November 6, 2001


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Ashwin Mahesh

A special responsibility

The trickle of Hindu migration from Bangladesh, which has persisted for decades now, has drawn increased attention ever since the recent election in that nation. The electoral battle has brought a coalition with significant fundamentalist support to power; the Hindu minority is widely perceived to be supportive of the opposition, which lost. Perhaps emboldened by new-found authority, radical elements in Bangladesh have stepped up their attacks against Hindu families; we're now beginning to see a continuous stream of refugees crossing into India, no longer in small groups, but by the hundreds.

The usual combination of cultural ambivalence and regulatory exploitation that marks all borders exists at the boundaries of India too. Many of these families embark on difficult, even dangerous, journeys to arrive in India; they leave behind what little possessions they may have in their native land. They must overcome the watchfulness of Indian border security guards, some of whom keep intruders out and others who keep watch to profiteer from the suffering of the displaced persons. Once in India, such "foreigners" are subject to a host of regulations, many of these draconian limitations erected in the name of national security against potential enemies.

Elsewhere in the neighbourhood, cleansing by conflict is as abundant. In Pakistan, we must remind ourselves, the displacement of ethnic minorities has been both faster and more thorough, and as a result, only the smallest percentages of Hindus and Christians are now subject to the authority of Islamabad. With the American-led assault against Osama bin Laden and the Taleban in full swing, the Christian minority is now under even greater danger of bodily harm from the polarizing elements. In Sri Lanka, hundreds of thousands of Tamils have been forced from their homes, by war as well as state-sponsored discrimination against the minority.

Now to the Indian position on such poison in the neighbourhood. Having assured ourselves of our secularism, and with no real understanding of it, we refuse to see religion among the suffering, nor conflict among cultures within national boundaries, and thus stamp the official face of sovereign identity in all relations with them. Where the victims are Hindus or cultural extensions of the Indian populace, we limit ourselves to strong expressions of concern from the foreign office; these have as much effect as the threat of a nuclear strike by Papua New Guinea. Where the victims are others, we proffer bombastic comparisons to the Indian experience in pluralism.

The lunacy of these positions is remarkable also for its tenacity. It yields not in the slightest to the reality of victims' lives across the border. It is time to end the equivocation that has passed for policy, and institute instead an entirely different premise from which to address such violence in our neighbourhood. This will mean that rather than endorse grand but impractical considerations of national security mindlessly, we will begin to consider how one may offer the possibility of hope to persons displaced by various threats.

As a first step, we must embrace the view that the idea of India belongs to those who seek it, even if the state itself is ours alone, and is not denied to those who are persecuted for their cultural or social connections to India or to values we profess. This means that we must find ways by which we extend the rights of residence and employment in India to others in the subcontinent whose basic economic and other securities are threatened by cultural conflict. Every person fleeing persecution in a neighbouring country must be welcome in India, and every person whose cultural heritage is challenged because it appears too Indian must find shelter in our nation.

The unfortunate truth about democracy is that ideas that are attacked on particular grounds both from the left and the right remain shelved because they find no voice among the powerful. If you're concerned about infiltration in the guise of refuge-seeking, or extending kinship not just to Hindus who view India as sacred but even to others, or about population, you'll probably object. Equally, from the liberal perspective, if you are concerned about the appearance of an anti-Islamic stance in such a proposal, you'll object just as vigorously, notwithstanding empathy for the victims.

However, if we understood better the difference between secularism and pluralism, then these objections would rapidly recede. The state's position, as proposed in the Constitution, requires neutrality and a mild indifference to all faiths, but not a disavowal of any one, or over-arching attempts to embrace each equally. Our political classes have either never understood this or have chosen to overlook that willfully. Which has left us with little more than accusations of 'pseudo-secularism' and 'Hindu nationalism' -- a robust free trade in cultural vote-bank politics.

Policies formulated without reference to religious identity are essential to cement an ethos founded on the constitutional view. Allow people to enter the country because they fear for their safety elsewhere, and because their cultural similarities to Indians permit them to rebuild their lives in India quicker than elsewhere. We need never consider if those seeking such entry are Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Tamils, Ahmediyas, etc. From Muslim Bangladeshi writers to those fleeing blasphemy laws at the edge of civilisation, they must remain welcome because India offers them a meaningful alternative.

Whereas we may see such moves as largesse from the Indian ethos, these are far more. In fact, such genuine openness is the real measure of the tolerance to which we profess such constitutional adherence. An India that sees victims only by their religious affinity to her own citizens, or by their distance from Islam, can hardly be said to be very different from the insular societies carved out at Partition. As an honest gesture of support, as a political weapon of apparent integrity, as a means to bridging our own divides, we can summon few other equals to this simple act of rescuing people from situations where they feel threatened.

Millennia of history have inevitably blurred the distinctions between the geography of the subcontinent and its majority culture. Since independence from Britain, the width and breadth of that geography have appeared constrained, and seemingly forever. Still, a pluralistic society that views Partition as an aberration from the enduring hold of history finds itself challenged by the victimhood of those who find themselves outside the shelter of this new boundary. We are confronted by ideas of India that challenge our inner being, mostly because we have ourselves long professed them without daring to embrace them.

An honest accounting for our choices, and the character of our constitutional society, both demand that the promise of our promised land remains real to all who would seek it. Open the door, and reinvent the continuity of times past.

Ashwin Mahesh

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