaded campaigns against ‘Bangladeshi infiltrators’ in different parts of the country and their regimes have meant excessive and torturous harassment for Bengali-speaking, particularly Muslim, migrants across India. Their political strategy in the early 1990s included a heightened focus on ‘invasion’ and ‘infiltration’ by “Bangladeshis”, which resulted in even the then Congress government to deport many migrants from New Delhi.
The CAA 2003, introduced by the then Home Affairs Minister LK Advani, was passed under the BJP regime. It sought to redefine its ‘people’ by introducing two categories in the citizenship law: the first of ‘Overseas Indian Citizen’ (later amended as ‘Overseas Indian Cardholder’), which recognises transnational citizenship and the second of ‘illegal immigrant’, which entrenches stricter protocols of jus sanguinis in citizenship law.
This simultaneous acceptance and rejection of certain populations in citizenship law is clearly linked with marking its body politic through migrant populations. It is a telling fact that now two important amendments to the citizenship law have happened under the BJP government.
While the unauthorised migrants that Hindutva despises include both Pakistani Muslim and Bangladeshi Muslim migrants, the typical characterisation of the former is of Muslim-as-terrorist and the latter is of Muslim-as-infiltrator. These discourses find much parallels in American and European Islamophobia, respectively. Of course, here too, the Indian Muslim is continuously made part of such discourses as well.
All of this shows how important migration is to Hindutva, as it must be for any politics aiming to consolidate a national identity and is rooted in axioms of nativism and nationalism, because important claims of history, justice, entitlement, rights, and belonging are made impossible through it.
What the BJP says
One of the useful places to canvas through the BJP’s political articulation regarding its justification for CAA 2019 and NRC includes the Lok Sabha debates on CAA 2019 that took place on 9 December 2019. Here, the speeches by the ministers of Parliament belonging to the ruling party provide critical understanding of the discourse they deploy.
Many critics in the parliament and outside had pointed out that instead of a bill that betrays secularism and inscribes discrimination in the law, a suitable refugee law can be made that by default includes refugees from religious minority communities of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.
In the parliament, the BJP’s response was that the CAA 2019 is meant to undo partition, which happened on the basis of religion, everything else being secondary. Hindutva’s relationship to partition and two-nation theory notwithstanding, today’s BJP has openly started blaming Jawaharlal Nehru for the partition [Lok Sabha 09 Dec 2019: Page No. 428] and believes that this law is necessitated by the failure of Pakistan to honour the Liaquat-Nehru Pact of 1950 [Lok Sabha 09 Dec 2019: Page No. 314-322; 416-420; 452-454; 457-459; 489-490; 505-507; and 509-511].
But as is clear to anyone, this pre-partition India that Hindutva imagines already involves considering Hindus as native to the land and Muslims as outsiders. It is, of course, obvious that the distinction that current Home Minister Amit Shah wants to foreground between the ‘refugee’ and the ‘infiltrator’ is itself based on religion where we have Hindu refugees and Muslim infiltrators (and therefore, the continuous criticism by many that BJP wants to do a second partition).
But Shah has his own criteria to distinguish between the ‘refugee’ and the ‘infiltrator’ in the Lok Sabha and it is worth looking at, because by BJP’s own admission, this distinction is a fundamental one.
Amit Shah defines the two groups succinctly:
“The ones who after getting tortured, to save the honour of the women of their family, to save their religion come here [in India] on the basis of religious persecution, that person is a refugee and the one who intrudes here illegally is an infiltrator.”
He repeats it once again when he says:
“The person who flees from his house after religious persecution, to protect the honour of the women in his house, to live with self-conception of faith, to save one’s religion is a refugee. The person who enters without permission is an infiltrator.” (Translation by the author.) [Lok Sabha 09 Dec 2019: Page No. 500; 510.]
Apart from the obvious recognition that both the figures are gendered and male in this narrative, an interesting fact about this distinction is that in both the places quoted above, Shah defines the refugee on causal terms (why one comes) and the infiltrator on processual terms (how one comes). There is an asymmetry of criteria employed for the two.
Other references by Shah and CAA-supporting parliamentarians for the category of the refugee consist in showing the pain that they have to go through, the horrors they have lived, the atrocities they have been subjected to which necessitates their arrival. But, all references to infiltrator seem to be about what the infiltrator does here.
For example, BJP Member of Parliament from Hooghly (West Bengal), Locket Chatterjee, puts it bluntly while saying that the infiltrator engages in women trafficking, cow smuggling, raping of women, burning of police station, and other such subversive acts. [Lok Sabha 09 Dec 2019: Page No. 428-430.]
Since there is no attempt to inquire into why the figure of the infiltrator actually comes to India, one is expected to draw the conclusion that he comes to do what he does here: women trafficking, cow smuggling, raping of women, burning of police station, and what not. These particular ideas fit well with the general notion of ‘Bangladeshi infiltrator’ that is central to both popular conceptions of unauthorised migrants and to the various strands of nationalist or nativist political ideologies in the country.
‘Bangladeshi infiltrator’ is someone who is part of a “sinister Islamic/Bangladeshi conspiracy to undermine India’s territorial integrity and the demographic basis of a Hindu nation.” This narrative of Bangladeshi infiltrator is sustained by state policy, nationalistic and nativist ideologies, and racist and classist tropes across languages in India.
This asymmetry of criteria in distinguishing between the refugee and the infiltrator is interesting because the reason invoked to disallow any empathy for the infiltrator include the conditions that are exactly the same, which the refugee has to bear. This includes absence, incompleteness or expiry of travelling documents, visa and passport. [Lok Sabha 09 Dec 2019: Page No. 300; 390; 395; 500.]
And this condition is made irrelevant for the refugee after being invoked repeatedly as a beating stick against the infiltrator. This is because through the CAA 2019, those non-Muslim individuals who have entered India before 31 December 2014 and are able to show that they have been religiously persecuted in the three neighbouring countries will be excused from the penal provisions of the Passports Act, 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946 and they shall be exempted from being considered illegal under Section 2(1)(b) of Citizenship Act, 1955. [Lok Sabha 09 Dec 2019: Page No. 300.]
Migrant-exclusive politics of resistance
Among certain political parties and sections of the anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests, some respond to BJP’s binary categorisation between the refugee and the infiltrator by taking a complete anti-immigration stance, citing factors such as the possibility of population rise, the hypothetical scarcity of economic resources, and others.
The mode of politics that is able to reject the binary between refugees and infiltrators while rejecting the migrants themselves is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This is a mistake progressive politics ought not to make.
There is enough evidence to support the fact that refugee groups will end up becoming collateral damage under right-wing Hindutva politics and merely instrumentalised in the furthering of BJP’s fascism. As is made clear by the Home Minister in the parliament, they are uninterested in any refugee and asylum policy [Lok Sabha 09 Dec 2019: Page No. 494], but believe that CAA 2019 is important because it undoes partition realities. This is just another way of saying that they want to bring back Hindus in their imagined Hindu Rashtra.
Furthermore, a sensitive political response to the horrifying and bureaucratically monstrous NRC cannot and must not be premised upon the logic(s) of insider-outsider, citizen-foreigner. While the protests have been fully able to reject the sanctity ascribed to documentation, recognise the pitfalls of administrative utopias such as NRC, and challenge the existence of detention centres in Assam and elsewhere, many have found it hard to give up on the logic of citizenship and some of its parochial implications.
One of the effects of holding such beliefs, axiomatically or pragmatically, is seen through sections of the protest that have been stuck in attempting to articulate themselves through some kind of nationalism from below, subaltern patriotism or reclamation of citizenship, each of which have practical value and have resulted in important political gains in the past. But it seems that if we are not able to move beyond the binary of citizen and foreigner or migrant at the cusp of xenophobic nationalism, then there will never be a suitable time to do so.
It is important to stress that both the minorities in the country and refugees or migrants from other countries deserve equal justice and that their rights must be protected. One can criticize the neighbouring countries for their callous attitude toward their own minorities alongside criticizing the ruling party for its instrumental use of refugees and refugee discourse against Muslim majority countries without giving up on refugees themselves.
For a progressive politics this will include different groups of people, which should ideally consist of refugees, economic migrants and stateless people. After all, they are not so different, and all of them must be fought for.
There are many reasons for our knee-jerk reliance on quasi-nationalist symbols. But this strategy has its limits. It is now necessary more than ever to collectively transcend these limitations to build a politics that is inclusive of migrants and which takes seriously the prospect of migrant justice.
In the hope of hope
Recently, there have been demands from the ‘No NRC movement’ in West Bengal asking for the 1986, 2003 and 2019 amendments to the Citizenship Act, 1955 to be withdrawn, thus bringing back the question of jus soli once again in anti-NRC and anti-CAA politics.
Simultaneously, they have asked for the cancellation of any plan for a National Population Register (NPR) and all-India NRC alongside a revoking of the Assam NRC and an end to all detention centres in the country. There is much to hope here. If the political groups across the country pay any heed to the voices there, they will find a great deal to gain for the collective future of progressive politics.
Such movements provide important strategies and concrete demands to politically articulate the collective resistance to BJP’s idea of belongingness. Once the COVID-19 pandemic passes and the lockdown gets over, there is hope that the anti-NRC and anti-CAA protests will restart.
We can go much beyond what we have already achieved in creating an anti-fascistic political discourse against the CAA and NRC. Our hope lies in attempting to curate a politics that not only makes lofty claims of civilizational ethos of hospitality, but also truly blurs the distinctions between the host and the guest.
For this to happen, we must realise the time is ripe that we start thinking beyond the many parochial notions of citizenship and how to eschew them.
Views expressed are the author’s own.
Featured image: Home Minister Amit Shah (left), anti-CAA/NRC protestors in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh area.