In early September 2001, I was on secondment to a British newspaper, working in its opinions section. The big issue the British media was focused on during those weeks and months was immigration – in particular illegal immigration into Britain from the French town of Sangatte on the English Channel.
France had established a giant refugee camp – a ‘holding centre’ – in 1999 to house refugees, mostly fleeing from the Balkan war, found on the streets of Calais and nearby towns. Most refugees had set Britain as their final destination, either travelling illegally via the freight trains plying through the Channel Tunnel, or on ferries. During my stint at the newspaper, an estimated 250 immigrants were coming in illegally every week into Britain from Sangatte.
At one of the editorial meetings, the then editor of the newspaper posed the question: ‘How do we stop them from entering without turning off the light?’ What the lighthouse metaphor was posing was: how do we stop illegal immigrants from coming to our shores without shooing away immigrants whom Britain wants to welcome as workforce and investment?
A few days later, ‘9/11’ happened. By end-2002, French President Nicolas Sarkozy shut down the Sangatte camp. Before that, of course, overnight, the focus in Britain and its media had moved on from tackling illegal immigration to tackling terrorism.
Today, a similar debate is underway in the Indian Parliament as the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) is thrashed out in Rajya Sabha to turn the Bill into law. The same ‘Sangatte-style’ lighthouse principle is being used here, too, with the CAB’s introducer in Parliament, Home Minister Amit Shah, stating while initiating the debate on the Bill in Lok Sabha a few days before: ‘We will have to differentiate between infiltrators and refugees.’ And the filter that the BJP administration has chosen to use is being a minority from any of the three Muslim-majority neighbouring countries: Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
CAB is a sort of double-entrendre. As the BJP leadership is at pains to explain to anyone with a dour look on his or her face, this is not an anti-Muslim law, but a ‘pro-non-Muslim’ one, with the original provisions of the Citizenship Act allowing anyone, non-Indian Muslims included, to apply for Indian citizenship. On the other hand, it’s an ‘All migrants are equal, but some migrants are more equal than others’ kind of law, which should warm the cockles of the hearts of those who have been promised and are (still) seeking correction of what they perceive to be ‘minority-appeasing’ – or should we say, the ‘majority-frustrating’ politics of past administrations.
But one thing seems to be stitched up once and for all: that BJP and its affiliates, by pursuing this ‘No Muslims from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan please’ policy, have finally given up on that old ‘Akhand Bharat’ project. Instead, this ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsis and Christian masses yearning to breathe free’ call means letting those ‘old outlying Bharat bits’ float off. One supposes that an anti-Pakistan (Sunni) Balochi and regularly targeted Shias from Paksitan and Afghanistan, like the Myanmarese Rohingya, will just have to make avail of the unamended Citizenship Act to apply for Indian citizenship (after 11 years of Indian residentship, instead of the five years for those elgible for applying in the amended Bill).
Which brings us to what an Indian Muslim, or a Kashmiri Muslim, could be making of this religious-based filtration process. ‘All terrorists are Muslim, but not all Muslims are terrorists’ is a line that took official traction in the post-9/11 world. But it hasn’t quite ameliorated matters, or views, in the real world. Shah’s ‘infilitrating’ Bangladeshis or Pakistanis seem to bear a striking resemblance to (sub-middle-class) Indian Bengalis or Indian Muslims for many.
In the US, Donald Trump had announced his presidential campaign in June 2015 with: ‘The US has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems…. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you…. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.’ In India, we have three ‘Mexicos’ to choose from.
However much the government wishes to pitch CAB as a law to seive out ‘infiltrators’ (read: terrorists) — and comfort members of India’s second largest religious community that this is about ‘national security’ and not about sewing a yellow target on the shirts of Indian Muslims — the very act of welcoming only a set of people who are non-Muslims is bad optics, bad politics and bad faith.
Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, an icon of the Conservative parivar to this day for many even in our climes, made his views on a religion-based community clear when he wrote to the Soviet ambassador in London in 1942: ‘…. The Hindus are windbags. Yes, windbags! Oh, of course, when it comes to fine speecehes, skilfully balanced resolutions and legalistic castles in the air, the Hindus are real experts! They’re in their element! When it comes to business, when something must be decided on quickly, implemented, executed – here the Hindus say ‘pass’. Here they immediately reveal their internal flabbiness.’
Regardless of what the Rajya Sabha decides tonight on CAB, one thing can be said: Churchill has been proved wrong to believe, ‘All windbags are Hindu, and all Hindus are windbags.’ At least, the Prime Minister of India in 2019, in the context of Muslims via CAB — quite like the way Yudhisthir told Dronacharya on the battlefield in the Mahabharat, ‘Aswathama hatha (Ashwathama, Drona’s son, is dead), adding sotto voce, ‘Iti narova kunjarova’ (I don’t know if it’s a man or elephant) – essentially is saying, ‘All infiltrators are Muslim, but not all Muslims are infiltrators.’ For which we must, one supposes, be grateful.