Ever since Narendra Modi’s Silchar speech in February when he said “harassed” Hindus from not just Bangladesh but the rest of the world had the right to come back to India, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been tying itself in knots over the issue.
Under Modi’s influence, the party manifesto released on April 7 said, “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here.”
Somewhere down the line, however, the party realized that while it might be able to get away with distinguishing between Hindu Bangladeshi migrants (who could be classified as ‘refugees’) and Muslim Bangladeshi migrants (who are termed, rather tastelessly, as ‘infiltrators’), extending this formulation to Hindu and non-Hindu Persons of Indian Origin around the world would be constitutionally untenable.
The first person to attempt a correction of the manifesto was Modi himself. In Silchar he had said, “Where will Hindus harassed in Fiji go? Where will those harassed in Mauritius go? Where will those harassed in the US go? Naturally they will have to come to India.” By the time his Bankura rally came around, however, Modi stuck to the religious distinction for Bangladeshis but spoke of “troubled” Indian-origin people in Fiji, Africa and elsewhere who must be allowed to come to India, and not just Hindus.
This expanded definition of a refugee was amplified by senior party leader Arun Jaitley at a press conference in Varanasi on May 7. “Today if Sikhs are moved out of Uganda and have nowhere else to go and they come to India, will you give them refugee status or not? For anyone of Indian origin, there will be acceptable cases of giving refugee status. Suppose a Kerala Christian has a British passport and is thrown out, he will obviously come to India as he is a person of Indian origin.”
Of course, this correction begged the question of why the BJP manifesto had spoken of India being the natural home of only “persecuted Hindus” and not of “persecuted Persons of Indian Origin” in the first place.
In an interview to Times Now on May 8, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate was asked to explain this discrepancy and square it with the party’s claim of representing “One India” regardless of religion or caste.
A visibly flustered Modi tied himself in knots trying to answer the question. Fortunately for him, the interviewer, Arnab Goswami, did not go in for a knockout punch.
Under sustained questioning, Modi conceded that all persecuted PIOs and not just Hindus were welcome to return to India (“we will look at the colour of their blood, not their passports”). The reference to ‘Hindus’ in the BJP manifesto, Modi said, was in the spirit of the Supreme Court judgment that spoke of Hinduism as a “way of life”.
As many commentators have observed, the December 1995 Supreme Court judgment on Hindutva was flawed in the facile manner in which it erased the boundaries between Hinduism as a religion, the Hindu ‘way of life’, and what the court called “the way of life of the Indian people”. Worse, it then equated Hindutva — a political concept premised on the very idea that Indians who are Christians and Muslims do not have the same attachment to India as Hindus and that, hence, their membership and citizenship of India will always be suspect – with Hinduism.
But even if one goes along with the Supreme Court’s formulation of Hinduism as a word which refers to the “way of life of the Indian people”, it is difficult to translate that into the equation Modi made by saying the reference to Hindus in the BJP manifesto was in the spirit of the SC judgment and thus referred to all Indians.
Here is the operative part of the Supreme Court’s controversial 11 December 1995 judgment in the Bal Thackeray case (Dr. Ramesh Yeshwant Prabhoo vs Shri Prabhakar Kashinath Kunte & others):
“[It] cannot be doubted, particularly in view of the Constitution Bench decisions of this Court, that the words Hinduism or Hindutva are not necessarily to be understood and construed narrowly, confined only to the strict Hindu religious practices unrelated to the culture and ethos of the people of India, depicting the way of life of the Indian people. Unless the context of a speech indicates a contrary meaning or use, in the abstract these terms are indicative more of a way of life of the Indian people and are not confined merely to describe persons practising the Hindu religion as a faith.”
Thus, the SC clearly drew a distinction between the way of life “of the Indian people” and “persons practising the Hindu religion as a faith.” In other words, the word ‘Hinduism’ in the abstract may be equal to the ‘way of life of the Indian people’ but it does not follow that the Indian people are all Hindus or that the term “Hindus” can be used interchangeably with “the Indian people”.
That is why, despite its flawed and unnecessary disquisition on the meaning of Hinduism, the court found Bal Thackeray guilty of appealing to Hindus to vote for a candidate because he was a Hindu — a corrupt practice under the Representation of People Act.
Modi cannot, therefore, claim that the word “Hindus” in the manifesto is a reference to persons professing the “way of life of the Indian people” because the very Supreme Court judgment he seeks to rely on treats the two categories as distinct.
This distinction is only natural. To treat the category of “Hindus” as being exactly equivalent to all those following the “way of life of the Indian people” would mean, either, that non-Hindu Indians are not true Indians, or that the observances and practices of non-Hindu Indians such as reciting the Quran, offering namaz, following Islamic personal law, etc. are all a part of Hinduism. Both of these conclusions are absurd. But Narendra Modi should tell us which of the two he believes to be true.
(Siddharth Varadarajan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, New Delhi)