The Narendra Modi government has brought India to the crossroads through the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019. By framing the refugee problem in Hindu-Muslim binaries and Hindu-Muslim civilisational conflict, CAA is essentially forcing Parliament, Supreme Court and citizens to make a choice between Hindutva and our secular Constitution. Parliament has already spoken by enacting CAA. Citizens are divided with Muslims and those proclaiming their loyalty to the secular Constitution opposing CAA. Supreme Court has given government four weeks’ time to respond.
In its pith and substance CAA enshrines the Hindutva worldview which obsesses over the conquest of India by Islamic invaders in the middle ages and how Islam as a state religion in India’s neighbourhood is oppressing Hindus. CAA’s objects and reasons claims that six minority communities face religious persecution in three neighbouring Islamic countries forcing them to flee and stay in India even when they have no travel documents or those have expired. Surprisingly, the text of the amendment Act makes no mention of religious persecution, which for all practical purposes means that all illegal migrants from these three countries and six communities, irrespective of persecution, will qualify for citizenship.
So while illegal migrants like Sri Lankan Tamils, Bangladeshi Muslims, Baloch nationalists, Rohingya Muslims/Hindus, remain stuck and are not even offered a course for naturalisation, their counterparts in Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian communities from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh are eligible for citizenship. Even the process of naturalisation for this group has been made easier requiring only five years legal stay in India, against 11 years for all other legal migrants. The Constitution stipulates the equality of all before law and bars the state from discrimination on the basis of religion. If the secular Constitution was indeed our moral compass do we discriminate towards refugees in India on the basis of their religion or country of origin?
CAA is a violation of this scheme but then Centre can arguably take the position that it is a kind of positive discrimination like reservation and special constitutional protections for minority institutions. Yet the Centre will be hard-pressed to explain why this positive discrimination arbitrarily excludes those other refugees suffering the same nature of persecution and privations. Even if it promises to include other groups in future amendments of Citizenship Act, the question stands: why this piecemeal, arbitrary and seemingly discriminatory way to apportion citizenship?
The first draft of the Citizenship Amendment Bill dates back to 2016 which shows this was no hastily conceived legislation forced upon the government by the Assam NRC that left an estimated 15 lakh Hindus and four lakh Muslims stateless. Through orders in September 2015 and July 2016 the government had exempted illegal migrants from Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian communities from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh, who were ineligible to apply for Indian citizenship, from adverse penal consequences of the Passport Act and Foreigners Act and made them eligible for long term visa to stay in India. This hardly gained the attention it deserved and was the starting point of bias against Muslim illegal migrants from these three countries and illegal migrants from all other countries irrespective of their religion.
The CAA took these two orders to their logical conclusion by amending the Citizenship Act to say these six communities from three countries will not be treated as illegal migrants and that they were eligible for citizenship. CAA-supporters are asking why Indian Muslims have to worry: after all, only illegal migrant Muslims who have been reduced to second-class illegal migrants. This is where Amit Shah’s “chronology” of NRC to follow CAA got Indian Muslims worried. In a document poor country with deep-seated Islamophobia among officials–so evident in the rants by police officials in Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka firing to kill protesters–the danger of a citizenship register reducing Indian Muslims and many poor people to illegal migrants is very real. Those belonging to a certain six communities, if reduced to illegal migrant status by a citizenship register, can at least hope for another CAA to re-confer citizenship on them. Is secularism and the rights of minorities worth fighting for? Our freedom fighters certainly believed so.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.