Is India turning its back on its benevolent past to shut doors on immigrants?

This is another aspect of the ‘Idea of India' on which the ruling party differs from the views of its opponents who swear by India’s multicultural society against the “one nation, one people, one culture” concept of the Hindu right, writes Amulya Ganguli for South Asia Monitor

Amulya Ganguli Apr 07, 2021
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In telling the Supreme Court that India cannot be the capital of illegal immigrants, the government’s legal luminaries have displayed a strange ignorance of the nation’s remarkable history relating to persecuted refugees. 

A smart-alecky observation on the issue of the Rohingyas cannot hide the fact that India has been the natural home of several such hapless groups seeking shelter in the land of Buddha and Asoka.

India, a shelter for the persecuted

Among them were the victims of Islamic persecution in Persia in the 7th century when hundreds fled from their native homeland to escape religious conversion and other humiliations.

And which is the country did they choose as their destination in their hour of distress? It was India, the acknowledged ‘capital’ of illegal immigrants because of its hallowed traditions of tolerance and accommodation.

And, yet, the Parsis must have known that they were migrating to the land of the ‘devas,’ (gods) their ancient adversaries who had fought the ‘asuras’ (demoniac adversaries) of Persia in prehistoric times. Hence, the Zoroastrian mantra: “In due confession of faith, the believer pledges (that) as Ahura Mazda taught Zaruthustra as Zaruthustra taught (his community) to repudiate any connection with the devas, I, also, as a Mazda worshipper and follower of Zaruthustra, repudiate any connection with the devas.”

The incantation harks back to the fratricidal conflict between the 'devas' and the 'asuras' (over land as the no longer unknown Indian Nirad Chaudhuri says in his remarkable autobiography) in ancient Persia which finds mention in Hindu mythology and is replayed every year during the Durga Puja festival in Bengal.

If the Zoroastrians nevertheless chose to re-establish their ‘connection’ with their estranged cousins in India, the reason was that there was no other country in their neighbourhood which would have given them a new home as India’s benign, the conciliatory spirit did. As British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie has said, “the selfhood of India is so capacious, so elastic, that it manages to accommodate one billion kinds of difference.”

Twelve centuries after the Parsis chose to forsake Persia and make India their home, another group did the same.

They were the Tibetans who, too, had to flee from their mountainous home to seek solace and shelter in India to escape the marauding Chinese communists.

The Rohingyas are driven by the same urge to find safety in a country that vows to look upon guests as gods. They, too, are facing death and devastation from their fascist enemies in Myanmar as the people of that country are experiencing again in the wake of the military coup.

A different 'Idea of India'

It should be a matter of pride for India that it stands out as a beacon of hope for the huddled masses as America once did. But, as the government’s case before the judiciary suggests, the present dispensation has a different viewpoint on the matter of accommodating guests.

To the rulers of today, these aliens are “termites,” as the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants have been called once. Moreover, the authorities have long held that India is not a 'dharamshala' or an inn where everyone is welcome.  

This is another aspect of the ‘Idea of India' on which the ruling party differs from the ideological views of its opponents who swear by India’s multicultural society against the “one nation, one people, one culture” concept of the Hindu right.

It is obvious that the latter’s emphasis on the uniformity of the nation and its people and culture automatically exclude new entrants. Under this constricted matrix, the Parsis and Tibetans fall in the same category as the Rohingyas and those Myanmarese who are now fleeing from military repression.  

The irony of the similarity of the plight of these two sets of people from Myanmar is obvious. Will this make the ordinary people of Myanmar more charitable towards the Rohingyas in the future? But that is another story.

Meanwhile, what distinguishes the attitude of the present-day rulers in India from what guided their predecessors are their ethnoreligious considerations with a high emphasis on Hindus. The Parsis and Tibetans can deem themselves lucky that they came in less intolerant times. The broadminded rulers of those days could take a sympathetic view of their plight.

But not the Rohingyas, or the Myanmarese facing the wrath of the military, or the persecuted Shias and Ahmediyas of Islamic countries for whom the new Indian citizenship law has no compassion. It’s midnight again in India, as Salman Rushdie has said in a recent article.

Lack of empathy

What is noteworthy about this lack of empathy for the downtrodden is that this attitude is being worn as a badge of pride by the authorities who have rubbished any western criticism of India’s human rights record as the unwanted advice of “self-appointed custodians” of the world.

Clearly, India now considers itself to be a part of a brotherhood of the right spread across Europe and America which frowns on immigrants and is particularly antagonistic towards the Muslims.

Like the Jews of an earlier period, the Rohingyas are living in a time when India is turning its back on the nation’s benevolent past.

(The writer is a commentator on current affairs. The views are personal)

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