The Great Walls Of India
Sons-of-the-soil demands are being enshrined with special laws in many states, from MP to AP
‘One nation, one Constitution’ has been the governing mantra to justify the effective nullification of Article 370 that granted J&K ‘special status’. The move to bring apparent constitutional equality between Kashmir and the rest of India has been cheered by ruling party supporters, yet millions of Kashmiris still remain denied the basic rights of a modern society – namely internet and mobile connectivity. Ironically while the talk is about breaking walls between Kashmir and India, new walls are coming up across the country.
For example, the Supreme Court mandated NRC exercise in Assam has left 19 lakh individuals “stateless” even though several may well prove to be bona fide citizens. Detention camps are being built where these ‘illegal’ immigrants have to stay. There is also a potentially divisive move to amend the Citizenship Act by which any Muslim persecuted in neighbouring countries cannot seek refuge in India, while other religions can. This is a violation of India’s Constitution, which guarantees citizenship irrespective of religion.
Sure, there are harsh realities to contend with. In both Kashmir and Assam, there’s a complex history of past conflicts which mirror current anxieties. In Assam a strong nativist sentiment has viewed waves of migrants as a strain on scarce resources, dilution of Assamese identity and a spur for vote bank politics. Kashmir has always been viewed through fraught post-Partition history. India’s claim to Kashmir has always rested on a secular Constitution which upholds citizenship irrespective of religion. But today religious nationalism enjoys full rein.
Yet while Kashmiri Muslims are sought to be brought under equal laws for all, ironically, “sons of the soil” movements across India are chipping away at these very notions of constitutional equality. As well-known academic Myron Weiner once wrote, “sons of the soil” movements in many Indian states have for decades demanded special privileges and special status for certain ethnic groups. Today those sharpening demands are being enshrined with special laws in many states.
For example, Madhya Pradesh CM Kamal Nath has announced that 70% private sector jobs in the state will be by law reserved for locals, mandatory for all industrial units. One of the first moves by the newly elected CM of Andhra Pradesh Jagan Reddy was to pass a bill for 75% job reservation for local Andhra-ites. In Maharashtra, Shiv Sena – the original proponent of nativist politics – has long demanded preferential treatment for ethnic Marathis. In Gujarat the government is pushing a law for Gujarat industries to provide 80% job reservation for local Gujaratis.
Walls are apparently being demolished in Kashmir, but many walls are being erected across India as myriad groups demand legally established special status. (Actually new walls are appearing in Kashmir too, with the Valley walled away behind the communication blackout.)
Can citizenship be defined on categories such as “sons of the soil” versus “outsiders” as these laws are
For both Tagore and Gandhi, citizenship of humanity was far greater than any narrowly defined notions of nationality and man-made borders
trying to do? “Nationalists” blame Kashmiris for wanting special privileges under Article 370, yet today those same nationalists have no problem with almost every state seeking special benefits for its local population. At least Kashmir can claim that its special status came from the history of 1947. Other states are demanding special rights on the basis of nothing but a parochial interest in vote banks, in times of intense job competition.
As it is, electoral politics today is creating frenzied caste and religious identities. Now a new fault line is emerging in India’s warring landscape: local versus outsider. How are these definitions to be arrived at? Is the UP taxi driver who has spent 30 years in Mumbai not a citizen of Maharashtra? Is the north Indian software professional who works in Bengaluru a threat to the Kannada identity? Outfits like the Kannada Rakshana Vedike or Karnataka Protection Forum have been known to target the tech industries because they are staffed by “outsiders”. The incredibly successful Parsis of Mumbai or Marwaris of Kolkata show how migrants not only enrich a city but also do not in any way threaten local identity and culture.
If politicians keep encouraging anger and suspicions about outsiders, today it’s Kashmir and Assam, tomorrow it could be Maharashtra and MP. Today’s diverse and plural India has been built by waves of migration, mobility and globalisation. Accepted, no country can tolerate unlimited migration. Yet it’s time to stop harping on the anti-migrant, anti-foreigner line because people are not the problem, failed economic policies are. It’s only when governments fail to deliver that they tend to pin the blame on scapegoats.
Liberals argue for broad, humane definitions of citizenship because peaceful, controlled migration and mobility can create rich, talented societies, both materially and culturally. Migrants work hard, contribute to the workforce and soon become consumers and taxpayers. Melting pot societies are good for business too. Walling off citizens from each other means weakening the prospects for an interdependent, innovative and diverse economy.
In fact, for India’s founders, citizenship was a universal concept – all human beings were citizens of humanity. It is the nation-state which emerged for the first time in 17th century Europe that defines citizenship as unquestioning loyalty to itself or to a particular ruler. By contrast, for both Tagore and Gandhi, citizenship of humanity was far greater than any narrowly defined notions of “nationality” and man-made borders.
Just this week the 19-year-old daughter of a first generation Romanian immigrant family has become the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam tennis tournament. Canada is now amongst the most open, embracing societies for migrant populations, unlike a Trump-led US which is seeking to build protectionist walls and keep out migrants. Which way will a ‘new India’ turn?