Ethnicity, not religion, matters more as new citizenship law sets India on fire

Had religion mattered more, we would not have had Assam and other NE states burst into protests over CAA. Even Nellie massacres were about ethnic tribals reacting to Bengalis, both Hindus and Muslims

Ethnicity, not religion, matters more as new citizenship law sets India on fire
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Sujata Anandan

One of my best friends at school was Muslim. Her father was with the Indian Air Force, mine was a civilian scientist posted at a defence installation overseeing the indigenisation of things we had inherited from the British.

We were both at school during the 1971 War with Pakistan that led to the formation of Bangladesh and I remember her very modern mother donning traditional clothes for being all the time at prayers - though when some friends in the defence settlement advised her to ask Lord Hanuman to ward off any imminent disaster, she was quite keen and eager to learn how to recite the Hanuman Chalisa.

Later, after his safe return from the war, I had another enduring lesson in religious harmony. My friend's father had been flying a Gnat – a British aircraft that proved quite superior to the American Sabre being used by the Pakistani Air Force. My father was among those who had been working on the indigenisation of the Gnats but had been worried if the fighter aircraft would hold up against the superior American fighter jets.

It did, indeed. After the war at the Defence Services Club, both our fathers were among those discussing the merits of the Gnats versus the Sabres. Other aircraft like Hunters were used by the Indian Air Force in the same war and the Pakistanis too used some Chinese fighter jets.

While our fathers discussed how each had held its own during the war, what struck me even at that age was my atheist father telling the other man, “I was praying to both your God and mine that the Gnats would hold up and bring you back safe and in one piece.”

My friend’s father nodded sagely, then said, “The Gnats were always superior to the Sabres. But I am with the Indian Air Force and never had a moment’s doubt or fear. I was convinced Lord Hanuman was up there flying with us and would down the Pakistani jets even if we failed.”

Growing up in that spirit of camaraderie between gods and religions, it was not at all strange to come across two business partners. In a small provincial town who would urge each other to pray to each other’s gods when they were bidding for any particular contract?

“If my Hanuman or Ganpati does not help me, at least your Allah will hear your prayers and we will get the contract,” one would nudge the other and there was never any thing that came between their mutually beneficial gods and prayers.

I do not know how much of that trust and complete confidence in each other’s gods continue to prevail in this country but I am afraid the current ruling dispensation is all set and hell bent upon destroying the faith and trust between Hindus and Muslims in the country.

I am simply amazed that neither Narendra Modi nor Amit Shah are able to recognise the fact that ethnicity matters more to people than religion – my friend‘s father was Bengali and he felt blessed he had contributed to the creation of Bangladesh. As a Muslim, he felt no fellow sympathy for Pakistanis who he considered as loud Pathans and Punjabis who were less cultured than Bengalis (no offence meant to these communities in the present day and time – those were the biases of an older generation).

Had religion mattered more, we would not have had a Abdul Hamid during the 1965 War with Pakistan and Assam and other states of the North East (as many other towns and cities) would not have burst into protests over the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Parliament.

The Nellie massacres of Assam were among my earliest reportage from conflict zones and even today, almost 40 years later, it is very clear that ethnicity matters more to the Assamese than religion.

There were thousands and thousands of Hindu refugees from East Pakistan before the Bangladesh War and a close family friend, another Hindu Bengali who somehow got embroiled with the Mukti Bahini before the war, was pretty clear after the liberation of East Pakistan that they all needed to be returned to Bangladesh and could not be allowed to buy land or property on the Indian side of Bengal.

Even the Nellie massacres were about ethnic tribals reacting to Bengalis – both Hindus and Muslims – grabbing their jobs and farmlands. Many of those survivors at the time could not understand why they should have been targeted when they did not belong to Bangladesh and had lived in India for generations.

They failed to realise that Bengali was not Assamese and so they were not welcome in the neighbouring state. It took decades for previous governments to settle the ethnic conflicts in the northeastern states and now the Citizenship Amendment Act has opened those old wounds afresh – Bengali settlers are again being targeted, quite apart from the fact that ethnic Assamese of all hues are simply un-enamoured by the current dispensation's attempt to drive a wedge between local Hindus and Muslims.

Even during peace time, both Modi and Shah are unable to understand the appeal of ethnicity over religion. Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray targeted both Hindu South Indians and North Indians but when it to came to Muslims, he made a clear distinction between local Maharashtrian Muslims who spoke the same language and those who had migrated from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar who he thought needed to be thrown out to make more lebensraum for the locals.

Kerala Muslims who were then mostly smuggling forbidden goods like electronics and perfumes from South Asian and Gulf markets were as much on target as Bangladeshi Muslims who were setting up ghettos and indulging in other petty crimes as well as grabbing jobs from local. If we need smugglers by the sea route, what is wrong with our Konkani Muslims, was his fantastic logic.

That ethnic consideration is now responsible for the Shiv Sena breaking loose and striking out on its own and both Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party and Uddhav Thackeray are finding common ground in Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s rebellion against the “Delhi sultanate".

Delhi was then ruled by Aurangzeb, as devout a Muslim king as any. Yet Shivaji's most trusted bodyguard was Siddi Ibrahim who saved him from an assault by Afzal Khan whose co-conspirator in the plot to assassinate Shivaji was Krishnaji Bhaskar Kulkarni.

Afzal Khan was a general to the Adil Shahi kings. Yet when it came to fighting the Moghuls, Shivaji collaborated with other Muslim kingdoms of the Deccan to keep them at bay – whether Hindu or Muslim, the Deccan kingdoms found common cause in fighting the Delhi Moghuls.

So now this composite, integrated culture is under assault by the CAA. No wonder then that not just Assam but the whole of India is on fire. Everybody is up in arms against the modern day Delhi Moghuls.

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