In India being a non-Hindu Indian

By Karan Thapar

The case reveals more about us than it does about him

I wonder if the Prime Minister and his BJP colleagues realize how hurtful it feels when an Indian is asked to prove he’s a citizen of this country. It suggests you don’t belong and aren’t wanted. Worse, it’s an experience that’s probably limited to the minority communities and, perhaps, primarily muslims. I doubt if the police ever question the citizenship of a hindu.

The story behind the treatment of Mohammad Azmal Hoque is both astonishing and distressing. After serving in the army for 30 years, he retired in September 2016 as a Junior Commissioned Officer. A year later he was charged by the Kamrup Superintendent of Police as an illegal citizen and referred to the Foreigners’ Tribunal. The fact the Assam police now claim this was a case of mistaken identity doesn’t erase the pain and humiliation they needlessly inflicted. In fact, so far they haven’t even apologized.

The astonishing thing is the Kamrup SP doubted Azmal Hoque’s citizenship without meeting or speaking to him and, it seems, without providing any evidence either. Yet amazingly, as Mr. Hoque told Network18, this gentleman gave him a good character certificate just two months earlier!

Had be bothered to inquire, the SP would have discovered that Azmal Hoque’s father Mohammad Moqbul Hussain’s name was in the 1966 electoral rolls. His mother Rahimunnessa’s in the 1951 electoral rolls. His son, Elias, is a student at the Rashtriya Indian Military College in Dehra Dun and his daughter at the Army Public School in Guwahati. These facts alone would have convinced the SP his suspicions were baseless but he didn’t bother to check. One can only wonder why.

This is, however, not the first time the citizenship of a member of Azmal’s Hoque’s family has been questioned. In 2012 his wife Mumtaz Begum’s nationality was doubted and she was forced to prove to the Foreigners’ Tribunal she was Indian. She did so successfully. If the Kamrup SP had made the slightest effort to study the case he would have realized that if Mumtaz Begum’s nationality was doubted but she was able to prove she’s Indian, her husband, who served in the army for 30 years, is unlikely to be an illegal alien. But, once again, the SP didn’t bother. And, once again, one can only wonder why.

However, one can ask if his action was rooted in prejudice. The question is legitimate because the doubts are not easily dispelled.

The distressing bit is how Mukesh Sahay, Assam’s Director General of Police, responded to all of this. Questioned on NDTV his answers only raised further disturbing questions. Referring to the Foreigners’ Act, he bluntly asserted: “It’s for the individual to prove he’s an Indian citizen.” Insisting the action against Azmal Hoque was “only procedural”, he added: “What’s so great about it?” It would seem in Mr. Sahay’s eyes Azmal Hoque is a statistic and not a human being, leave aside a man who served our army with distinction for three decades.

Would the Kamrup SP or Assam DGP treat a hindu the same way? I doubt it. And if a hindu, who spent three decades in the army, was called by the Foreigners’ Tribunals to prove his citizenship would politicians stay silent as they largely have in the Hoque case? Again, I doubt it.

The truth is what happened to Mr. Hoque reveals more about us than him. It shows we can be nasty to people who are not hindu. We don’t care about their rights, dignity or feelings. Actually, we don’t care how we treat them.

More often than is forgivable, we judge people by their religion or caste not their behaviour. We see them as types not individuals. And if, additionally, they’re muslim we feel our suspicions, though unverified, are justified. But this is clearly our problem. Not theirs.

In this context, I wonder how we view the famous principle enunciated by the British jurist William Blackstone in 1765: “The law holds it better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent party suffer”? I suspect most would disagree. And what about the preceding sentence: “All presumptive evidence of felony should be admitted cautiously”? I doubt if the police even understand it!

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