No room for the native

Ambarish Satwik | Updated on October 19, 2018

Left out: The names of more than four million people in Assam were omitted from the National Register of Citizens published in July this year   -  RITU RAJ KONWAR

Each time a law of return to the homeland is drafted, stories of exclusion come to the fore

Should a Hindu, by virtue of being a Hindu, have a share in the land of India? And have the unqualified right to enter and remain and be given citizenship? Should the followers of a homegrown prophet whose historic and spiritual homeland is in Gurdaspur district, India, have that right?

In 2015 and 2016, the Government of India issued two notifications exempting certain groups of illegal immigrants from the Foreigner’s Act 1946 and the Passport (Entry into India) Act 1920.

The groups mentioned in the notifications are Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who were compelled to seek shelter in India due to religious persecution and entered India on or before December 31, 2014. The executive order enables these groups to continue living in India without risk of imprisonment or deportation.

Subsequently, in 2016, Rajnath Singh introduced the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in the Lok Sabha, trimming the 11-year requirement for acquiring citizenship by naturalisation to six years for immigrants belonging to these six religions and three countries. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill does not mention the reasons for hand-picking these groups on the basis of religion. In its thematic breadth, it tries to deliver some sort of secular gallantry for the persecuted minorities but very observably leaves out the Muslims. Also, four out of the six religions mentioned come under the ambit of Hindu personal law.

The Bill was seen as a partial fulfilment of BJP’s political avowal of a Hindu rashtra and the promise made in its 2014 election manifesto. “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here.” It was called out as being analogous to the Israeli Law of Return, or at least a prefigurement of a Hindu version of it.

David Ben Gurion, the founding father and first Prime Minister of the State of Israel, conceived of the Israeli Law of Return in very simple terms: Every Jew must be allowed and invited to come to Israel and become an immediate citizen.

And when somebody asked who or what is a Jew, he said: Don’t you dare raise that issue. A Jew is the same definition we’ve always had. It’s not the business of the legislature or a secular government to define that. Ask the rabbi, not a politician.

The law was passed by the Knesset in July 1950. And they went with the Halakhic definition of a Jew. A Jew is a person whose mother is a Jew. Or who converts to Judaism.

But Ben Gurion was always a bit queasy about conversions. It was a dialectic that many in the old tribe were fond of raising: Is there a basic difference between a Jew and a non-Jew, for which we need a conversion? Is something really changing? How is the person suddenly and magically transformed from being a non-Jew to a Jew? God suddenly wants them to fast on Yom Kippur and eat kosher? And when the convert, on Hannukah, with a candle in his hand says, blessed are you God, King of the Universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers, whose forefathers is he referring to? And say, if there’s an Egyptian convert, what does he mean when, on Passover, he says that we were slaves in Egypt and God came and took us out?

It was an ethnic definition, a loose definition of Jewishness and Jewish descent, like the one provided by Savarkar for Hindus. That Hindus were a historic people, consanguineous, at least partly, by blood and race, but also due to their common, accreted cultural inheritance, a nation in themselves, a nation of sentiment that would adequately manifest in a state.

Does the Indian state have a special responsibility for the welfare and protection of some groups of people that it doesn’t have for others? The Citizenship Act of 1955, in a manifestation of the most inclusive possible structure of citizenship, laid down that every person born in India on or after January 26, 1950 (with some exceptions) was to be a citizen of India by birth. In the wake of the Assam Accord, an amendment changed it to a person born in India if either of his /her parents was a citizen at the time of birth. A further amendment changed that again in 2003 and restricted citizenship by birth to a person born in India where both his parents were citizens of India or one was a citizen and the other was not an illegal immigrant.

For the BJP, the illegality and alienness of the Hindu in India is a stain on the fabric of the Hindu rashtra. Singh’s Bill wants to repair that. Since 1971, according to some estimates, there are about 20 lakh Bengali Hindus living illegally in India. The Assamese fear that if the Bill is passed, an additional 1.7 crore Hindus living in Bangladesh, (according the Bangladesh bureau of Statistics) will come into India.

If indeed a law of return were to be drafted for a homeland, based on the ethic of solidarity and blood and race, and religious persecution, it should also include those who left that small town that’s still in Gurdaspur district, India — Qadian. Where Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was born and lived and preached and called himself Nabi and Rasool and was crowned as the promised messiah and Imam Mehdi; whose followers, the Ahmadiyyas are in 209 countries, and persecuted for their beliefs in almost every one of them.

There are four million of them in Pakistan, practically excised from Islam and all forms of administered equity and citizenship, till they declare their prophet an impostor. The Ahmaddiyas adhere to the five pillars of Islam, accept the Koran, face the Kaaba during prayer, follow the Sunna, but are not allowed by law to call themselves or even pose as Muslims in Pakistan. Even the reflexive greeting As-Salaam-Aleikum (peace be with you) or reciting the Kalima, the first prayer, is punishable with imprisonment for three years. They’ve been banned by Saudi Arabia from performing the Hajj.


For the people from Qadian, India, who are referred to, pejoratively, as Qadianis, what should “their natural home where they should be welcome to seek refuge” be?

Ambarish Satwik is a Delhi-based vascular surgeon and writer

Published on October 19, 2018

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