The Citizenship Question: Unsettling Facts and the Ethos of Hospitality

Governments lie all the time.  It is not only authoritarian, despotic, and totalitarian states that lie, but democracies, or what are alleged to be as such, do so too.  Contrary to the cherished view of some liberals, who like to represent the Trump administration as having uniquely departed from the moral standards of previous administrations, especially the Obama administration, which many are now inclined to view nostalgically as some kind of gold standard of moral probity, the entire fabric of American governance has for generations been based on a tissue of falsehoods. Obama lied through his teeth—about the use of drones, the war in Afghanistan, his regime of deportations.  We will be told, of course, that “context” matters—that the deportations, for example, were largely of hardened criminals, though one would need a vivid imagination to construe the majority of the two million as falling in this category. Admittedly, in the department of post-truth, Obama is not a patch on Trump, who, it goes without saying, almost always lies—as do most of his henchmen, honchos, and hired guns.  Lies, too, take various forms:  a lie is not only a patent falsehood, or a statement made with the intention to deceive, but it may also be a promise made with the knowledge that it cannot be kept.

The present Indian government is, needless to say, no exception. Most of its promises, especially those not made specifically with a Hindu constituency in mind, lie in shambles.  The economy is in tatters: unemployment figures are at a record high, and true to its form the government sought to have the figures withheld before the election.  The Prime Minister has declared India “open defecation free”, though there isn’t a shred of evidence to support this claim. Detailed reports, some produced by the government’s own agencies, contradict Modi’s grandiose declaration. But let us leave all that aside, since the Lok Sabha passed by a vote of 311-80 the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill [hereafter CAB], as has the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of the Indian Parliament).  The government initiative was spearheaded by the Home Minister; indeed, so confident was the government, and evidently so inconsequential the matter, that the Prime Minister’s presence was not even deemed necessary. After all, the party had enough to do to sweep the polls in Jharkhand behind Modi’s campaigning.

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As the Prime Minister was declaring India “Open-Defecation Free”, two Dalit kids were beaten to death for defeacating in the open.  Cartoon by Sajith Kumar.                    Source:  Deccan Herald.

Amit Shah’s robust defence of the CAB poses some difficult problems which suggest that, even when a government or its principal functionaries do not lie, they may be on the wrong side of both history and justice.  There may be promises in his remarks that may not be kept—such as the assurance to Indian Muslims that the Bill is not directed at them, and is not even remotely designed to render them “stateless”—but no one knows this for a fact.  Authoritarian states may and do create distress for minorities, but they have sometimes been known to safeguard the rights of minorities, so long as such minorities do not create political unrest. These days, even autocratic rulers must show at least the outward signs of fidelity to norms of pluralism and diversity.

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To understand what is truly at stake in the debate over the CAB, which amends the Citizenship Act of 1955 and was first introduced unsuccessfully in 2016, it will suffice to scrutinize its principal and certainly most controversial provision.  It offers “any person belonging to [the] Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan” who entered India before 31 December 2014 not merely relief from deportation but citizenship of India through registration or naturalization.  The critics of this provision have pointed out that the deliberate exclusion of Muslims who entered from these countries is yet another stab at Muslims and an attempt to stoke fear and insecurity among Muslims, just as it is another milestone in the long-desired plan to transform India into a Hindu nation.  In more legal terms, the CAB is violative of the spirit and letter of the Constitution’s promise of equality as laid out in Article 14.

In a debate that lasted for nearly eight hours until the stroke of midnight, Amit Shah defended himself vigorously against the opposition.  We may disregard, for the purposes of my argument, his repeated jabs at both Nehru and the Congress and his absurdly poor grasp of history.  For contemporary Hindu nationalists, whose most inspirational figures such as M. S. Golwalkar were unabashed admirers of Nazis and whose own contribution to the struggle for freedom amounts to precisely zero, to accuse the Congress of betrayal of the nation is just breathtaking audacity. Shah’s contempt for Nehru is palpable, and it is not coincidental that the vote was taken at midnight—for it was at the stroke of midnight that Nehru delivered his speech pronouncing India a free country.  Amit Shah and the BJP have long been promising Hindus the “freedom” that was withheld to them by the country’s Muslim rulers, the British, and finally deracinated secularists in Nehru’s mold.  But the Home Minister’s observations, which are calculated to produce discomfort among secularists and liberals, are nevertheless worthy of consideration.

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From M. S. Golwalkar, We or Our Nationhood Defined (1939).

First, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan are predominantly Muslim countries. The logic that informs the CAB is that it is minorities that are in need of protection, not a majority—especially not a preponderant majority.  The CAB does not, for example, furnish the promise of citizenship to a Hindu who may have come from Hindu-majority Mauritius or, more significantly, neighbouring Nepal before 2014.  Once one is committed to the language of “minorities” and “majorities”, one is also committed to the corollary proposition: if anyone is in need of protection, it would be someone from a minority.  Secondly, Shah takes it as demonstrably true that minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh are indubitably in need of protection.  It may be argued that he is on reasonably sound ground here.  The treatment of minorities in these countries has been deplorable, even as the population of Hindus in 1951 in what was West Pakistan has remained stable in Pakistan at 1.6% since then. But, overall, the share of minorities in Pakistan’s population declined from around 23% in the late 1940s to around 3.5% at present.  Non-Muslim minorities in ethnically diverse Afghanistan are practically non-existent, and the once thriving Hindu and Sikh communities have suffered precipitous decline in the preceding four decades. One may ascribe the near evisceration of these non-Muslim communities to the civil war which commenced 40 years ago, but it would be disingenuous to pretend that the ascendancy of the Mujahideen and Islamic resurgence had nothing to do with the disappearance of non-Muslims from Afghanistan.

One might go on in this vein, but one might also pose sticky questions. How would the government, by way of one illustration, handle the claim of Ahmadiyyas, who view themselves as Muslims but have not merely been declared as heretics in both Pakistan and Bangladesh but have been subject to virulent persecution?  The Bill has nothing to say on this matter, and, as critics aver, it is also silent on the matter of migrants and refugees from Sri Lanka.  Shah did, however, have something to say on the matter of refugees from Sri Lanka, pointing out that the accord signed in 1964 allowed, among other provisions, for the repatriation of 525,000 Tamils to India.  His third line of defence, therefore, appears to be that “whenever there has been an intervention on citizenship, it has been specific to a problem. This time, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan refugees are getting it.”  Fourthly, refuting the notion that the Bill is designed to produce a “Hindu Rashtra”, Shah noted that the percentage of Hindus in India has declined since 1951, the first census in post-independent India, from 84% to 79%.  Conversely, the share of Muslims in India’s population has increased from 9.8% to 14.23%.  It is no surprise that social media sites are awash with Hindu nationalist buzz around the “decline of the Hindus”.

Such facts as Amit Shah produced, or which may be mustered on his behalf, do not appear to furnish evidence that the project of creating a “Hindu Rashtra” is at hand.  But neither do such metrics tell the whole story. The secularists would be well with their right to remind everyone of the old adage which says that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  But there is another tacit argument that informs the Home Minister’s observations and that has now become a critical element in the Hindu narrative of identity, prosperity, and growth.  The Muslim has scores of countries—all Muslim-majority states, whether in West Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and even Europe—that he can claim as his own, but does the Hindu really have even one country?  What else can the Hindu call his or her home other than India?  (Nepal, no doubt, but the Hindu is inclined to see Nepal, which transitioned in recent years from a constitutional monarchy to federalism, as part of the Indic world rather than as a nation.) Not every nationalist Hindu may proceed to the question that logically follows, but an increasing number, taking their cue from the ideologues that have informed the Sangh Parivar, do:  Does it not therefore fall upon the Hindu to decide with whom he wants to share his home, and under what conditions?  Indian Muslims would be entirely right in pouncing upon the last consideration as a charter for their oppression, as a pronouncement of their eternal foreignness.

Secularists and Muslims have chosen to respond to all this in the twin languages of constitutionalism and pluralism.  Those are potent languages but, at least at this moment in the nation’s history, they appear to have little traction. To be sure, there are pressing questions made possible by the invocation of pluralism, secularism, and constitutionalism.  Does CAB, for instance, impose a religious test for citizenship?  Though the government claims that there is nothing in the bill that adversely affects Indian Muslims, what of those Indian Muslims who may not have papers to demonstrate they belong to the soil of the country as much as Hindus, Sikhs, or Jains?  And what of those Muslims who fled from Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Bangladesh to India and have made their home in India for decades?  The argument that will be advanced by the government and its supporters is that all nations, even those that claim to be democracies, retain the privilege of allowing some outsiders and excluding others.  Though countries such as Sweden and Denmark are often touted as examples of progressive democracies, they exercise near draconian control on whom they permit within their borders and they have normalized anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments.

We may have to take recourse to a different language and find more productive ways of entering into these debates besides furnishing, as the Indian government does, statistics and a rather pathetic understanding of history.  One might remind Hindus that the measures being undertaken by the present government will succeed in making India look very much like Pakistan, but irony is not the strong suit of the government.  In India, at least, we could speak of the rich histories of hospitality.  The Hindu has been made as much by sanatan dharma as by the presence, sometimes the pounding presence, of countless others in his midst.  It took everyone else to make the Hindu into what he or she is today.  The nationalist Hindus who oddly complain that they have had no country to call their own and that the present government is now fulfilling a long-held dream scarcely realize that whatever singularity India has had will utterly vanish if the country persists in the present course of action.  Their Hinduism will begin to look very much like Islam and Christianity.

Citizenship may have been very far from the mind of Rabindranath Tagore, but the rest of the world had no difficulty in dubbing him a “citizen of the world”.  Tagore had the distinct idea that a culture that is no longer aware of its own dharma is practically lost in the world.  He was once traveling in his native Bengal and, at a place some 150 kilometres from Calcutta, his car overheated; every ten kilometres he had to stop and ask for water so that he could cool down the engine. The entire area was suffering from a severe drought; time after time, through fifteen villages, Tagore had quite the same experience. Though the villagers had little water to spare, and almost none to drink, their sense of hospitality made it impossible for them to refuse him water. It was their dharma, Tagore told his audience in China and then some years later at Oxford when he delivered the Hibbert Lectures on the “The Religion of Man”, that moved them to such generosity: it is the same dharma that made them reject the idea that they could, as a consequence, claim any merit or reward. What others were likely to mistake as the acts of simpletons arose from a “simplicity [that] is the product of centuries of culture” and is “difficult of imitation”; as Tagore further argues, “to be absolutely simple in one’s hospitality to one’s enemy, or to a stranger, requires generations of training.”

Who will explain this to the Home Minister and the Prime Minister, whose narcissism has led them into thinking that they are required by the nation to save Hinduism from its enemies?

 

 

*A “Natural Alliance”:  India, Israel, the United States, and the Muslim in the National Imaginary

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Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi shortly after Modi’s arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, 4 July 2017. Source: Times of Israel.

As Israel prepares to celebrate the anniversary of its founding on May 14, 1948, the transformation in its relationship with India over the course of the last seven decades offers a palpable demonstration of the fact that there are no permanent foes or friends in politics.  India voted with Arab states in opposition to the UN Partition Plan that divided Palestine into two states, and formal diplomatic relations between India and Israel date back only to 1992.  Yet today India, the world’s second largest importer of arms and accounting for 9.5% of the global total, is Israel’s largest arms market just as Israel is the second largest exporter, after Russia, of arms to India.  Over the past decade, Indian imports of Israeli arms have increased by 285 percent.  In July 2017, Narendra Modi not only became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, but he pointedly, unlike Indian cabinet ministers on previous official visits, did not go to Palestine—not on that trip. Benjamin Netanyahu returned the compliment with the following official pronouncement on 13 January 2018:  “This evening I am leaving on an historic visit to India.  I will meet with the Prime Minister, my friend Narendra Modi, with the Indian President and with many other leaders. . . . We are strengthening ties between Israel and this important global power.  This serves our security, economic, trade and tourism interests . . . This is a great blessing for the state of Israel.”

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Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara by his side tries his hand at a spinning wheel — where else but at Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, January 2018. With devoted followers such as these, Mohandas Gandhi scarcely needs any enemies. Source of the photograph: Times of India.

It must have made Indians proud to hear their country being described as an “important global power”, but it isn’t one.  Nor should it be a fact of life that being one such power is necessarily a virtue:  “the meek shall inherit the other”, says one revered text, though I am fully aware of the modern wisdom which thinks that virtue only belongs to those nations which are “important global powers”.  But let us leave aside these esoteric considerations for the present.  There are yet other, often little considered, registers of the friendly ties developing between India and Israel: along with an influx of Israeli arms, young Israeli men and women have poured into India for long stays. According to the Jerusalem Post, so many young Israeli citizens swarm to India to enjoy a post-military training repose that one can now chart a “Hummus Trail” through various Indian landscapes and a proliferation of restaurants serving local kosher cuisine.  Israel’s own Foreign Ministry has reported that there is more support for Israel in India than in any other country of the world, the United States not excepted.  In one study, 58% Indians expressed support and admiration for Israel, exceeding the 56% Americans who responded in like fashion.

The bonhomie between the two nations is all the more remarkable considering the frosty relations between the two nations at the time of Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.  One might think that India, with the world’s second largest Muslim population after Indonesia, did not want to antagonize its own Muslim population and was indeed keen to cultivate the idea that India would remain a home for Muslims even after Pakistan had been carved out of the country.  Nor, as a country heavily dependent on oil imports, could India afford to antagonize Muslim-majority Arab states or Iran—all of which, for decades after the creation of Israel, displayed unremitting hostility to the Jewish state.  As one of the principal architects of the idea of non-alignment, Nehru was also wary of close relations with a U.S.-friendly Israel.  Some might think that India, not unlike most other countries, surrendered to anti-Semitism in not having diplomatic ties with Israel for well over four decades.  But nothing could be further from the truth:  as every scholar of global Jewish history knows, India, with a history of Jewish presence dating back to perhaps as early as 79CE, is nearly singular in having absolutely no history of anti-Semitism and, to the contrary, in having a clear historical record of offering hospitality to Jews.  Nathan Katz, author of the scholarly study, Who are the Jews of India? (UC Press, 2000), unequivocally states that “Indian Jews never experienced anti-Semitism or discrimination”, and lived “as all Jews should have been allowed to live:  free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host country.”

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The emergence of an India-Israel nexus, and, as is becoming patently clear, a tripartite alliance of India, Israel, and the United States, owes everything to the changing place of the Muslim in the national imaginary of India and the United States.  It was in the mid-1990s that the notion of Israel and India as two democracies surrounded by predominantly Muslim nations that had an aversion to democracy, and having in common the problem of communal violence, first arose.  The Indian middle class, I suggested in a piece published in the Indian magazine Outlook in 2006 entitled “Emulating Israel”, has long admired Israel as a tough, no-nonsense state with zero tolerance for terrorism from which India—a comparatively soft state in this imagination—can learn to confront the threat of terrorism from Pakistan and, as Hindu nationalists increasingly argue, Muslim fifth columnists within the country.  Middle class Indians have long demanded an aggressive response against terrorists (and, as they argue, their patrons in Pakistan) and they hold up Israel as a country that India should emulate.

It is also no secret that India furnishes sinecures to retired Israeli army generals who serve as consultants to anti-terrorist operations in India.  In 2000, when L. K. Advani, then the Minister of Home Affairs in the BJP-led government, visited Israel, the two governments pledged to stand together against terrorism.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, on his aforementioned visit to India in January 2018, pointedly harkened back to both the devastating terrorist attacks on Mumbai’s suburban train network in 2006 that killed 209 people and the grisly attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba militants on the Taj Hotel and other sites in Mumbai in 2008 that led to 166 fatalities.  It is no surprise, then, that one Indian academic has called attention to the “ideological convergence” between India’s BJP and Israel’s Likud Party since “both promote a narrative of their respective populations being victims at the hands of Muslims.”

Matters do not, however, end here:  we can now speak of an emerging tripartite alliance between India, the US, and Israel, the logic of which has been captured by one scholar of public policy, Vivek Dehejia:  “India, Israel, and the United States are natural allies. All three are democratic and pluralistic societies, and all have suffered grievously from the scourge of Islamic terrorism.”  One might question a good deal in this assessment, such as what it means for three very diverse countries to be deemed “natural allies”—and why only these three democracies?  The US, to raise another difficulty, appears to be suffering from the scourge of white supremacism, not “Islamic terrorism”.  For Dehejia to imply that Palestinians are but a synonym for “Islamic terrorism”, which appears to be the case from his formulation, is objectionable in the extreme, even if one were to agree that Hamas is, notwithstanding its façade as a social welfare organization, at the very least a quasi-terrorist outfit.  But questions of the merit of his observations apart, what is most striking is that countries such as Pakistan, and the Muslim world more broadly, may be taking notice of this tripartite alliance. The Chairman of Pakistan’s Senate, Raza Rabbani, in a speech in January 2018 warned his fellow legislators about the “changing world scenario” and described the developing “nexus between the US, Israel, and India” as “a major threat to the Muslim world.”

Is it then the foreign policy wisdom in India, Israel, and the United States that these three democracies are, or ought to be, united by the menace posed by Muslim extremists?  To what extent are these countries collaborating in anti-terrorist and surveillance activities, more particularly with the thought of containing “Muslim terrorists”, and might such collaboration have implications for the exercise of their democratic rights by Muslim residents of these nations?  If India’s friendly relations with Israel on the one hand, and its growing ties with the U.S. on the other, augur new trilateral links, can we speak of such an alliance as a new force in geopolitics?  And, if we can, what might be the implications of such an alliance for the global world order?          

(A slightly shorter version of this was published at abplive.in on 13 May 2019, under the title:  “India, Israel, and the Geopolitics of an Emerging Tripartite Alliance, accessible here.)                                 

*“The Problem of Kashmir” and the Inner Demons of India & Pakistan

(For the preceding part of this essay, see the previous blog, “Nationalism in South Asia:  India, Pakistan, and the Containment of Terrorism”)

Within the present geopolitical framework, a “solution” to the Kashmir problem appears to me to be all but inconceivable.  Still, unless one is to accept the notion that the two countries must be prepared to live in a state of perpetual low-intensity warfare, descending into open and increasingly lethal conflict every decade or two, it behooves us to reflect on whether the “problem” that persists in relations between Pakistan and India has been correctly identified.  Many commentators who have lived in, or traveled to, both Pakistan and north India have identified the cultural ethos and modes of lifestyle that they share in common, and the indisputable fact is that both India and Pakistan are largely afflicted by the same problems.  Both countries have a singularly dismal record in meeting the minimum and legitimate needs of their citizens, whether that be access to decent schooling, electricity, safe drinking water, healthcare, or anything that comes close to resembling a social safety net.  The most polluted cities in the world are in South Asia; women in both countries lead imperiled lives in various respects; and both countries suffer from massive unemployment and under-employment.  One could go in this vein ad infinitum, and the narrative remains unpleasant to the extreme.

Zia-ul Haq

Muhammad Zia-ul Haq ruled as President of Pakistan from 1978 to 1988. He declared martial law in 1977; he died in a plane crash. The Islamicization of Pakistan did not, contrary to common belief, commence with him; but the pace of Islamicization doubtless greatly increased under him. He is shown her with army staff officers; photo: White Star archives.

However, much also divides the two countries, and with the passage of time the rifts have grown deeper.  It has been said that Pakistan is an army with a state, which is not merely a reference to the fact that there have been long stints when Pakistan was governed by army officials.  The army has entered into the very sinews and pores of Pakistani society.  Some who are uncomfortable with the outsized role of the Pakistani army in the affairs of the country have nevertheless argued that without the stability furnished by the army, Pakistan would have disintegrated long ago.  India is thought to offer a sharp contrast in this respect, and it can certainly be said that in India a concerted attempt was made to keep the army out of civil society, though, as nationalism becomes a potent and even unmanageable force in Indian life, encroachments on this critical feature of democracy are becoming more common.  But such conversations are grist to the mill of the traditional political scientist and, in my judgment, do not engage with still more fundamental questions about what ails the country today.  What is most germane to an understanding of how Pakistan has evolved, more particularly over the course of the last four decades, is the country’s steady drift towards the most extreme and intolerant versions of Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia and the close links that the political and military elites of both countries have forged.  Muslim ideologues in Pakistan have for decades sought to persuade ordinary Pakistanis that the proximity of Hinduism to Islam contaminated South Asian Muslims, and that the deliverance of Pakistan’s Muslims now lies in an inextricable bond with Saudi Arabia, the purported home of the most authentic form of Islam. Pakistan, according to this worldview, must unhinge itself from its roots in Indic civilization and repudiate its Indo-Islamic past.  The insidious influence of the Wahhabi state of Saudi Arabia can now be experienced in nearly every domain of life in Pakistan, from the growing intolerance for Sufi-inspired music to the infusion of enormous sums of money to introduce Saudi style mosques and “purify” Pakistani Muslims.  This remains by far the gravest problem in Pakistan.

AmjadSabri

Amjad Sabri, a famous Pakistani Qawaali singer, was assassinated in June 2016 in broad daylight in Karachi.

India, meanwhile, has veered towards militant forms of Hindu nationalism.  The sources of the explosive growth of Hindu militancy are many, and many commentators, myself included, have written about these at length.  Not least of them is the anxiety of Hindus who imagine that they are besieged by Muslims and who contrast the worldwide Muslim ummah to the fact that historically Hindustan remains the singular home of Hindus.  The last few years in particular furnish insurmountable evidence of the disturbing rise of anti-Muslim violence.  The intolerance towards all those who cannot be accommodated under the rubric of “Hindu” has increased visibly.  Hindu militants brought down a 16th century mosque in the north Indian city of Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, in the wake of which portions of the country were engulfed in communal violence.  Ten years later, a pogrom directed at the Muslims in Gujarat left well over 1,000 of them dead and displaced another 100,000.  Since the ascendancy of Narendra Modi—who was Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 and under whose watch the perpetrators of the violence acted with utter impunity—to the office of the Prime Minister of India in 2014, civil liberties have eroded, dissenting intellectuals have become sitting ducks for assassins who murder at will, and Muslims have been, in the jargon of the day, ‘lynched’.  The fact that roving mobs have attacked many others, among them African students and Dalits or lower-caste Hindus, should offer clues that while Indian Muslims may be soft and convenient targets for Hindu militants, the real problem goes beyond the question of the place of the Muslim in contemporary India.

NarendraDabholkar

Narendra Dabholkar, an Indian secular intellectual who was a staunch advocate of rationalism, was assassinated by two gunmen in Pune on 20 August 2013.

Some scholars have spoken about the collapse of the consensus around secularism during the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was Prime Minister from 1947 until his death in 1964; others, myself included, would also like to consider the evisceration of the Indian ethos of hospitality.  Nationalism may be a scourge worldwide, but among Hindus it is also animated by what is deemed an awakening after centuries of oppression and slumber. Just as Islamic preachers in Pakistan exhort Muslims to rid themselves of the creeping and often unrecognized effects of Hinduism in their practice and understanding of Islam, so Hindu nationalism rests on a platform of resurgent Hindu pride, the construction of a glorious past that is said to have been contaminated by foreigners (the Muslim preeminent among them), and the notion of a Hindu Rashtra (nation) where everyone else, particularly Muslims, is dependent on the goodwill of Hindus.  What is transparent in all this is that, howsoever much India is tempted to blame Pakistan, it has plenty of work to do to confront its own inner demons.

BabriMasjid

The Babri Masjid, a sixteenth century mosque in the North Indian city of Ayodhya, was destroyed by Hindu militants on 6 December 1992.

As I have already averred, no resolution to what is commonly described as “the problem of Kashmir” appears even remotely possible within the present socio-cultural and geopolitical framework.  If military action by either country carries the risk of blowing up into a full-scale war, and is nearly unthinkable owing to the unprecedented fact that the two neighbors are nuclear-armed powers, diplomatic negotiations are also unlikely to alter the status quo.  Indeed, for the foreseeable future, low-intensity gun battles, exchanges of fire, and skirmishes along the Line of Control will almost certainly continue, punctuated only by very occasional and ceremonial declarations by one or both countries to introduce “confidence-building measures”, improve trade relations, and encourage limited border crossings.  I suspect, however, that the dispute over Kashmir can only be “resolved” if, in the first instance, both countries are attentive to the problems that are present within their own borders.  Kashmir, it must also be said, is a region unlike any other in India: though the dispute has been cast in the popular imagination as instigated by animosity between Hindus and Muslims, one third of Kashmir is overwhelmingly Buddhist. Even in the Kashmir Valley, which is predominantly Muslim, the long and complicated history of religious sensibilities renders obtuse a history that is shaped merely around a modern notion of “religion” and a demography based on the idea of religious communities as, in the language of the scholar Sudipta Kaviraj, “bounded” rather than “fuzzy”.  I would go so far as to say that the day when South Asian Muslims—in Pakistan and Bangladesh as much as India—began to recognize the Hindu element within them, and, likewise, Hindus acknowledge the Islamic element within them, both countries will be well on the way to resolving the problem of Kashmir and acknowledging that Kashmiris alone have the right to move towards the full autonomy that they deserve.

(concluded)

The two parts of this essay were published as one single essay in a substantially shorter form, “Nationalism in South Asia and ‘The Problem of Kashmir'”, in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs (4 April 2019).

*Nationalism in South Asia:  India, Pakistan, and the Containment of Terrorism

(in two parts)

Each time Pakistan and India make the news together, one can expect that the long-festering conflict between the two countries has taken a turn for the worse.  Nearly every American story on this conflict begins with (and often does little to proceed beyond) the observation that the two countries have fought three wars with each other since Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947, and have on several other occasions been on the verge of war.  The most recent round of this conflict, revolving largely around the disputed status of Kashmir, was precipitated by what India, and most likely the world, viewed as a “terrorist” attack on a convoy of its soldiers in February.  (Why only most likely:  we are all aware of the adage that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.)  A suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden vehicle into a truck carrying Indian soldiers from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) near Pulwama on a road leading into Srinagar, killing forty soldiers.  India responded to this deadly attack with an unprecedented aerial assault, designed to liquidate a terrorist training facility beyond the “Line of Control”, the de facto border that separates the two countries.  At least one Indian fighter jet was shot down; though the Pakistanis initially claimed to have shot down two Indian jets, they were not able to produce the debris of two aircraft and hours later, without any explanation, the Pakistan government revised the figure downward to one jet.  But difficulties in Pakistan’s narrative are a minor gloss since, as nearly everyone who is not wholly partisan to the conflict can discern, India almost certainly came off much worse in the propaganda war and in its ability to manipulate the media.  The initial Indian claims to have eliminated a terrorist camp and killed 300 terrorists could not only not be verified, but are quite likely fictitious; indeed, according to most commentators, Indian jets, challenged by Pakistan’s aerial defense, were compelled to shed their payload in a hurry and the bombs appeared to have fallen on barren land.  The details remain murky, but fears that the situation would escalate into an outright war appear to have eased with Pakistan’s return of an Indian pilot, whose fighter jet was shot down by the Pakistanis, within days of his capture.

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The attack on the Indian convoy at Pulwama, outside Srinagar.

The United States, China, and other powers have repeatedly urged both Pakistan and India to seek diplomatic solutions to “the problem of Kashmir”. India has for the last two decades insisted that Pakistan cease to allow its soil, or the territory under its control, to be used by terrorists to initiate attacks in India, and it has also called for Pakistan to take concrete action against known militants such as the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, Masood Azhar.  Although the United Nations declared Jaish-e-Mohammed a terrorist organization in 2001, previous Indian attempts to have Azhar himself be branded a terrorist have been stymied by China.   In mid-March, the UN effort, spearheaded by the US, Britain, and France, to render Azhar into a pariah was once again blocked by China, which put on hold their request to blacklist him, an action that would have had the effect of placing him on a global travel ban, freezing all his assets, and making it somewhat difficult for him to acquire arms.  In recent days, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson is on record as saying, “China’s position is very clear. This issue should be resolved through cooperation. We don’t believe that any efforts without the consensus of members will achieve a satisfying result.”  Such anodyne diplomatic language is barely surprising:  the consensus to outlaw Azhar exists, barring, of course, the inclinations of Pakistan and China itself.  Whether China, which like nearly every other country, is on paper pledged to do everything to remove the scourge of terrorism but is only emboldened to act when its own national interests are in question, is even remotely interested in joining the rest of the world in outlawing Azhar is thus seriously questionable.  We may say that China has in fact acted in its own national interest:  it is, above all, committed to its One Road One Belt in which Pakistan occupies a significant place.  One might have thought that China, which has scarcely hesitated to place its own innocent Muslims in camps which are far more than reeducation camps and yet something lesser than concentration camps, would be eager to do its bit to bring a terrorist acting in the name to Islamic resurgence to heel, but it is not about to squander its ambitious designs merely to add some element of discomfort to one terrorist’s life.

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JeM Chief, Masoor Azhar.

There is, in any case, every reason to doubt whether a diplomatic victory by India in the matter of Azhar, should that materialize, would have any significant impact on militant activity. The Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), whose leader Hafiz Muhammad Saeed masterminded the terrorist attacks of November 2008 across multiple sites in Bombay over four days, was placed under UN mandated sanctions in March 2009, yet moves around in Pakistan with near impunity.  The United States has placed a $10 million bounty on his head, and every now and then the Pakistani authorities put him behind bars only to release him a few days later.  Even though there have been terrorist attacks within Pakistan itself, mainly targeting Shias, Christians, and other supposed infidels and apostates, the temptation to play with fire is too strong.  The supposition, on India’s part, that militant activity can be brought under control through vigorous diplomatic efforts is as fallacious as it is wholly insensitive to the consideration that, even as Pakistan has encouraged terrorist activity with the hope of keeping the embers of revolt in Kashmir burning, some militant elements are not merely beyond its control while others act with the connivance of the state.  Militants have had a free run, and will continue to do so:  absolutely nothing, and certainly not platitudes from its present Prime Minister, Imran Khan, points to Pakistan’s willingness to forgo what it deems to be the only weapon it wields in its attempt to be heard in the din of contemporary politics.

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Pakistan took journalists to this site at Balakot where the Indian Air Force (IAF) claims to have wiped out a JeM terrorist training camp.

Pakistan, it should also be noted, has been quite adept at waging a diplomatic and media offensive against India at every turn.  Imran Khan’s brilliant quip, describing Pakistani jets’ forays into Indian territory and anticipating its eventual release of the captured Indian pilot, sums up its victory in the latest round:  “They hit our trees, so we thought we would hit their stones.”  If the Indian position has pivoted around the view that Kashmir is an internal affair, calling strictly for bilateral talks and agreements between the two countries, Pakistan has sought to internationalize the Kashmir conflict.  It not only rejects India’s argument that intervention by foreign powers constitutes the abrogation of Indian sovereignty—which, in any case, Pakistan does not recognize with respect to Kashmir—but has also invoked the matter of humanitarian relief for besieged Kashmiris.  Pakistan has acted on the supposition that it can enlist the aid of Muslim-majority countries in the name of Islamic brotherhood, and that the liberation of Kashmir’s Muslims contributes to the liberation of Muslims globally.  But Pakistan’s diplomatic offensive, however adroitly it has been carried out, has no prospect of succeeding in the long run.  It is not only that prolific terrorist activity has given Pakistan a bad name, and in some marginal respects even rendered Pakistan into a semi-pariah state, or that India is bound by the logic of the nation-state to be inflexible in its hold over Kashmir.  There is also something of an international consensus, even if it is not always openly conceded, that the Simla Agreement, which the two countries signed in the wake of Pakistan’s defeat in the war of December 1971, legitimately allows India to press for a bilateral rather than international solution to the dispute over Kashmir.

 

(to be continued)

*The Kartarpur Corridor:  Sikhism and the Power of In-Betweenness

 (This is a slightly revised and somewhat longer version of a piece first published at ABP Live on 26 November 2018: https://www.abplive.in/blog/the-kartarpur-corridor-sikhism-and-the-power-of-in-betweenness)

The proposed establishment of a corridor that would link Dera Babak Nanak, an important Sikh pilgrimage site on the Indian side which nearly straddles the border, to Kartarpur Sahib, which is about 3 kilometres into Pakistan from the border and one of the principal sites associated with Sikhism, is not merely a step in the right direction.  It has always been a struggle for the two countries to find openings for dialogues, and the Kartarpur Corridor, if it comes to fruition, would likely be, as commentators in both countries realize, one of the greatest measures taken to bring some semblance of peace and civility in the relations between Pakistan and India.  In this respect, the Kartarpur Corridor may seem to take its place alongside Indo-Pak Bus Diplomacy, the Samjhauta Express, and various so-called “confidence-building” measures.

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Kartarpur Sahib. Source: Live Mint.

The critical significance of such a gesture cannot be overestimated, but the reasons for this are more complex than is commonly imagined.  To gauge the vital importance of this proposed measure, it is best to begin with a brief narrative of the place of Kartarpur in Guru Nanak’s life and the onerous burdens that, centuries later, partition placed particularly on the Sikhs in the Punjab.  Nanak traveled widely in his time, as far away as Mecca:  he was at heart an itinerant preacher.  His extensive travels over a period of nearly three decades ceased when he settled down at a spot on the Ravi above Lahore.  Here, as elsewhere, so the tradition says, Nanak first met with opposition from a wealthy landlord, Karoria, who was initially rattled not only by Nanak’s teachings but by his ability to draw to himself people from ordinary walks of life.  When, and so the hagiographies say, Karoria got on his horse in an attempt to see what he could do to contain Nanak, he fell down from his horse and broke a limb; on a second occasion, the horse wouldn’t budge.  After these mishaps, Karoria naturally—what else, if not naturally—came to the awareness that Nanak was a divine being.  The convert Karoria now offered to build a village for Nanak and his disciples and it is at Nanak’s urging that this village became known as Kartarpur, after the word ‘Kartar’ meaning the creator.  The township flourished as Nanak acquired an ever greater following and it is here that, eighteen years later, he passed away in September 1539.  The Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur that stands there presently is said to have been built at the site where Guru Nanak breathed his last.

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Guru Nanak, the Itinerant Preacher:  Returning from Udasis.

Whatever the Sikh aspirations for their own homeland, the partition of 1947 was particularly hard on the Sikhs, the vast majority of whom opted to settle in India. Kartarpur is one among many vitally important sites of Sikh religion and history, among them Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Nanak, the shrine of Guru Arjan Dev in Lahore, and the samadhi (also in Lahore) of Ranjit Singh, that became largely inaccessible to Indian Sikhs.  In 1974, Pakistan and India signed a Protocol on Visits to Religious Shrines to facilitate the granting of visas to pilgrims, but the brute fact remains that the draconian visa regime followed by both countries has made sites such as Kartarpur all but out of bounds for most pilgrims.  Though Dera Nanak Sahib is, as I have pointed out, important in Sikh history in its own right, nothing could be more poignant than the fact that it is also a destination for pilgrims who from its precincts can see the Gurdwara at Kartarpur, the final resting place of Guru Nanak, and thereby also get a darshan of the great founder of their faith:  if I may indulge in a cliche, so close and yet so distant.

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Delhi-Lahore-Delhi Bus Service.  Source:  India Today.

It is sign of the pettiness of the governments of both India and Pakistan, and their sheer incapacity to understand the extraordinary and distinct significance of the Sikh faith, that both countries are now squabbling about who first initiated the idea of the Kartarpur Corridor and should thus be able to claim political mileage.  The Modi Government timed the announcement to coincide with the 550th birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Nanak, who was born on 23 November 1469.  India, the announcement says, “approached and urged the Pakistan government to recognise the sentiments of Sikh community and build a corridor with suitable facilities in their territory to facilitate easy and smooth visits of pilgrims from India”, but Pakistan’s Information & Broadcasting Minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain tweeted that “this proposal was initiated by Pakistan.”  Indeed, Mr. Hussain has argued that the Pakistan Army Chief “spoke about the opening of the Kartarpur border for the first time.  It’s a matter of record.”

Though it is predictable that each government should attempt to lay claim to this initiative, by far its greater import is that Sikhism occupies a space of in-betweenness with respect to Hinduism and Islam.  At his death, Hindus and Muslims quarreled over the performance of the last rites, thus furnishing testimony that they had barely understood his teachings.  They may have acknowledged him as a saint—“To the Hindu a Guru, to the Mussulman a Pir”—but to the end they insisted on viewing him from the perspective of their faith.  Thus the Hindus sought a cremation for Nanak, while the Muslims a burial: when they tugged at the sheet that covered his body, they found a heap of flowers.  The Guru Granth Sahib, for those who recognize the holy book of Sikhism, draws upon elements from both Islam and the worldview of Hinduism.

For students of “religion”, one of the perennially interesting questions is to ponder over what is common and what is distinct in each faith.  The distinctiveness of Sikhism resides in its quality of in-betweenness, in the particular manner in which Sikhs straddle several worlds both in the material and spiritual domains.  As a people, Sikhs have been energetic, generous, and marvelously receptive and adaptive to new cultures.  Any political initiative that holds out the promise of improving relations between Pakistan and India, and strengthening the ties between the peoples of the two countries, is to be welcomed.  But in all such measures, Sikhs have a special role to play, if only they—and the governments of the two countries—would recognize that.  The Sikhs are themselves, if I may put it this way, a corridor between Muslims and Hindus.  One hopes that the Kartarpur Corridor, if at all it should become a reality, will push the Sikhs to play a greater role in mediating peace between India and Pakistan.

*Blasphemy and Apostasy in Pakistan

In my previous essay on this blog, on the foolishness of the legislation that is now before the Vidhan Sabha or legislature of the Punjab Government that would render “blasphemy” an offence punishable with a life sentence, I adverted to the application of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, a close study of which suggests just how vulnerable such legislation is to exploitation not only by the state but by those who terrorize the population in the name of adherence to Islam.  Political repression is a problem in every country in South Asia, and the recent crackdown on human rights activists in India, and the arrest of the acclaimed photographer and social activist Shahidul Alam in Bangladesh, are ominous signs of how the repressive apparatus of the state has been deployed to stifle the freedom of speech and create a climate of fear in which agents of the state can act with utter impunity.

The problem in Pakistan is, if anything, more acute.  There is widespread agreement among scholars, experts, political commentators, and those who have been keenly observing developments in Pakistan that the country has been overwhelmed by political turbulence in the last two decades. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are quite innocent of any real self-reflexivity and are impervious, in their own fashion, to critiques of a notion of “human rights” which often has done little except serve, even if inadvertently, imperialist regimes.  This is apart from other, equally pressing, considerations of the questionable ontological bases of conceptions of ‘rights’. Nevertheless, whatever the soundness of such critiques, the reports of these organizations and other similar human rights group do furnish something of a barometer by which we may judge how far states are observant of the rights of their subjects and whether they treat most of their subjects with dignity.

Going by these reports, Pakistan’s record on the human rights front has been abysmal. Successive reports over the last five years of Human Rights Watch, quite possibly the most respectable international organization of its kind in the world alongside Amnesty International, provide unimpeachable evidence of the breakdown of the rule of law and the arbitrary dispensation of justice. Extrajudicial killings and political assassinations are all too common, corruption in the police forces is rampant, and security for common people can no longer be even remotely guaranteed by the state.  But let us begin with this fact: The official religion of Pakistan is Islam. That was not the case at the inception of Pakistan, even if the country was founded as a Muslim-majority state. Though there are small numbers of adherents of other religions, principally Hindus and Christians, Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim country.   There is substantial and even conclusive evidence, which emanates from a wide array of sources, that religious minorities are at grave risk in Pakistan—though, again, having said this, one must also allow for the fact that there are equally reliable reports and ethnographies of Hindu communities which suggest that Hindus continue to have a place in Pakistani society.

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Protestors holding up placards at a rally in Karachi in 2010 demonstrating against the death sentence handed down to a Pakistani Christian woman, Asia Bibi, on charges of blasphemy, and also calling for an end to discrimination against religious minorities. Photo: Akhatar Sumroo, Reuters. Source: http://time.com/3969035/asia-bibi-death-sentence-stayed-appeal-pakistan/

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its 2014 Annual Report, expressed alarm at the declining environment for religious tolerance in Pakistan and went so far as to recommend that it be designated, alongside nations such as Saudi Arabia and North Korea, a “Country of Particular Concern” (p. 8).  Once again, we shall have to leave aside the politics of this commission, and the question of why it should be viewed as having any real standing:  the right that American organizations have arrogated to themselves to pontificate on the shortcomings of others is much more than suspect. “The past ten years”, state the report’s authors, “have seen a worsening of the already-poor religious environment in Pakistan” (p. 10),  and they add that “in the past year, conditions hit an all-time low due to chronic sectarian violence targeting mostly Shia Muslims but also Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus” (p. 80).  Though the Ahmadis, or Ahmadiyyas, accept all five pillars of Islam and are rigorous adherents of their faith, Pakistan is the only country in the world to have them officially declared non-Muslims since, in addition to the Prophet, they also accept Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) as a Messiah.  (Ahmadis face considerable persecution in Bangladesh; however, they have not officially been branded as ‘kafirs’.) The Second Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan as well as Ordinance XX of 1984, promulgated during the military administration of General Zia-ul-Haq, not only deprive Ahmadis of their religious rights but even debar Ahmadis from reading the Quran, reciting the Kalima (the Muslim creed), or from joining other Muslims in prayer.  The level of religious intolerance in Pakistan towards those who are deemed as heretics may be gauged from the fact that an Ahmadi who uses the Muslim greeting, “As-salam alaykum”, has committed a criminal offence under the laws of Pakistan and can be prosecuted accordingly.  One does not have to accept the authority or even legitimacy of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom to come to such conclusions.

A recent December 2014 report by the London-based Minority Rights Group, the most respected non-governmental global organization of its kind, furnishes more decisive evidence of the climate of religious intolerance in Pakistan and the “daily challenges faced by Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus and other groups in the country.”  The executive summary of the report, entitled Searching for SecurityThe Rising Marginalization of Religious Communities in Pakistan (London:  Minority Rights Group International, 2014), states that though minority religious communities “have suffered discrimination in Pakistan for decades, their persecution has intensified in recent years and has now reached critical levels” (p. 3). Among other forms of discrimination, the report notes “the frequent use of blasphemy laws” (p. 3) to denigrate non-Muslims and points out that the extremists among some Sunnis, who constitute the vast majority in Pakistan, view Shias as apostates and have thus directed violence at them.  Apostates, the authors stated unambiguously, may “face regular hostility from extremists and public calls for members to be killed” (p. 8).

Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary both define an apostate as a person who “renounces a religious or political belief or principle”, and furnish the following words as synonyms:  traitor, defector, turncoat, deserter, among others.  The December 2013 report of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, Political and Legal Status of Apostates in Islam, makes the point that apostasy is no longer a crime anywhere in the world except in Muslim countries (p. 7).  Twenty-seven countries where Islam is the only or the predominant religion inflict punishment on apostates or blasphemers, including those who are “atheists, secularists, and freethinkers” (pp. 6, 8).  Pakistan is not among those eleven countries—including Sudan, Yemen, and two countries that see themselves as implacable foes of each other, Iran and Saudi Arabia—where apostasy is a capital offence, punishable by death, and there are no explicit anti-apostasy laws in Pakistan.  However, this report is unequivocal in its description of the consequences for apostates in Pakistan: “Other countries without apostasy laws, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, use blasphemy and other religious protection laws to persecute apostates” (p. 6).  The report describes the introduction of blasphemy laws (Sections 295-B, 295-C, and 298A-C) into Pakistan’s Penal Code in the 1980s and the restrictions henceforth on the right to freedom of speech with regard to religion, and states that “since then, it has been extremely dangerous to express dissent against Islam.”  Though apostasy itself is not explicitly punishable, blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan under the Pakistan Penal Code:  defiling the name of Muhammad carries a death sentence, as affirmed by the federal Sharia Court which in 1990 ruled that defiling Muhammad’s name is “death and nothing else” (p. 67).  Moreover, it is important to emphasize that blasphemy laws are, in fact, stringently enforced:  between 1986 and 2010, at least 1,274 people were charged under the law.

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Demonstration calling for the death sentence of 34-year old Nadeem James, who was charged with blaspheming against the Prophet of Islam in a WhatsApp message to a friend.  Mr. James was handed down a death sentence by the court in Gujrat in eastern Pakistan.

The Political and Legal Status of Apostates highlights other features that need to be underscored. A charge of blasphemy is often a cover for an ordinary crime: now, five years after the publication of this report, the Pakistani press reports the death of a young artist, Qutab Rind, who was killed by a landlord on account of an alteration over rent and then falsely accused of blasphemy.  An accusation can be made falsely, and often is made, without any consequences for the accuser though the accused might face enormous risks including oppression by an enraged public.  Owing to the number of false accusations, the government in 2005 passed a law requiring the police to investigate accusations of blasphemy before filing charges, but this law is not always followed and certainly has not precluded mob justice.  The report thus notes a climate of vigilante justice; in other words, even where the state may not take action against an apostate or a blasphemer, this does not preclude people from taking the law into their own hands.  The report notes that “at least 51 people accused of blasphemy were murdered before their respective trials were over” (p. 67); the newspaper report from last month on the death of Qutab Rind states that “nearly 70 people had been lynched to death in Pakistan on blasphemy charges whereas another 40 are currently on death row or serving life sentence for blasphemy charges in Pakistan since 1990.”  As is well known, and as was reported widely in Indian, British, and American newspapers, the Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, Salman Taseer, a Muslim, was assassinated in broad daylight on 4 January 2011 for his opposition to the blasphemy laws; so was, ironically, the Minister for Minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, specifically for his support of Asia Noreen Bibi, the first woman sentenced to death, allegedly for defaming the name of Muhammad, under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

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Demonstration against Blasphemy Laws by the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. Photo:  Abid Nawaz/Express Tribune.

There is corroboration for the views stated in the report The Political and Legal Status of Apostates in Islam in various other authoritative reports from organizations in Canada and the US.  Let me return to the afore-mentioned report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, where it is argued that blasphemy-like codes in Pakistan have stifled religious freedom and emboldened extremists to commit violence.  In the report’s own words, “In Pakistan, such codes fuel extremist violence threatening all Pakistanis” (p. 3), and again:  “Pakistan’s laws and practice are particularly egregious in this regard, with its constantly-abused law penalizing blasphemous acts with the death penalty or life in prison” (p. 27).  The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, in collaboration with the UN Refugee Agency, issued a report in 2013 entitled Pakistan:  Religious conversion, including treatment of converts and forced conversions (2009-2012) which again substantiates these finds. The report states, and I quote, “In all mainstreams of Islamic jurisprudence abandoning Islam is considered a capital crime, particularly for men”. This is true for those who have converted to another religion as it of those who have abandoned Islam without taking up another religion.

With all this evidence from a neighboring country before it, does the Punjab Government want to push forward a blasphemy laws to protect worshippers from blasphemers?  Emphatically not; indeed, wherever such laws are to be found in India, they should be summarily scrapped.

*Confining Shahidul Alam, Confining Truth

An Open Letter to the Home Minister of Bangladesh, Mr. Abdul Hassan Mahmood Ali, MP, Calling for the Immediate Release of Shahidul Alam

Dear Sir,

On August 5th, nearly a month ago, Shahidul Alam was taken away from his home in the middle of the night by twenty-five officers of the detective branch of the police which is ultimately responsible to you.  Shahidul Alam is an internationally acclaimed photojournalist, human rights activist, social entrepreneur, and much more.  He has played a singularly critical role in putting Bangladesh on the international map as far as photography is concerned, and he has nurtured the talents of two generations of Bangladeshis who have grown up on the camera.  As I’m certain you know, he is the founder of the picture gallery DRIK, the Chobi Mela International Photography Festival, and the Pathshala Institute where hundreds of young photographers have been trained.  It would be safe to say that he has also done as much as anyone else in Bangladesh to highlight the lives of those who are dispossessed, marginalized, and most vulnerable to exploitation.  Mr. Alam, as those who know him or are at least conversant with his work will tell you, does not allow his sentiments of humanity and his craving for social justice to stop at the borders of the country which you serve as its Home Minister.  He was one of the first to speak of “the majority world” to signify the solidarities that exist between the peoples of what is more often described as the “Third World” or “the developing countries”.

Mr. Alam is therefore one of those comparatively rare intellectuals, artists, and social activists who has been a fearless and persistent advocate of the rights of those who are in fact in a majority in the world—the poor, the working class, the politically oppressed, and the exploited, the preponderant portion of them in countries that were formerly colonized.  It is perhaps because he represents the majority that he is feared by your government.  Does that not explain why no fewer than 25 police officers were assembled to arrest a nonviolent and unarmed activist who has never carried anything other than a camera?  Why was he abducted in the middle of the night, if not because under the cover of darkness the state hoped to disguise its own unlawful action?

A week after his arrest, Mr. Shahidul Alam was produced in court without being given an opportunity to have his lawyer represent him.  He was charged at his arrest, under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act (2016), with disseminating “false, confusing and provocative statements that could deteriorate the law and order situation, as well as incite the sentiments of students to engage in destructive activities.”  Mr. Alam has not only denied all these charges, he has also alleged that he was tortured by the police in jail.  He was certainly beaten badly on the night that he was hauled away and he can be heard screaming in footage that is widely available.  No one who knows him well is at all prepared to believe that there is even an iota of truth in any of these charges; moreover, it is quite apparent that the charges have been framed in such a fashion as to enable the apprehension of anyone whose views might appear even remotely hostile to those who wield political power.  Mr. Alam exemplifies the idea of nonviolence in practice and in spirit, and he is one of the gentlest persons I have had the good fortune of knowing.  He left an extremely favorable impression on everyone during the one week that he spent at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2009 as a Regents’ Fellow at my invitation.

Mr. Alam has now filed a petition in the court asking for bail and he has stated that he would appear in court whenever a hearing might be set in his case.  Leading human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists, as well as hundreds of internationally renowned intellectuals and activists from India, Australia, Britain, and the United States, have called for Mr. Alam’s unconditional release and the removal of all the charges that have been alleged against him.  I join them in asking that Mr. Alam be released at once, but I would like to place before you two others considerations which I hope will appeal to your imagination and moral sensibility. I hope you will find my first point particularly germane in view of the fact that the present government is headed by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.  Let me remind you that it is the repression of intellectuals in what was then East Pakistan that, among other things, inspired Sheikh Mujib  to advocate for the independence of East Pakistan and which eventually led to the creation of Bangladesh.  Mr. Alam’s arrest and continued detention points to your government’s desire to intimidate intellectuals and silence all voices of opposition.  My earnest entreaty to you, therefore, is not to repeat the very same mistakes that characterized the egregious conduct of the Government of (West) Pakistan.

Secondly, even if the Information and Communication Technology Act under which Mr. Alam has been charged is of recent vintage, in spirit it is unfortunately guided by colonial-era legislation.  In this respect, as well, it does the state of Bangladesh absolutely no credit at all to be moved by archaic and repressive legislation.  We are all aware that in the name of preserving “law and order”, states often undertake actions which can only cast a blot on their reputation.  Surely a country guided by the spirit of Sheik Mujib and the great poet Kazi Nazrul Islam can do a lot better than take into unlawful custody one of its most prominent citizens who is widely recognized as a person of unimpeachable integrity and who has done selfless work on behalf of especially the less fortunate citizens of your country.

I end, therefore, once again with the call for Mr. Shahidul Alam’s immediate release and request from you an assurance of his safety.  I remain entirely open to an exchange with you on any of the points raised in this appeal, which I have now made public as the private letter that I addressed to you a week after Mr. Alam’s arrest did not elicit any response.

Yours sincerely,

Vinay Lal, Professor of History, UCLA