As civil disobedience, I will register as Muslim and invite the consequences: Harsh Mander

Courtesy Sandeep Yadav
12 December, 2019

By 11 December, both houses of Parliament had passed the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2019. The CAB excludes members of six communities—Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian—from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh, from being treated as illegal immigrants, if they entered India on or before 31 December 2014. The bill eases the requirements for them to gain Indian citizenship. Notably, illegal Muslim migrants from these countries will not be entitled to the benefits under the bill, and will continue to be considered illegal immigrants.

Observers have commented that the CAB is possibly a precursor to a nationwide implementation of the National Register of Citizens, in order to identify and expel illegal immigrants. Since non-Muslim illegal migrants would be able to avail Indian citizenship through the CAB, it would in effect leave only Muslims vulnerable to expulsion from the country.

On 10 December, after the Lok Sabha passed the bill, the human-rights activist Harsh Mander made an announcement on Twitter. “If CAB is passed, this is my civil disobedience: I will officially register Muslim,” he wrote. “I will then refuse to submit any documents to NRC. I will finally demand the same punishment as any undocumented Muslim- detention centre & withdrawn citizenship. Join this civil disobedience.”

Later that day, Abhimanyu Chandra, a PhD student at the University of Chicago, met Mander in New Delhi. They discussed Mander’s announcement, the possibility of him garnering wider support, and the sexualised nature of the hate messages that he was receiving in response. Mander believed that the CAB was breaking not only “the central values of the freedom struggle or the Constitution,” but also the legacy of the Indian civilisation, a “civilisation that was so comfortable with welcoming people of different faiths and identities,” he said. “I do hope that that older civilisational legacy will assert itself in this moment of crisis.”

Abhimanyu Chandra: On the concept of civil disobedience, how do you see this playing out? Is this a solution to the problem that you are trying to address?
Harsh Mander: I feel that the only thing we can do to resist is to adopt forms of civil disobedience. In my practice of civil disobedience, I have learnt most of all from Mahatma Gandhi. What Mahatma Gandhi taught us was that if there is an unjust law, you should first publicly break it. And then not just accept, but demand the consequences in terms of punishment. So it’s not simply enough to say, “I am ready for consequences,” you have to tell the state, “Now that I have publicly broken your law, either you do away with that law or you punish me. You can’t not punish me and not do away with the law.” That is the frame within which this struggle has to happen.

The problem here was that the consequences of boycotting the NRC, which is the central civil disobedience that I hope people will follow, are only going to apply to the Muslim people. There will be a national NRC. Presumably everyone will be required to muster documents. But everybody will be reassured that even if you are not able to produce documents, there will be no adverse consequences on your citizenship, unless you are a Muslim. So, in effect, it’s an NRC only for Muslims.

Now within the Muslim community, if people who are well to do are able to muster the documents, and they produce them, in one sense they would almost be throwing their impoverished and poorly educated working-class Muslims, brothers and sisters, under the bus. Because they know that they will not be able to produce these documents. So my appeal to them would be to boycott the NRC.

But for someone like me, who is not a Muslim, how does my boycotting of the NRC amount to civil disobedience? The only way it can amount to civil disobedience is if I am registered as a Muslim.

Now here, how is your religion recorded by the state? It’s basically recorded by self-declaration in the census. I have no intention of converting to Islam, far from it. I am born to Sikh parents. I am agnostic, and a humanist. I believe in respecting every faith and in a humanist philosophy. I am not going to abandon that in any way.

All that I am saying is that in official contexts, where your religion is central to your access to or denial of citizenship rights, in those contexts I will officially register myself as Muslim, in order to invite upon myself the same consequences of being a Muslim, as any other Muslim in my country. I will boycott the NRC, so I will produce no documents. Which means that by their definition I will be an illegal immigrant. I would then demand that whatever disability and difficulties that a Muslim faces in my country, being sent to a detention centre or being stripped off his citizenship rights, is also visited on me—–as an act of civil disobedience.

AC: Do you see many others joining you on this?
HM: I hope so. Even if we just look at the numbers, although Mr Modi had an expanded mandate, he still has got less than 40 percent vote share. Sixty percent of Indians, which means a significant proportion also of Hindus, do not support what he stands for.

My problem is, as Martin Luther King said, that in the end we will not remember the words of our enemies but the silences of our friends. And it is the silences of the large Hindu majority that is troubling and enabling this great evil to take shape. It is this silence that we need to collectively challenge and break.

I believe that there can be only three reasons for silence. One of them can be that people are frightened to speak. Second is, “I don’t care because I am not Muslim, nothing will happen to me.” But the third reason can be that actually, in my heart, I share the same sentiments of hate and prejudice.

And so, my appeal to my Hindu brothers and sisters is to at least answer to themselves which of these three reasons explains their silence. And if any of these three explains, then they have to resolve whether they are comfortable with that, or whether their conscience compels them to take a stand.

AC: Do you think we are nearing the point where people’s conscience will prick them?
HM: I have a feeling that what is being broken by the CAB is not just the central values of the freedom struggle or the Constitution. What is being broken is actually a much older civilisational legacy. A civilisation that was so comfortable with welcoming people of different faiths and identities. And I do hope that that older civilisational legacy will assert itself in this moment of crisis.

AC: I see that there have been some stark responses to your announcement on Twitter.
HM: Since I made this announcement, my Twitter has just burst. I am used to hate mail. But the kind of hate mail and the scale of it and the levels of prejudice against Muslims that is being enunciated. And shockingly—because I am a man—so much of it is sexualised. The imagination of the Muslim in terms of circumcision and in terms of four wives and then incest and all sorts of things. It’s just. Women get sexualised [messaging] but I never realized that men would get this kind of sexualised [messaging]. And it’s by the minute.

AC: This kind of sexualised talk—is this the first time that the hate messages have taken on this dimension towards you?
HM: I think women are used to it, but for men it is unusual. Since 2002, I have had to prepare myself and steel myself against all kinds of hate. But this degree of sexualised hate messaging I have not seen before.

AC: Among proponents of the CAB, why is the internal diversity of Muslims forgotten? They appear to believe that Ahmadis and Shias are all part of one homogenous group of Muslims?
HM: This is a larger problem. Even those of us, nationally and globally who regard ourselves as liberal, often in our minds still homogenise the Muslim community. I was very struck when [the former US president] Barack Obama said that I am going to address “the Muslim world.” It was such a strange thing to say. Who was he talking about? You never talk about the “Christian world,” for instance. There is as much diversity among Muslim people, between Muslims living in various countries around the world, as there are among people who regard themselves as Christian.

So the idea that—does [the former Wipro chairperson] Mr Azim Premji have more in common with [the Infosys founder] Narayana Murthy and [the Microsoft co-founder] Bill Gates, than he has with a Muslim fakir begging at a dargah? A communal viewpoint sees him as actually with common interest only with that fakir rather than with Narayana Murthy. All of us are such an amalgam of identities. Communal, political mobilisation is built around privileging only one of these identities.

AC: Have you heard responses from friends and family members, in terms of what all of this means? Obviously, this a very big step, in terms of the civil disobedience.
HM: My immediate family has always been supportive. They all recognise the consequences. If it was possible to do resistance without consequences, then we would all do it. So, I am all geared up.

This interview has been edited and condensed.