Why objecting to the Citizenship Amendment Act in India matters to us all

An excerpt from here

Almost a year ago, the Indian Parliament passed the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Massive public protests and state repression followed. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) exclusionary policies and its supremacist ideology remind us that the choice between a better world or a violent world remains.

These events in India are important not only for Indians, but for all us, and not simply because they affect human rights. They matter because they go to the heart of what all of us who inherit colonial histories have a political responsibility to reckon with:

What should freedom mean? What should be the destinies of the societies we want to create? Do we want to reproduce the past or do we want freedom to be the promise of a world in which new generations can grow up with a relationship to those who are different that is not based on stereotypes of hierarchy, or inferiority or superiority?

When India decides it is acceptable to make minorities vulnerable politically, and officially and unofficially sanctions erasing the histories of minority peoples, making them outcasts, then this concerns all colonised peoples who have a stake in deciding what freedom should mean in the world.

South Africans have offered an important example to the world of what political freedom can mean after colonial rule in the best possible way. But it is an example that the policy in India under BJP rule punches in the gut. The drift of India towards majoritarian domination flies in the face of the famous statement Nelson Mandela made from the dock, in which he declared that he was “prepared to die, if needs be, for the creation of a new society in which a colonial minority would not dominate”. But he would do the same, he said, for the creation of a society in which the colonised majority does not monopolise freedom.

The CAA is a law that legalises majority domination in India, a vision diametrically opposed to the anti-colonial ideals of freedom that Mandela and Nyerere stand for.

The major crossroad we find ourselves at globally is split between two visions of freedom divided on how we define the relationship between residency and rights.

The one vision of freedom wants only certain groups of people to belong to our political community – whether it be those who are said to share the same religion or the same ethnicity. This vision accepts the story of colonial history, about who belongs to the nation, and makes shared origins the basis of political rights. The CAA, in effect, is trying to take away the political and social rights of those who are resident, on the basis of religious identity. Its message to Indian Muslims is that you can be resident, but your rights will be under constant threat; you have been deemed as outsiders by a majoritarian government and ideology and your citizenship has become a matter of dispute – because you are a Muslim.

The other vision of freedom means we continue to strive towards creating political communities in which we recognise the past but are not straightjacketed by it, where it is common residency, not common origins, that gives us political rights. Where people can be different but also equal. If colonial rule told us we were different and unequal, then surely overcoming colonialism’s long shadow over our futures means committing ourselves politically to being critical of political developments – wherever they may be – that continue to sow division among previously colonised peoples. DM/MC

Suren Pillay is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape.