21.12.2019 Author: Vladimir Terehov

India’s 2019 Legislative Season


India’s 2019 legislative season is nearly finished. And it has been fruitful on account of lawmakers’ fairly controversial activities. In fact, it is not the entire year but the second half we are referring to here. Various political forces within India itself and in other countries have described the resulting legislature in polar opposite ways.

The variety of legislative acts had one thing in common, they all, in one way or another, brought to the fore the problematic status of the Muslim minority in this nation, which actually accounts for one third (in terms of population) of the world’s entire Islamic community. The aforementioned minority is part of a secular and religious society that has not embraced (or perhaps even rejected) Islamic teachings.

It is worth noting that issues plaguing relations among communities that live in one nation but have very different religious views (or belong to various denominations of one religion) are not unique to India. To one degree or another they are inherent to all the countries on the planet, and each of them is trying to resolve them (in its own way).

It is best to state for the record now that none of the nations have been able to solve these problems in their entirety. At present, for instance, there are still issues plaguing the relationship between Catholics (particularly, the Society of Jesus, a religious order of the Catholic Church) and certain Protestant movements in the United States. Some real-world manifestations of these problems pose a direct challenge to national security of this leading nation.

All any country can try to do is attempt to minimize (but not eliminate completely) the impact on its public and political life of such issues, which stem from differences between (or general incompatibility of as, for example, in India) religious beliefs that are practiced by sizable groups in a society.

One of the most radical means (if we do not take into account repression of religious beliefs) of accomplishing the aforementioned goal is described in the two clauses of the First Amendment (Amendment I) to the United States Constitution. They were a crucial element to defining this nation as a secular republic.

Nowadays in India, critics of the aforementioned legislative activities, undertaken by the nation’s leadership in the second half of the year, are using various strong statements in reference to them. Some examples include remarks such as “betrayal of secular and republican virtues underpinning the modern state of India” (since it gained its independence), “the advent of clericalism”, etc.

The New Eastern Outlook has been following practically all the key stages of the aforementioned activities. We would like to remind our readers about them in a more or less chronological order. On 5 August, amendments introduced into Article 370 of India’s Constitution resulted in the revocation of the special status of the State of Jammu and Kashmir with its predominantly Muslim population. This now former state was divided into two union territories to be governed directly by the central Government of India.

The negative response to these changes by India’s Muslim population was not unexpected. In addition, the move had various consequences outside of India. From the author’s perspective, a key one was the de facto internationalization of the Kashmir conflict. And India has always tried to avoid such an outcome since the very beginning of the dispute, i.e. from the end of 1940s, when two independent nations (India and Pakistan) were established and the territory of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was divided between them.

The most recent sign indicating that tensions stemming from the Kashmir conflict are on the rise on the international arena was the message directed to India’s leadership from the European Union (EU) Ambassador to this nation on 10 December. It talked about the EU’s “unchanged” position on Kashmir: “India must take steps to restore normalcy and rights and freedoms of the people, while understanding India’s security concerns”.

The next significant development came in the form of India’s Supreme Court ruling from 9 November on a disputed 1-hectare territory (sacred to both Hindus and Muslims) on top of a hill in the city of Ayodhya. Once again we would like to highlight that there was no adequate resolution to this issue, which had arisen at the end of 1992 after the demolition of the Babri Masjid (built in this location 500 years ago). In essence, the court ended up having to choose “the lesser of two evils”.

In the author’s opinion, it is an apt description of this decision, which was to hand over the land on top of the hill to a trust to build a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Rama, and to give the Sunni Waqf Board approximately 2 hectares of land to construct a mosque. Once the Muslim community recovered from the shock, they filed numerous petitions with the Supreme Court seeking a review of the verdict. However, all 18 of them were subsequently rejected during a one-day hearing.

The last action taken on 10 December by India’s lawmakers that affects a substantial proportion of the Muslim population was the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, CAB (to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955). Based on official explanations for the introduction of these changes, the CAB is meant to ease the path to citizenship for refugees from neighboring Muslim countries, primarily from Bangladesh.

It is worth noting that the exodus from this nation stems from the consequences (spanning many years) of the bloody events of 1971, when Bangladesh came into being. These refugees primarily settled in neighboring states of India: West Bengal and Assam. And although in the former no serious issues arose in relation to other Bengalis but from Bangladesh, in the latter the refugees were clearly unwelcome and tensions between the “newcomers” and the local population (mainly of Indo-Aryan origins) still remain to this day.

Due to these problems, conflicts have flared up in Assam on more than one occasion, and the central government (ruled by the fairly secular Indian National Congress (INC) party at the time) promised to “resolve” the issues stemming from the influx of Bangladeshis in the mid-1980s. The seriousness of the situation in this state probably stems from the exclusion of the Muslim faith from the list of religious minorities that the CAB applies to. So the Hindutva ideology (or clericalism) of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) most likely did not play a decisive role in this case.

Hence, “mere” several million Muslims out of the entire Indian community who worship Islam, i.e. approximately 180 million people, may face issues as a result of the legislation.

However, consequences of this latest Act passed by lawmakers affect a number of other aforementioned events. Plus, we can add approval of a bill (on 30 July of this year) outlawing ‘triple talaq’ (the right of a Muslim man to instantly divorce his wife), a centuries-old tradition banned even in leading Muslim nations, to the list of legislative activities in India for the year. All of the above creates an impression (most probably an inaccurate one) that the current leadership of India has embarked on an “anti-Islamic” course.

Incidentally, it was the CAB that evoked the strongest emotions among the secular members of the public in India, and that resulted in various protests, especially in the state of Assam. There have already been casualties stemming from clashes with law enforcement agencies, and measures were taken to suspend mobile internet in 10 districts of the state.

Seemingly in anticipation of something of this nature, president of the (currently opposition) INC party Sonia Gandhi said the following after the passage of the CAB: “Today marks a dark day in the constitutional history of India. … The Bill fundamentally challenges the idea of India…”

Prime Minister (and leader of the BJP) Narendra Modi is of a polar opposite opinion on this matter. He described the passage of the “Citizenship (Amendment) Bill by Parliament as a “landmark day” for India and its ethos of compassion and brotherhood”. He also said that it would “alleviate sufferings of many who faced persecution for years”.

As for reactions in other countries, for instance in the United States, Sonia Gandhi’s sentiments were shared by the U.S. Congress, which continues to bear the heavy burden of responsibility (taken on voluntarily) of monitoring various infringements of the law in any part of the planet. On the eve of the vote on the CAB in the Parliament of India, one of the US Commissions (an advisory body for the US Congress) “took a harder line and called for sanctions against” Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah (the initiator of the bill).

All we can hope for at this point is that the (internal as well as external) fears about the legislative activities in India in recent months (discussed in this article) have been wildly exaggerated, and that everything will somehow work out all by itself. In the meantime, we will continue following the latest developments in this country.

After all, India is one of the world’s leading nations with a pretty diverse population of 1.3 billion people. As a result, any rise in internal tensions in such a country ultimately affects the climate all around it.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.