It all started with Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto’s promise in 2014 to provide a natural home for persecuted Hindu refugees. The travails of such refugees had hit the headlines in news media and government had passed orders in 2015 to legalize such refugees irrespective of their travel documents and granted them long term visas. Thousands of migrants availed this concession who will now be the main beneficiaries of Citizens (Amendment) Act or CAA.
Simultaneously, Modi government undertook an exercise to upgrade National Register of Citizens (NRC) across India, beginning with the State of Assam, again as part of BJP’s election manifesto. Ostensibly, it was done to weed out infiltrators, but first alienated the local Assamese population who felt politically threatened by the changing demography and a cultural impact on their enviously guarded heritage and later by its Muslim population who were excluded from CAA and faced a serious possibility of being rendered ‘stateless’ with no place to call their home. The upgradation was later to be extended to the entire country and CAA was applicable only to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians.
At the time of writing this article, protests have spread to over seventy cities in India. It is not difficult to see why because this is how NRC-CAA has been planned to put into practice. After NRC is extended beyond Assam and to the rest of India, all Indians are expected to update their citizenship status in the NRC with a set of tedious documents. If approved, they are reaffirmed as Indian citizens. If not, they are subjected to CAA where they need to declare their religion. In case of Muslims, they are straightaway declared illegal with no voting rights, and liable to be put in detention centers and even deported. If at NRC stage, they belong to any of the six religions and have entered India from any of the three countries mentioned in CAA, they are granted Indian citizenship – if not, they go the ‘Muslim way’ – no voting rights, detention centers and deportation. That is why protesters ranks are swelling with people of other faiths also.
The history of Hindu resistance to allow fundamental rights to Muslims is not new and dates back to independence movement where in parleys with British authorities over future constitution of India, Pundit Nehru obstructed every effort of Quaid-i-Azam to incorporate Muslim’s representative status in governance model of free India. It was only Jinnah’s steadfastness and his adherence to a constitutional approach that he was able to defeat Nehru’s nefarious designs.
Riding on the wave of Hindutva and pandering to Hindu vote, BJP had committed in its election manifesto to upgrade in order to ‘expel’ illegal immigrants, but it soon evoked concerns among the population (even Hindus) who felt that they might not be able to produce many decades old required documents to prove their citizenship and get included in NRC. BJP was quick to see the ramifications and by way of damage control, quickly announced that CAA will ensure that no Hindu is left out of NRC.
The CAA 2019, has essentially amended the Citizenship Act of 1955, and permits Indian citizenship to religious minorities, from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, which it perceives as persecuted. It is aimed at those who were forced or compelled to seek shelter in India due to persecution on the grounds of religion (interestingly not for their political views) and protects them from legal consequences of illegal immigration.
Any prospective beneficiary had to have entered India on or before December 31, 2014 and needed to prove that he or she faced religious persecution or fear of religious persecution in their countries of origin. The Act has also relaxed residence requirement for naturalization from 11 years to 5 years for these migrants, thus making it possible for more immigrants to avail its provisions.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill had been in the works since 2016 with Joint Parliamentary Committee submitting its report in January 2019. After clearance from the Union Cabinet, it was passed by Lok Sabha, the Lower House, with 311 members voting in favor and 80 against. The Indian parliament’s upper house, Rajya Sabha, passed it with 125 votes in favor and 105 against. The President has already given his assent but in accordance with India’s rules of business for parliamentary affairs, will come into force upon issuance of notification on a date of government’s choosing.
Proposing the Bill in parliament, India’s Interior Minister, Mr. Amit Shah, said with a straight face that it was inherently ‘humanitarian’ in nature since it helped those minorities who were trying to escape religious persecution in Muslim majority countries. But as the opposition pointed out rightly, it was not consistent in safeguarding all religious minorities, nor does it extend to all of India’s neighbors. For instance, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar or Christian Tamils in Sri Lanka face persecution but are excluded from the provisions of CAB.
This is also where CAA violates the central feature of equal protection of law as envisaged in Article 14 of Indian constitution which stipulates that the basis for classifying group for a particular kind of treatment should bear a rational nexus with overall objective. If the objective is to protect persecuted minorities in the neighboring countries, then exclusion of some countries and communities will fail the amendment on the touchstone of constitutional propriety.
The Indian action has come under criticism from U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and called for sanctions against Amit Shah and ‘other principal leadership’. Prime Minister Imran Khan has slammed CAA as a violation of bilateral agreements between the two countries and Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Mr. A. K. Abdul Momen called it an attempt to weaken India’s historic character as a secular nation and denied that minorities in Bangladesh are facing any persecution.
India has reacted to USCIRF’s statement calling it inaccurate and unwarranted and denying that it seeks to strip any Indian citizen of any faith but there is no doubt that CAA is brazenly discriminatory as it chooses Muslims for hostile treatment and is likely to come under severe judicial scrutiny.
Indian government’s obstinacy in proceeding ahead with the bill, despite opposition in parliament as well as more enlightened segments of the population who want a secular outlook for their country, and can see through the bill (now an Act) as singling out a community for hostile treatment, in both intent and wording. The unrest has resulted in violent clashes in which many people have lost their lives. The government’s obstinacy in going ahead with it, despite opposition in parliament, as well as from enlightened sections, is unfortunate.
As manifestation of confused BJP’s domestic politics, Mr. Amit Shah funnily argued that CAB wouldn’t have been necessary had the Indian National Congress not agreed to partition of the subcontinent in 1947. He conveniently ignored the fact that Afghanistan, which is mentioned in the bill, was never a part of pre-partition India and Myanmar, which is not mentioned, was part of British India Empire though it was granted union status a decade before the partition of 1947.
The history of Hindu resistance to allow fundamental rights to Muslims dates back to the independence movement where Pundit Nehru obstructed efforts of Quaid-i-Azam to incorporate Muslim’s representative status in future governance model of free India at every stage. It was only Jinnah’s steadfastness and his adherence to a constitutional approach that he was able to defeat Nehru’s nefarious designs.
The writer is a retired Vice Admiral of Pakistan Navy.
E-mail: [email protected]
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