CAA Rules, Mandir, Movies: BJP Deploys Polarisation for Pole Position in Polls

A news anchor told me that a BJP leader once remarked, "Our login is development, but the password is polarisation."

5 min read
Hindi Female

"Law nahin. Rules!" 

That line from the new Netflix series, Mamla Legal Hai (The Matter Is Legal) sounds just right for us to understand the nuances of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, whose rules have been notified this week by the BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

If the web series is a satire on the legal system that lampoons a sessions court, we could perhaps think of a new satire with the CAA as our focus. Should we call it Mamla Constitutional Hai or Mamla Political Hai? On that hangs the nuances of this week's headline-grabbing news.

The drama's dialogues occur in the context of a technicality in a bar council election. Our imagined series could be on the national elections due in a matter of weeks.


An Election Ploy to Sharpen the Hindu-Muslim Divide

Technically speaking, the CAA is a law passed by the parliament and is no longer just a pending bill that invited street resistance at New Delhi's predominantly Muslim area of Shaheen Bagh before the COVID-19 pandemic helped the dispersal of the anxious, angry protestors. It involves constitutional nuances on which there is a lack of clarity.  The Supreme Court has a pending case on whether the law violates the Constitution of India or not. But the rules are here, never mind the nuances.

Officially, India does not have a state religion, as then Attorney-General Mukul Rohatgi told the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2017, two years before the CAA was enacted. He went on to add that India as a secular state makes "no distinction between caste, creed, colour or religion of a citizen."

At the crux of the CAA Rules, shorn of technical details, is the fact that the government is willing and happy to grant Indian citizenship to persecuted minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who arrived in India before 31 December 2014, even if their entry was technically illegal (undocumented), as long as they produce some sort of a vague proof of their entry. That offer of citizenship extends to Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, and Christians, who form the minorities in Muslim countries, but not to persecuted people who may be Muslims, say, liberals, feminists, or sectarian dissidents.

The BJP's eloquent supporters point out that the CAA does not affect Indian Muslims at all as they are already citizens of India. The constitutional nuance rests on whether the equality enjoyed by Indian Muslims should be extended equally to persecuted Muslims outside of India. Or something to that effect. 

The Supreme Court is the final authority on such matters, and it is in no hurry to pronounce its views — but politicians certainly seem to be working to a deadline.  The timing of CAA Rules is such that critics and opposition parties are keenly targeting the notification as an election ploy to sharpen the Hindu-Muslim divide and win votes based on religious polarisation. 


Religious Polarisation Can Help the BJP Get Into Pole Position

Sadly, for the opposition, the BJP seems to be winning either way — if soundbites on national TV and vox-populi quotes on street views are any indication.

It all depends on how you pose the question. "Is it not fair that persecuted Hindus should be accommodated in a Hindu homeland," sounds emotionally appealing to kind-hearted people, and that is exactly what the BJP is doing. Votes may follow. A TV news anchor told me that a BJP leader once remarked with cynical humour, "Our login is development but our password is polarisation."

It seems religious polarisation can help the BJP get into pole position when the voting buttons get pressed, at least in the religiously charged northern Hindi heartland states, besides Assam and West Bengal where illegal immigration of Muslims from Bangladesh and Myanmar is an emotive issue. Opposition parties crying foul may have some constitutional principles to shout about but the average Jai or Janaki on the streets probably views it with the engaging simplicity of a common citizen.

You have to see the timing of the rules, the noise made by BJP supporters and spokespersons in the mainstream and social media, and other things happening in the backdrop to get the bigger picture. Congress leader Jairam Ramesh speaks of how the notifications came after nine extensions, just so that the matter could grab public attention ahead of elections, with an eye on votes in Assam and Bengal.

While Kerala and West Bengal chief ministers have publicly announced that they will not implement the CAA Rules (thereby readying for a fresh Supreme Court battle), it seems to matter little for the BJP as its actions seem poised more towards an electoral mandate than a court verdict. Please note the CAA's philosophy is in line with that of the BJP's ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), whose definition of India is of a Hindu Rashtra (nation), better called Bharat.


The Bigger Picture in the Backdrop of Lok Sabha Elections

In the backdrop, we have had the alleged sexual abuse of women by a Muslim leader of the opposition Trinamool Congress, Shahjahan Sheikh, in West Bengal's Sandeshkhali, and the actions of Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma against child marriages among Muslims. The passage in February of a controversial Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in the BJP-ruled state of Uttarakhand sharpens the picture even further.

The UCC includes contentious provisions such as the mandatory registration of live-in relationships but in the broader political narratives, the focus is often on polygamy among Muslims, which is technically permitted in India. Though the law covers issues such as adoption, divorce, and inheritance, electoral discussions often centre around the privilege that men have under Muslim Personal Law though in reality, polygamy is rare and often subject to tough conditions.

According to the Home Ministry data cited in mainstream media reports, at least 31,000 members of persecuted minorities from neighbouring countries will benefit from the CAA Rules. Even if the number was three times that estimate, that is a drop in the ocean for India which has 1.4 billion people.

However, in political terms, making the CAA sentiments the centre of electoral conversations is something that concurs with the BJP-RSS brand of Hindu nationalism. If further evidence is needed, look at the movies, that propagate right-wing narratives, hitting the screens this season.

BJP leader Gudur Narayan Reddy has produced Razakar: Silent Genocide of Hyderabad, based on Hindu-Muslim tensions in Hyderabad around 1948, which is due for release on 15 March. Swatantra Veer Savarkar, a movie based on Hindu Mahasabha leader Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, which the BJP is raising as a freedom movement icon to counter the Congress party's Mahatma Gandhi, is scheduled to hit the screens a week later.

All that chatter, happening in the backdrop of the consecration by Modi of a magnificent Ram temple in Ayodhya in January at a spot gained after decades of Hindu-Muslim wrangles, sets the stage for a deep polarisation strategy around forthcoming general elections.

Is it time to say, Mamla Electoral Hai?

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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