A runaway trolley is hurtling down a track and it will kill five unsuspecting workers unless you pull a switch to divert the trolley on to another track in which case only one person, who works there, will die. Would you pull the switch?

You’re a bystander standing on a footbridge over the track, and luckily for you, you see an enormously large man standing beside you and enjoying the stunning views of the valley. Would you push the man on to the track to stop the trolley and save five lives?

How would you choose in the two scenarios above? Is morality relative or absolute?

‘Killing one to save five’ is the crux of the classic philosophical thought experiment called the ‘trolley problem’ developed by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967 and adapted by philosopher Judith Thomson in 1985.

The trolley dilemma seeks to analyze the landscape of our moral intuitions and whether the moral value of what we do is determined solely by its outcome. It represents the conflict we face while choosing between opposing scenarios and allows us to think through the consequences of our actions to understand where our moral compass lies.

Let’s reimagine the trolley problem to decode India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which provides a path to citizenship to all non-Muslim victims of religious persecution. While the Modi government, in defense of the law widely perceived as anti-Muslim, has focused on “inclusion” of six religions of the subcontinent, the opponents highlight the exclusion of “Islam”.

Let’s put Indians to an ethics test.

  1. a) Irrespective of whether you’re the driver of the trolley or a bystander, what if, you knew the religious identity of the workers discernable by what they wear – the five men on the track are wearing white dhotis or khakis and sport a tilak (vermillion mark) on their foreheads (Hindus) while the lone worker on the other path is wearing a white prayer cap (a Muslim). Who would you save?
  2. b) Consider the reverse of the above – the five on the track are Muslims and the one on the other path, a Hindu. Would you still apply the same principle of killing one to save five that may have sounded as the right thing to do in scenario (a)? Or, would your moral standpoint shift according to your own religious faith, thus influencing your decision of who you will end up saving?
  3. c) As a bystander, would you hurl a large Muslim man beside you on to the track to stop the runaway trolley and save five Hindus?

Isn’t it disconcerting to introduce religion into matters of life and death? The scenarios compel you to ask yourselves what you would do, IF certain attributes are revealed in situations (a) to (c) and if it is morally permissible to identify people by their religions in order for you to save them.

Two competing moral frameworks emerge from the trolley problem: One that believes in promoting the greatest good for the greatest number where the moral value is determined solely by its consequences (killing one to save five or in philosophy-speak, utilitarianism) and the other that we should adhere strictly to rules and avoid inflicting harm to any because everyone has rights and it is not permissible to kill even one to save five, as deontological ethics would tell us.

We have to ponder if our moral position of killing one to save five would remain the same across both (a) and (b) and would such a decision be agnostic about the religion of the workers.

Or, if our own religious faith would help influence who we will save.

Or, if we think that the rights of minority can be trampled upon, as in (c), to save the interests of the majority.

The religious persecution angle

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has repeatedly said that the CAA gives shelter to “tormented and tortured people” and that it’s a travesty that the anti-CAA protesters should be in denial of the fact that any religious persecution occurred in the years following British India’s partition in 1947 or in the immediate aftermath of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Muslims could not possibly face persecution in the Islamic countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and even if they did, they would have other Islamic countries to go to. For the BJP, the CAA addresses the “unfinished business of partition”.

It must be noted that the final draft of the law does not mention the term ‘religious persecution’. Clearly, the law sanctions citizenship for non-Muslims, whether or not they were subjected to oppression in the three Islamic countries. There is also no evidence to suggest that all Hindu migrants in India from say, Bangladesh, were victims of such persecution. They could very well be economic migrants. While it is highly conceivable that there could be persecuted migrants among Muslims (Ahmediyas from Pakistan or Hazaras from Afghanistan or atheist bloggers from Bangladesh) even if the BJP chooses to dismiss them as cases of sectarian violence that do not come under the purview of the CAA.

While it is the legitimate duty of any government to have a robust policy to mitigate against in-migration in large numbers, the BJP has quite brazenly given it a communal angle and turned it into one of longstanding matter of partition woes that needs closure. By doing so, it has chosen ‘wrongful discrimination’ on the basis of religion to exclude (illegal) Muslim migrants while including (illegal) Hindu migrants.

Happiness for the Majority

Happiness for the majority cannot be obtained by trampling on someone’s rights; here, even a migrant has rights. The CAA is perhaps designed to create more happiness for Ram (a Hindu) than for Usman (a Muslim): Ram could be an economic migrant but nevertheless gains citizenship even though he doesn’t deserve it, while Usman may have faced persecution on account of being an atheist or belonging to a sect that his nation doesn’t recognize. A deserving candidate, Usman, gets passed off for an undeserving candidate, Ram, because of a majoritarian ideology.

In the Hindutva world of the BJP, it seems as if justice subordinates to the general good. Public debate is conducted in black and white terms and dissent is an act of treason – you are either pro-CAA and patriotic or anti-CAA and anti-national, even ‘urban naxals’ and ‘tukde-tukde’ gang (those who destroy the nation). Home Minister Amit Shah peddles hate, uses dog-whistle politics and describes Muslims as threats to India’s security to keep the xenophobic pot boiling.

This heralds a divisive era where fanning communal sentiments through Hindu-Muslim polarisation is central to the BJP’s political strategy. As also the perpetuation of an idea, driven by the construct of an ‘enemy within’, that the Hindu majority is somehow threatened by a Muslim minority – you do not have to look beyond the nation’s borders as the threat lurks in your own neighbourhood – thus instigating the masses to sublimate fear into violent rage.

By passing the CAA, the BJP has chosen wrongful discrimination on the basis of religion where irrespective of what the scenario may be from (a) to (c), it is the Hindu that the BJP will unapologetically save. Perhaps, there is a far superior moral lens, a humanitarian one, that we can use to help save a sum total of lives rather than cherry pick people based on their specific religious denominations. An identifier such as ‘religion’ that wrongfully discriminates people to determine who we can save ought to be morally impermissible.

Injustice can be committed in the name of common happiness, precisely what the BJP’s acrimonious rhetoric and vote bank politics are set to accomplish.

Sumithra Prasanna is an award-winning filmmaker and a journalist. Her documentary film ‘Stateless in India’ explores the human costs of India’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) and how the NRC in conjunction with the Modi government’s citizenship law (CAA) can make large numbers of Muslims potentially stateless.


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