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India in Transition

Religion and Communal Geography in India: An Elusive Search for Space, Community, and Nation

Nazima Parveen
November 21, 2022

The demolition of alleged unauthorized properties in the “Muslim-dominated” quarters of Jahangirpuri (New Delhi), Khargone (Madhya Pradesh), and Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh) by government authorities underlines the nature of administrative discourse toward Muslim identity and space in contemporary India. While Muslim space has always been a contested category in the realm of official administrative discourse, this new bulldozer politics is a relatively new phenomenon.

Muslim space as a problem category is being profoundly redefined. New symbols and idioms—“mini-Pakistan” and “terrorist hideouts”—are employed to create the impression that religion is a legitimate mode to think of spatial boundaries. Marking Muslim space as contested neighborhood, in this sense, underlines a process by which Indian space is envisaged in overtly Hindu terms.    

Many political observers have argued that this redefinition of spatial boundaries on religious lines is an obvious outcome of the BJP’s success in 2014. In this schema, the constant vilification of Muslim practices—Azan, namaz, food, festivals, political behavior, and any other form that represents collective action—is defined as a sudden outburst of Hindutva assertion. This simplistic conclusion, however, is incapable of explaining the emergence of religion as the dominant template of politics.

The transformation of religion as an official category has its own recent history, which is inextricably linked to a gradual shift in the nature of mainstream politics. The state-centric secular agenda of social justice, which was a powerful political reference point since Partition, was slowly replaced by a more profound religious identity-based framework of politics in the late 1980s. This crucial shift evolved into the establishment of majoritarian-Hindu nationalist discourse as a new political norm.

Religion and Citizenship
India’s rejection of the category of religion and adoption of a secular definition of citizenship under the Citizenship Act, 1955 was a radical move, especially in the context of partition violence. However, subsequent development, especially citizenship amendment laws beginning in 1985, gradually accommodated religious identity in citizenship framework. 

The Citizenship Act 2004 shows the shift in the criterion of Indian citizenship shrinking birth as a condition while elaborating the descent-based principle. Subsection [3(ii)], added in the 1955 Act, clarified that a child would only be recognized as an Indian citizen by birth if one of the “parents is a citizen of India and the other is not an illegal migrant at the time of his birth.” The Act made illegal migrants ineligible for citizenship by registration or by naturalization, reducing their status to stateless population.

The subsequent rule that declared the technical aspects of citizenship status exempted the minority class Hindus with Pakistan citizenship from this definition of illegal migrants. This explanation, implicitly, encircled the identity of Bangladeshi migrants, especially Muslims.  While criminalizing illegal immigrants with imprisonment and deportation, the Act also empowered the government to create and maintain a National Register of Citizens and National Population Register following the amended provisions to further monitor the movement of populations.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019 further expanded this new notion of citizenship, establishing religious identity as a qualifier to obtain Indian citizenship in the subcontinent. The CAA provided citizenship to six undocumented non-Muslim persecuted religious minorities (Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians) who had migrated from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh on or before December 31, 2014.

Religion and “Minority”
The Nehruvian state rejected the category of religion and adopted the more neutral definition of “minority” and “majority.” The realities of partition, however, highlighted the obscurities inherent to the definition and its implications that led to partition. Fraught with the danger of repeating similar divisions—Hindu-majority and Muslim-minority—as a “natural” principle, the Indian Constitution used the word “minorities” and left it unspecified.

Articles 29 and 30 of the Constitution do not specify “minorities” and classify it into two sub-categories—religious minorities and linguistic minorities. This openness provides a broad framework of Fundamental Rights; any community can be a minority in any state depending upon the dominant linguistic/cultural feature of its reorganization.

The National Commission for Minorities Act (NCM), 1992 introduced religion as a primary qualifier for the declaration of any community as a minority and declared five communities religious minorities at the national level: Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Zoroastrians (Parsis). The purpose of the Act was to establish a National Commission for Minorities to “evaluate the progress of the development of minorities under both central and state governments.” However, the Act established religion as an official marker of the identification of social groups and the measure of their marginalization at the national level. It fixed the definition of minority and majority and declared Hindus the only majority community in India. Section 2 (c) empowered the Central government to declare minority status to any community on religious and linguistic grounds.

The 2004 National Commission for Minority Educational Institution Act (NCMEI) also defined “minority” as a community notified as such by the Central Government. Its purpose was to ensure the rights of religious minorities to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice, as provided in Article 30 of the Constitution. However, the Act excluded linguistic minorities from the ambit of the NCMEI. In 2006, the Ministry of Minority Affairs was carved out of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. These developments exemplify how social groups were given a permanent official identity and the spirit for social justice was reduced to the religious association of a multi-lingual/regional, multi-caste, and economically marginalized population. Moreover, numerical strength of a religious community was established as a prime indicator to declare a religious or linguistic community a minority. This classification imposed the principle of homogeneity for proclaiming marginal status.

The Sachar Commission Report, 2006 on the Social, Economic, and the Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India also contributed to this shifting legal discourse. The report made a comparative analysis between Muslims and other Socio Religious Communities to highlight the increasing gap in their level of marginalization. The analysis was based on a rational and critical methodological approach and was meant to develop a constructive and comprehensive policy framework for the development of religious minorities, especially Muslims. The report, however, established religious identity in the frameworks of public policy and social research. It quite radically replaced the category of class from the larger discourse of social justice and equality.

The subsequent politics reflects some obvious implications of this legal-administrative vocabulary, especially two developments of importance. When the BJP-led NDA came into power in 2014, Najma Haptullah, the Minority Affairs minister, controversially asserted that “Muslims are not a minority by any stretch of the imagination,” and that Parsis are the ones whose culture and existence is in real danger. Her statement triggered social media-driven shaming and denigrating of Muslims for demanding special rights in comparison to other smaller-numbered religious minorities—Sikhs, Parises, Christians—who were contributing more toward the growth of the Indian economy. In this display of Islamophobia, Muslim communities were portrayed as a rapidly-growing and soon-to-be-a-majority community that would overpower Hindus if not controlled.

The second, potentially more dangerous development, is the conflict over the legal definition of a minority and the power of the Centre to declare the status of a minority. Two petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court challenging the validity of the NCM and NCMEI Acts. The petitions argue that the declaration of six national religious minorities is discriminatory against Hindus, who are a significant minority in eight states—Lakshadweep, Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya, J&K, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, and Punjab—as per the 2011 Census. The petitions demand a minority status to the followers of Judaism, Bahaism, and Hinduism in these states.

The validity of section 2(f) of the NCMEI Act is also questioned, alleging that it gives unbridled power to the Centre to identify and notify minority communities in India. The petitioner termed the Act as “manifestly arbitrary, irrational, and offending” to the Fundamental Rights guaranteed to minorities by the Constitution. The petitioners demand the Centre define “minority” and lay down guidelines for the identification of religious minorities at the state and district levels. Although the Minority Commission has established that states also have a right to declare any religious community a minority on the basis of population, the matter is under trial in the Supreme Court.

Religion and Communal Geography
The emergence of religion as a legitimate category defining a population’s citizenship and minority status has also affected the imaginations of India’s physical space and national identity. The citizenship debate, especially post-CAA, has expanded the scope of the debate on Indian space, forming an interesting configuration of religion-territory. By recognizing non-Muslim persecuted religious minorities belonging to three neighboring Muslim majority nation states as potential citizens of India, the Indian territory is actually envisaged as an authentic homeland for non-Muslims, especially Hindus of South Asia. This revised conceptualization of Indian territory as non-Muslim/Hindu homeland also destabilizes the established notion of unity in diversity. The Indian territory emerges as an even-contested space primarily because of its inability to become a truly old European style nation-state based on one nation, one culture, one religion. Muslim spatial presence becomes a permanent obstacle in achieving this cherished goal at national, regional, and local levels.

Religion-based minority-majority discourse, on the other hand, brings about the question of the numerical strength of a religious community. Hindus would emerge as the obvious claimant of national identity in this framework simply because they form a religious majority. Muslims, on the other hand, would become second majorityperceived as an ever-threatening unit. The physical space Muslims occupy, in this sense, would eventually have to be recognized as disputed sites.         

The emergence of the BJP—an energized version of Jan Sangh—as a significant player in national politics is undoubtedly a factor in this regard. The success of Hindutva politics, however, cannot be reduced entirely to its perceived ideological acceptability. The BJP has appropriated the evolving discourse on religion, and at the same time, it has established itself as the sole representative of Hindu sentiments at the national level. Therefore, terms like “Hindu vote bank,” “Hindu constituency” and “Hindu area” have emerged as new political phenomenon in contemporary Indian politics.

Nazima Parveen is an Associate Research Fellow at Policy Perspective Foundation and Postdoctoral Fellow at Krea University. She is the author of Contested Homelands: Politics of Space and Identity (Bloomsbury, 2020).

This article is the third in a series of guest-edited IiT short series. The articles in this series attempt to map out various facets of Muslim political presence in contemporary India. More precisely, five thematic issues related to Muslim identity are systematically investigated: (a) Emergence of religion as an official category and its impact on competitive electoral politics. (b) The ever fluctuating legal-constitutional meanings of the term minority. (c) The nature of anti-Muslim violence and official response to it. (d) The changing political attitude of non-BJP parties. And finally, (e) Relevance of Muslim political representation in today’s India. In this sense, this series offers a different intellectual perspective to what is usually defined as Indian Muslim politics. The pieces in this series collectively assert that Muslim politics is not simply about the number of Muslim MPs and MLAs, nor is it entirely reducible to the voting behavior of Muslim electorates. The political engagements of Muslims, we argue, must be explored as an ever-evolving independent political discourse, which is not always primarily shaped by responses to the challenges posed by Hindutva politics. In this sense, the idea of New India, an official doctrine adopted by the BJP-led NDA regime as a policy framework, is recognized as a significant reference point. For this reason, we treat it as a watershed moment of Indian politics.
(Guest Editor: Hilal Ahmed, Associate Professor, CSDS, New Delhi; Associate Editor, South Asian Studies, journal of the British Association of South Asian Studies, UK)

India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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