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SA’s troubling silence about possible new forms of apartheid in India

Sameer Dossani is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Economic Research on Innovation in Tshwane and co-founder of the website which builds tools to promote peace and undermine prejudice. Sameer holds a Masters degree in Women’s Studies from LaTrobe University, Australia.

Governments, including South Africa’s, need to take a keener interest in developments in India, lest history repeats itself.

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” – Martin Luther King

India’s unilateral decision to sever all links – economic, political, diplomatic, etc. – with the apartheid state in the forties as an expression of her abhorrence to racism served as a spur to our freedom movement.” – Nelson Mandela

How did apartheid begin? Was it, as textbooks often say, a policy that began in 1948 with the election of the National Party? If that were true, the first apartheid law would be the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949. So was racial bias introduced as late as 1948?

Of course not. As early as 1797, the indigenous peoples of South Africa were made to carry pass cards or risk enslavement. Slavery itself was not made illegal until 1833 and there are stories of a number of enslaved people of Asian or African origin only learning they were free as late as 1849. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century, numerous laws curtailed the voting rights and the land rights of “non-white” people.

When seen from this perspective, apartheid is not a monolith. It is a racialised social framework that existed prior to 1948 and continued to become more coordinated and sophisticated in the course of its 46 years of existence. It was a brand name favoured by the National Party to support and codify racialised social and legal systems that already existed.

With this more nuanced understanding of history, we must ask whether that history is being repeated.

At the moment, that means taking a hard look at events going on in India. Is the Citizens’ Amendment Act (CAA), which came into effect this month, a humanitarian effort to extend citizenship rights to some foreign nationals? Or is it the latest attempt by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to realise their stated vision of a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation)?

To answer this question, we first need to understand history. The BJP is the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organisation which was banned for years after one of their alleged members murdered MK Gandhi. Their problem with Gandhi was that they claimed he offered too many concessions to the Muslim community, but predecessors to the BJP formed governments with the pro-Pakistan Muslim League party at a time when the Indian Congress party was banned from participating in elections.

Historically, the RSS’s enemy has not been Muslims, but pluralism. Those who want a separate state for Muslims are a necessary corollary to those who want a separate state for Hindus, just as South African apartheid necessitated the creation of African homelands (bantustans). As recently as October 2019, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has gone on record saying India is a Hindu Rashtra.

Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah began their careers as ordinary RSS workers and became leaders in that organisation. During the five years that they’ve been in power, India has seen an increase in anti-minority violence, with members of India’s Muslim and Dalit communities being the most heavily targeted. Crimes have ranged from beef lynchings to “honour killings” to forced conversion. While all of this is technically against the law, the judicial system has been ineffective in curbing anti-minority violence. The Supreme Court has gone so far as to call for a new law specifically to hold these perpetrators to account.

Despite recent events, at the level of policy, India has remained true to the secular and pluralistic values upon which it was founded. The CAA seeks to change this.

What the CAA formally does is to allow those living in India prior to 2014 and are citizens of one of three neighbouring countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan – to have a fast-track to Indian citizenship. Stated in that way, it seems a laudable policy, but there is a catch. The law specifically applies only to certain religious communities – Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Buddhists and Parsees. For all intents and purposes, you’re legal unless you’re Muslim.

How will the government know who is from India and who is from elsewhere? The number of unregistered births in India has long been a source of notoriety. And together with another law, the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is already in effect in the state of Assam with the BJP planning to roll it out to the rest of the country soon, the likelihood of people being sent to massive detention camps because of abuse or clerical error is astronomical. Consider the case of Sana Ullah, a decorated Indian army officer and war veteran who was sent to a detention camp in Assam because his name was not on the right list.

The CAA is the first step towards a two-tiered citizenship. Those who have a Muslim name will be held to a different – a higher – standard than those who don’t. Ordinary Indians have seen this and come out in thousands to oppose the destruction of a fundamental tenet of the Indian constitution.

And they’ve been met with the full force of the Indian state. The police departments in places like Delhi and Uttar Pradesh seem completely unaccountable as they beat and kill protesters. Amnesty International and other human rights organisations have called on India to adhere to international law which necessitates that governments allow space for peaceful protest.

Events in India are troubling. Perhaps more troubling is the relative silence from governments including the South African government. Sixty years ago, newly independent India was one of the first countries to speak out against apartheid. Will we be silent while new forms of apartheid are being tested and approved in India? DM


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