Modi’s CAA speech was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Firstpost amplified it

Modi’s CAA speech was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Firstpost amplified it

Half of senior editor Sreemoy Talukdar’s article comprises spurious theses based on debunked allegations and straw man arguments. The other half cites unsubstantiated claims in support of the theses.


Santhosh D’Souza

Aaron Nedumparambill

Published on :

“All the world’s a stage”, the famous quotation in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, breaks the life of man into several acts, one of which is that of the pantaloon. The pantaloon is an Italian theatrical archetype, a stock character signifying status in the social order and driven by exceptional greed.

Narendra Modi, in response to the widespread protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the dreaded National Register of Citizens, defended his government’s position in the parliament on February 6. The next day, Sreemoy Talukdar, senior editor at Firstpost, wrote a glowing article about the prime minister’s speech. The central theses of the article are:

  • Modi established “a clear link” between India’s political discourse and its policy positions on non-Muslim refugees and the CAA.

  • The CAA has “corrected a historic blunder”. It’s not anti-Muslim and “is rooted firmly in India’s secular tradition”.

  • The prime minister “took away the moral justification behind the protests and stripped the movement of its elaborate construct to reveal the political project within”.

These are sweeping conclusions to draw. So, did Modi and Talukdar provide compelling evidence to justify their claims? In our opinion, neither made a convincing case.

Talukdar derives his conclusions from just two sources. One is Modi’s speech itself (with no analysis of its factual accuracy), the other is the Enforcement Directorate alleging that the Popular Front of India funded anti-CAA protests and, to this end, coordinated with political parties and social organisations.

These allegations were first detailed in an anonymously sourced PTI report from January 24. Then, Rahul Sinha, deputy editor at Zee News, levelled a specific allegation of the PFI paying Rs 120 crore to, among others, the lawyers Kapil Sibal, Indira Jaising and Dushyant Dave. He claimed the money had been paid to these “beneficiaries in connection with the anti-CAA protests”.

The PFI rejected the allegations as baseless, as did the three lawyers who clarified that the payments to them were legal fees for case work in 2017 and 2018. Alt News detailed their responses. Newslaundry explained how Zee News, Times Now and India TV had treated the accusations as facts, and drawn frivolous conclusions based on them. Zee News was forced to take down Rahul Sinha’s article.

Ignoring these debunked stories, Talukdar refers to a Money Control piece from February 6 that regurgitates the Rs 120 crore allegation. The only new claim is “contact” between the PFI’s Delhi chief and members of the Congress, AAP, and Bhim Army. Money Control, however, notes that the reasons for the contact are unknown. The website also quotes AAP leaders Sanjay Singh and Arvind Kejriwal linking the accusations to the then impending Delhi election.

It’s disingenuous that Talukdar relies on this article as evidence for collusion. Specifically, he claims that the “Islamist underpinnings and political motives” of the protesters “are slowly unfolding before our eyes”. There’s no convincing evidence yet to support such a conclusion.

The other foundation for Talukdar’s theses is Modi’s speech. If only he had subjected it to critical analysis, he would have realised some of it is irrelevant, some inaccurate.

He alludes to sections of the speech that contribute nothing of value to the CAA debate. Modi’s references to statements by Bhupendra Kumar Datta, Jogendra Nath Mandal, Lal Bahadur Shastri, and Ram Manohar Lohia are straw man arguments. They refer to the persecution of Hindus in West and East Pakistan. This is an established fact, contested by nobody. Moreover, objections to the CAA (apart from the implications it would have in tandem with the National Population Register and the National Register of Citizens) are not based on the denial of persecution of Hindus in the three countries the new law covers. Why Talukdar would channel these references is a puzzle.

There are other parts of Modi’s speech that deserve scrutiny in the context of Talukdar’s conclusions.

Nehru’s pact with Liaquat Ali Khan

“He referred to the Nehru-Liaquat pact signed in 1950 to point out that it was meant to protect ‘minorities’ in Pakistan, and posed, ‘Why did Nehru, a big thinker and a secularist, say minorities and not all citizens of Pakistan?”

This is a typical Modi statement: superficially substantive but bereft of logic when picked apart. A nitpick: the pact was bilateral and aimed at protecting minorities in both countries. More importantly, why would India or Pakistan consent to sign a pact or even initiate discussions on protecting “all the citizens” of the other country? Both were sovereign countries then, fully capable of protecting their own citizens.

Third, and tangentially, the agreement clearly states that India and Pakistan shall each ensure to their minorities “complete equality of citizenship, irrespective of religion, a full sense of security...freedom of movement”. It recognises that religion and minority are two discrete identities, so a Pakistani minority that identifies as Muslim, say, still deserves protection under the pact.

This partly explains why the motive of the CAA is deemed hypocritical by its detractors. If the law is justified by violations of the agreement, why are persecuted Muslims in Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan not covered?

Nehru’s letter to Gopinath Bordoloi

“He then quoted from Nehru’s letter written in 1950 to Gopinath Bordoloi, Assam's first chief minister, where India's first prime minister asks the Assam government to differentiate between 'Hindu refugees and Muslim immigrants'. In Parliament in 1950, Nehru had said that 'there is no doubt that the affected people who have come to settle in India deserve citizenship and if the law isn't suitable then it should be modified’.”
“Was Pandit Nehru communal? Did he want to create a Hindu Rashtra? Did he discriminate between Hindus and Muslims?"

Nehru’s letters to Bordoloi, nine from 1949 and seven from the next year, are published in The Selected Works of Nehru. None of these ask Bordoloi to “differentiate between Hindu refugees and Muslim immigrants”. Talukdar claims that Modi was quoting from a 1950 letter. Does he know which one?

It has been speculated that Modi was referring to a May 18, 1949 letter, publicly available since 1991. This letter responds to Bordoloi pleading Assam’s inability to accommodate refugees, Hindu and Muslim. Nehru tells him Assam’s problem might be different than that of West Pakistan and India which was solved by the Permit System, and asks him to discuss it with N Gopalaswami Ayyangar.

Nehru adds, “About the influx of Hindus from East Bengal, this is a different matter entirely.” He is alluding to reports of Assam’s government or ministers publicly expressing a preference to accommodate Muslims of East Bengal rather than Hindus. He says, “I must confess that this strong objection to Hindu refugees coming from East Bengal is a little difficult for me to understand. I am afraid Assam is getting a bad name for its narrow-minded policy.”

In other words, the exact opposite of what Modi ascribed to Nehru. The Assam government favoured Muslim refugees over Hindus, and Nehru asks Bordoloi to desist from doing so. If Modi was indeed quoting from the May 1949 letter to make his claim, it was a serious distortion of the first prime minister’s intent.

So, did Nehru want Assam to discriminate between Hindus and Muslims? The answer is a resounding no if the letter Modi supposedly quoted from is the one that’s public. If Modi possesses another letter that shows the first prime minister of India saying so, he should release it to the public.

In any case, this isn’t germane to the CAA debate either. It is not the protesters’ case that refugees should not be allowed into India or not granted citizenship. So, Modi’s speech does not strip away the moral justification for the protests or reveal any political project behind the protests as Talukdar claims.

The Congress Working Committee’s 1947 resolution

Talukdar cites Modi’s reference to a resolution passed by the Congress Working Committee on November 25, 1947 binding the governing party to offer full protection to non-Muslims from Pakistan who had or might come to India. This reference has been used by several BJP leaders in the past.

In 1947, if even members of a Muslim minority or an atheist came to India to “save their life and honour”, does Modi really believe that the Congress would have turned them back?

This apparently set the stage for a parting shot from Modi. “I do not think the Congress was communal in 1947 and has turned secular suddenly. You could have written all communities coming from Pakistan. Why did you use the term ‘non-Muslims'?”

This demand for inclusivity is patently absurd. Surely, the Congress had no inkling that their 1947 resolution would be a term of reference in 2020 for justifying which minorities to offer Indian citizenship to. Had they foreseen that by 2020 Muslim minorities, atheists, political dissenters, homosexuals would be persecuted in the three Muslim countries (nobody debates that they are), surely the Congress would have included a broader term in that resolution? After having bitterly resisted the partition itself, wishing to have all residents become citizens of one independent nation, the Congress would have welcomed anyone who desired to live in India rather than in Pakistan.

Personal data collection since 2010

Talukdar then moves on to Modi’s allusions to the National Population Register.

Modi pointed out that NPR was implemented in 2010 and biometric data was collected in 2011 – when Congress-led UPA was in power.
‘By 2014, when you were out of power, the photo data of crores of people were collected. The work of NPR was on. NPR record which you had prepared was updated in 2015. Your record was used to reach out to beneficiaries left out of welfare schemes like Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and Direct Benefit Transfer…Today, you are opposing and stopping people from taking benefits of such schemes.’

The NPR data collected in 2010, biometric data collected in 2011, photo data collected by 2014, updates in 2015, none of these was weaponized to question the citizenship of the people whose data was collected. Further, none sought details about parents’ birthplaces and birthdates, as the NPR of 2020 does. Why are these two data points so important to this government?

Second, sticking to the 2010 NPR questionnaire will not prevent anyone from benefiting from any scheme, and Modi knows this. As is by now evident to the Indian public, Modi cannot resist spouting silly rhetoric.

Talukdar picks these four parts of the prime minister’s speech to conclude that he has inflicted fatal blows on the moral justification for the protests and established the CAA as part of consistent policy since Independence. Though high on rhetorical flourishes, these parts of Modi’s speech add nothing substantive. What’s more, they seemingly rely on questionable interpretations and facts.

So, half of Talukdar’s article comprises spurious conclusions based on debunked or unproven allegations and straw man arguments. The other half cites unresearched and unsubstantiated claims in support of his theses.

In our opinion, these twin strikes are reminiscent of the clichéd surgical strikes that are bandied about at the drop of Modi’s hat. They are, to quote Shakespeare again, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.