— A once-celebrated constitution is now in the danger zone
Raju Rajagopal and Sunita Viswanath, Hindus for Human Rights, USA
18 October 2019
Barbara Jordan, the first African-American Congresswoman from the South, wryly reminded us during the Nixon impeachment hearings forty-five years ago that when the makers of our constitution wrote “We the people…” they had somehow left her out by mistake — and that it was only through amendments and court interpretations over the years that people like her had finally been “included.”
More than a century-and-a-half later, the makers of the Indian Constitution were greatly inspired by our founding fathers, but their idea of ‘fundamental rights’ went much further: They promised freedom of conscience “to every religious denomination or any section thereof,” abolished untouchability and offered equality of opportunity, and even made special provisions for women and children.
That celebrated constitution is now under unprecedented assault by the Modi government and its ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). If our nation has been slowly but steadily moving towards more inclusion, India seems to be lurching dangerously in the other direction, towards a Hindu Rashtra that is eager to exclude the ‘other.’
Sadly, America has barely noticed.
A massive humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the state of Assam, as two million people — Muslims, Hindus and others — have been declared illegal, resulting from a seriously flawed National Register of Citizens (NRC). Thousands of genuine citizens have been excluded, often splitting families and targeting even veterans of the Indian Army. Families are scrambling to save themselves from ruin, even as the state is busy building detention camps to indefinitely hold many thousands of them, which would make the situation on our southern border look almost civilized. However, in a cruel twist and a slap in the face of India’s constitutional commitment to pluralism, India is now promising selective pathway to citizenship to all illegal immigrants except the Muslims.
The lock down of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, with severe restrictions on free speech and assembly, travel, and even religious worship, has lasted more than two months, in what amounts to the collective punishment of an entire people. First-hand stories emerging through the blockade have painted a bleak picture of the daily lives of Kashmiris. A women’s fact-finding group says that India’s actions have “Created a sense of anger, outrage and strong anti-India feelings among people across the Valley,” and that what they heard are “very different from what the Indian state and media have portrayed.” To no one’s surprise, Indian officials have been obsessing over how to deflect international criticism, and they may finally be easing some of the restrictions in time for a congressional hearing on Kashmir set for next week in Washington.
Elsewhere in India, attacks on free speech, using colonial-era sedition laws, and abetted by right-wing Hindutva trolls, have become a daily occurrence. Writers, actors, activists, and media persons across India are being targeted, and several prominent intellectuals have been assassinated since Mr. Modi came to power. Scores of Muslims have been lynched, some on mere rumors that they may be storing beef. Shamefully, the perpetrators in several cases have been let go for “lack of evidence,” a pattern all too familiar in cases involving minority victims. The Prime Minister’s response to the blitzkrieg against dissenters and minorities have been disturbingly similar to President Trump’s response to White Nationalist violence: Silence at first, which his core base sees as a wink and a nod; and if pushed to the wall, a broad non-committal statement against all violence. But nothing more.
The cruelty of the NRC, the lock down in Kashmir, and the culture of mob violence all have a common target: India’s Muslims. For those familiar with the playbook of the RSS, that comes as no surprise, but the speed with which events have unfolded is stunning. So, when the head of the RSS, Mr. Mohan Bhagwat, now openly declares that a Hindu Rashtra is “non-negotiable,” we should not be surprised to see an even more concerted attack upon the constitution, aimed at making India’s minorities feel like foreigners in their own land.
When Barbara Jordon declared in 1974, “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution,” America stood up and applauded. In today’s India, such resolute voices from political leaders have become rare, if not violently shut out by the foot soldiers of Hindutva, amid the nation’s giddy adulation of the Narendra Modi (NaMo) brand.
Hindus for Human Rights, USA (HfHR), is an advocacy organization committed to the ideals of multi-religious pluralism in the United States, India, and beyond.