At the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru rose in independent India’s first parliament to declare that while the world slept, India was fulfilling a “tryst with destiny” and “awakening to life and freedom.”
It was a time of promise. Young Indians like my father welcomed the idea of freedom. His diary entry of July 31, 1947, reads: “August. We shall see the light of that famous month, which already has been the theme of people’s talk all over the world. Two weeks more, and then we shall be entitled to call ourselves a free people.”
As Nehru delivered these historic words, tens of millions of Indians became refugees in their own lands as the subcontinent was partitioned into two independent states; a Hindu-majority India flanked on its east and west by two parts of a Muslim-majority Pakistan. India’s 1950 constitution declared it a sovereign, socialist, secular republic while Pakistan’s constitution, adopted in 1956, declared it an Islamic republic.
India’s tryst with destiny created millions of refugees, and their migration came with unimaginable violence. Estimates of deaths range from 200,000 to two million people.
Since 1947, India and Pakistan have remained bitter rivals. They each see global affairs through the prism of their strained relationship and have engaged in four wars. The 1971 war created Bangladesh as a new nation and ended the existence of East Pakistan. That war also created millions of new refugees as war-stressed East Pakistanis flooded into India.
For many Indians, secularism has defined India. For a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, complex and multi-layered society, secularism has allowed the pursuit of equality and justice as promised by India’s constitution. For others, secularism has been an unnatural obstacle to the ascendency of India’s majority religion to its rightful place.
Since independence, there has been agitation for making India a Hindu nation. Organizations such as the Shiv Sena (SS) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have actively promoted an end to secularism. They have asked, if the Muslims could have an Islamic Pakistan, why couldn’t they have a Hindu India? Through wars and communal riots, insurgencies and violence, India has fended off religious nationalism and clung to the idea that its sum was greater than its religious parts.
While the RSS and the SS often attacked secularism, the right-wing nationalist organizations never garnered enough political clout to supplant it with the tyranny of religious nationalism. Despite their best efforts, the secular democracy Indians welcomed in 1947 remained alive.
But that may all have changed with the re-election of the Narendra Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government in 2019. The BJP is the ideological child of the RSS and SS, and a massive BJP majority has finally given these ideologues opportunity to legislate India away from secularism.
Within months of its election, the BJP moved to end special constitutional autonomy provisions accorded to the Muslim majority State of Jammu and Kashmir. Before the dust had settled on repealing these provisions, the BJP government introduced and passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
The CAA provides a pathway to citizenship for refugees from countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. But the CAA does not treat all refugees equally; Muslim refugees are expressly excluded from citizenship. While Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists qualify for citizenship, Muslims only qualify for deportation.
Next up on the government’s list is the National Citizen’s Register (NRC), which intends to seek and deport “illegal immigrants.” India has tens of millions of undocumented citizens who may not have the means to prove they are, in fact, Indians. Once again, the RSS and SS are agitating for the NRC as a means to deport Muslims back to Bangladesh and Pakistan, including many refugees from the 1971 war.
From the outset, Indian opposition parties and citizens from across the religious spectrum have denounced the CAA and the NRC as discriminatory and anti-Muslim. While the RSS and SS have been organizing rallies in support of the CAA, tens of millions of Indians have protested the CAA and the shift away from secularism.
India is a crossroads. Increasingly, Modi’s BJP government is bending to the aspirations of those who wish to see a secular Indian democracy replaced by a Hindu India. In effect, the question for India and its citizens is one of equality: are all citizens equal, as promised by its secular constitution, or will some become more equal than others?
This battle was in full swing during this month’s state-level election in Delhi. The campaign pitted secularism against Hindu nationalism. Delhi’s election campaign was one of the most divisive in history and foretold of many electoral battles yet to come. While secularism carried the day on Feb.8, Delhi was just the beginning. In India’s fight for secularism, battleground Delhi gave a glimpse of what is yet to come.
Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on February 26, 2020