India’s foreign minister defends controversial citizenship act

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By Oren Gruenbaum

India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, has robustly defended Delhi’s controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which has sparked months of protests and violence across India.

The CAA offers Indian citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhist, Christians, Parsis and Jains who arrived before 2015 from the Muslim-majority neighbouring states of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. It is widely seen as an assertion of Hindu supremacism, or Hindutva, by the Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Narendra Modi.

Speaking to Commonwealth Update before the Delhi riots, Jaishankar told Commonwealth Update: ‘The religious criteria was introduced by the British at the time of partition. Pakistan did not look after its minorities. There was a period when Bangladesh also did not look after its minorities. Afghanistan [had] a very large Sikh community – during the Taliban period, most of them were driven out.

‘The numbers do not lie; minorities in India in the last 20 years have not gone down, minorities in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan have,’ he said. ‘There’s been political persecution or worse of minorities in these societies, which led them to come to India.’

Many observers accuse Modi of marginalising Muslim Indians for years and flouting India’s secular constitution. But Jaishankar said: ‘Secularism in India means equal respect for all. In the European context, you use secular as “non-religious”; I’d use secular as being fair to all religions.’

Jaishankar quoted Gandhi as saying India had a moral obligation to welcome Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan (though SN Sahu noted in The Citizen that Gandhi was equally open to giving citizenship to Muslims from Pakistan if they preferred to live in India. Days before he was assassinated, Gandhi said: ‘It would spell the ruin of both the Hindu religion and the majority community if the latter, in the intoxication of power, entertains the belief that it can crush the minority community and establish a purely Hindu Raj’). Jaishankar also cited the Lautenberg and Specter amendments in the US as examples of religious criteria for immigrants (recognising the Soviet Union’s Jews and Iranian Jews, Christians and Bahais respectively as vulnerable groups.)

‘We have in our midst people who don’t have documentation. Do I pretend they don’t exist? If you are not regularised then you’re not eligible for any government services – you’re actually preyed on by the worst people in society because you’re vulnerable.

‘But nobody’s done anything about it,’ he said. ‘The world should be appreciating the fact we’ve opened our doors at a time when frankly, very few countries, including Britain, are open to taking immigrants.’

‘There was the belief that the world was going to be more globalised, more integrated, more harmonious,’ he said. ‘That belief today stands challenged. We certainly feel the world expects us to do more – we have an influence. There’s a very strong sense of natural justice in our world outlook.

‘The big challenges,’ said Jaishankar, ‘are terrorism, counterterrorism, maritime security and connectivity.’ He said the Modi administration was tackling issues that previous Indian governments would have left for others to take care of. The response to protests against the CAA and the annexation of Jammu and Kashmir, as well as on policies on gender and urban planning, were muscular examples of the government’s ‘strong willpower’, ‘vision’ and how it had ‘bitten the bullet’.

‘Independence of policymaking,’ he said, ‘is very strong in this country.’ Whether pushing back against Britain, the US or China, ‘the days when any one country can dominate or determine the outcome are behind us.’

India walking away from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a trade pact accounting for 39% of global GDP and under negotiation since 2012, was a sign of this newfound confidence, the minister suggested. Modi told a Bangkok summit in November that the deal would ruin India’s poor. Jaishankar said: ‘Many of our concerns in the RCEP, for a variety of reasons, were sort of kicked down the road … it’s for them to come up with offers.’ (The trade bloc, however, seems ready to move on: India’s withdrawal is forecast to shave just 0.08% off China’s GDP.)

Most analysts believe Modi bowed to pressure from India’s farmers and manufacturers, who are key BJP supporters, not to allow cheap imports despite warnings about protectionism at a time of ever-greater integration into global supply chains. India’s largest dairy producer enthusiastically backed Modi. ‘Every foreign policy has a domestic context and a domestic driver,’ according to Jaishankar.

On Pakistan, he said, India wanted to deal with ‘a normal country’. He added: ‘It should not be a country which sends people at night with guns and bombs, using terrorism as a legitimate diplomatic tactic, a country which tried to attack our parliament. If Pakistan would move away from its extreme dependence on terrorism as a strategy of pressurising India, we will be open [to talks]. Everyone wants good relations but good relations cannot come at the price of this.’

Asked whether Pakistan was using terrorist groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed as proxies, he said: ‘These groups are not exactly hidden. They’re operating in the major cities of Pakistan; their leaders appear in political meetings with leaders of the Pakistani government.

‘The public can find Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed [camps] on a Google map so we’re not talking about evil men living in dark caves, which nobody knows about. These are people functioning in broad daylight, raising money, recruiting, taking part in political campaigns. So [if they are not actively supporting them] then the top people must be completely oblivious to what’s happening in the country.’

It is a charge some might apply equally to the India government after Modi merely urged calm as Hindu mobs rampaged through Muslim-majority areas of Delhi in February, leaving at least 53 people dead and hundreds of homes burned down. Thousands of Muslim families fled as grotesque accounts emerged of men being stripped to see if they were circumcised and beaten to death if they were. The pogrom started after a BJP politician demanded that roads in Delhi blocked by CAA protesters be cleared – or his followers would do it. The police, under the control of the home minister, Amit Shah, a key BJP ideologue, reportedly stood by or helped the marauding mobs. The Delhi Minorities Commission called the attacks ‘one-sided and well-planned’.

As the bloodletting began, Modi was hosting Donald Trump, whose government, as the Yale professor Jason Stanley notes, also favours ethno-nationalism. Now Muslims who cannot prove they are Indian (in a country where 38 percent of children have no birth certificate) fear detention and deportation.

Rana Ayyub, in Time, noted how a cabinet minister had rued the very existence of a Muslim minority in India two days before the Delhi riots erupted. Modi’s BJP government, she said, was complicit in the Delhi riots, just as it was behind the anti-Muslim violence in Mumbai in 1992 and in Gujarat in 2002, when Modi was the state’s chief minister (see Commonwealth Update, April 2014). In The Atlantic, Yasmin Serhan declared: ‘The Indian government may not be actively involved in the sectarian violence, but in failing to stop it, leaders become responsible for it.’

This article is taken from the Commonwealth Update section of The Round Table, published March 23, 2020.

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