As I write this, India is burning. Her minorities are alarmed and presently live in fear. To think that this is the result of recent government action on the Citizenship law would be a simplistic view of examining the situation. The fact is that there has been a targeted mass misinformation campaign that has been launched, steered and promoted by vested interests that have resulted in this state of national panic.
Let me put it bluntly. Post the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (which I shall call the Act), not one person who is a citizen of India will lose their citizenship. The Act doesn't deprive anyone of their existing citizenship nor does the Act give carte blanche permission for all religious minorities from South Asia to move to India and claim citizenship. Post the passage of the Act, it is not as though some Hindu could get on a plane from Dhaka, land in Kolkata and claim citizenship from the immigration officer. This is false and dangerous narrative. Especially given that this is the narrative that has been peddled by the opposition in Parliament and a section of the protestors, who have taken out protests on the streets with the sole intention of stroking communal passions and damaging public property.
At the time of the commencement of the Constitution, India was home to many people and not all of them would have been eligible to be Indian citizens. Further, there were persons of Indian origin who were spread across the Commonwealth of Nations whose nationality had to be resolved. India has attempted to settle this question at the international level at many times. We settled the question with Sri Lanka when we signed the Agreement Between the Government of India And the Government of Ceylon On The Status And Future Of Persons Of Indian Origin In Ceylon By Exchange Of Letters in 1964 and repatriated many people to India and gave them Indian nationality. When the Burmese Government turned hostile to the Indians living there, India actively stepped in and repatriated them to India.
The same was the case when the post-colonial African governments began associating Indians with colonialism and turned hostile to them. India made active efforts to bring back people of Indian origin, who were effectively stranded without a nationality. It has been our consistent policy since Independence to look out for persons of Indian origin who live in unsafe conditions in the countries where they reside.
Which is perhaps why it was important for India to maintain a National Register of Citizens from the time of the commencement of the Constitution. Only citizens in India get the vote. It has been the persistent failure of successive governments who have failed to keep this register updated. Had the register be updated on a regular basis, then perhaps we wouldn’t be in this chaotic situation that we are today.
This brings us to the situation in 1971 when East Bengal was falling apart in the chaos of the Bangladeshi genocide. Swathes of refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan crossed over the porous border to seek shelter in Assam. This country took them in and gave them protection. But it was our official policy, that all these refugees were to go back, and we would not be absorbing them into India. Indira Gandhi who was our prime minister went on the international stage and made this statement as can be clearly seen from her interview to London’s Thames Television.
Unfortunately, the idea of a secular liberal Bangladesh that Indian soldiers laid down their lives for, remained a pipe dream. Bangladesh went the Pakistan way and became an Islamic State where non-Muslims were, are and continue to be persecuted. Things aren’t probably as bad for minorities in Bangladesh as they are for minorities in Pakistan, but one couldn’t say they are much better.
The fact is successive governments post the Bangladeshi Liberation War have failed to keep their word on returning the people who crossed over. Illegal migrants continue to remain in India and infiltrate our borders daily. The people of Assam are suffering from this problem. The North East is suffering from this problem. It cannot be xenophobic for people to want to preserve their identity and culture. It cannot be xenophobic for people to want to prevent outsiders from coming in. The people of the North East are hurt due to this problem and no one has done anything to help them out.
These migrants are a drain on our infrastructure and public services, and it is no wonder that the NRC is required urgently to arrest this situation at once. The NRC is needed because India has the right to determine who resides within her borders. Only citizens of India may claim the automatic right to live here. Non-citizens live here at the pleasure of the Central government. Those who enter without the permission of the Central government are criminals who ought to be sent back forthwith.
But refugees are not criminals. They are people fleeing persecution and we must not treat them as criminals. Independent India never signed on to the Refugee Convention but that didn't stop it from playing host to refugees. We took in refugees, nonetheless. But our policy has always distinguished a refugee from an illegal migrant. For a refugee, we offer protection while for an illegal migrant we offer only deportation. There is however no path for long term refugees in India to obtain Indian citizenship. Which means in many cases, their children who are born on Indian soil are also not eligible for Indian citizenship. The situation with refugees in India is one that has been pending since independence. The Act is one targeted measure to ensure that this situation is resolved.
First some basic facts about the Act. Like I said above, the act doesn’t take away anyone’s citizenship nor does it give anyone citizenship. It only modifies the category of those who can apply. It does this by exempting from the definition of “illegal migrant” “any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who entered into India on or before the 31st day of December, 2014 and who has been exempted by the Central Government by or under clause (c) of sub-section (2) of section 3 of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 or from the application of the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 or any rule or order made thereunder.”
The legal framework for this exemption is found in two notifications issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2015. The notification only exempted people who were Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan if they entered India before 31 December 2014 in order to seek shelter from or from the fear of religious persecution. The Act doesn’t automatically grant them citizenship but only makes them eligible to apply. They have to show they have lived in India for six years, prove their entry before 31 December 2014, prove they moved to flee religious persecution from those designated countries, speak a language in the Eighth Schedule to the constitution and meet the other requirements of Schedule Three to the Citizenship Act, 1955. That only makes them eligible to apply. It is still up to the Government whether to grant them citizenship or not.
Refugees who don’t qualify (irrespective of their religion) continue to remain protected by India’s ad-hoc refugee policy where refugees are issued Long Term Stay Visas in India. According to the UNHRC, there are many refugees from Burma, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan etc who enjoy this protection.
I will now deal with three criticisms of the Act which have been used to stoke communal passions:
- Why not Muslim refugees?
- What about the Rohingya?
- What about Sri Lankan Tamils?
The Act doesn’t cover Muslim refugees, because it is always our position that once its safe for them, refugees can and should go back home. India has always had a policy of non-absorption (long before the idea of this government ever existed). The countries specified are constitutionally declared Islamic States. Islam is the official religion there. While some Muslims have fled into India fleeing such persecution, right now India cannot determine that this persecution is going to be of a permanent character. Which is why it does not make sense from a policy perspective to naturalise them as well. But for non-Muslims, given the constitutional position of the neighbouring states, it is difficult to assume that the persecution is of a character that is non-permanent. Therefore, the existing amnesty to non-Muslims makes sense while continuing to treat Muslims refugees on a case by case basis (as we do with those fleeing Iran, Syria and Afghanistan etc). This is an intelligible differentia and doesn’t fall foul of either the mandate of equality or the philosophy of secularism that the Constitution espouses.
When it concerns Rohingya, we need to remember that it is the Burmese position that the Rohingya are essentially migrants from undivided India who moved after the British conquest of Burma. Therefore, Burma doesn’t include them as one of the ethnic groups of Burma eligible for citizenship. India disputes this position. If India gives the Rohingya the right to naturalise in India, it would upset this delicate dispute we have with Burma, where we expect the Burmese to sort out their own affairs in close consultation with Bangladesh, who is the state that is now in control of the territory where Burma claims the Rohingya have migrated from. The Rohingya in India do get refugee protection and Long-Term Visas. But they will not and should not be eligible for citizenship.
Lastly, we settled the nationality question with Sri Lanka over a series of treaties negotiated over the years. Moving to extend naturalisation benefits for Sri Lankan Tamils who remain in India even after the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War and the restoration of peace, will unnecessarily raise a conflict with Sri Lanka. A conflict we have settled and a country where we are already accused of far too much meddling and influence.
The Act does not discriminate against Muslims. No person who is in India because they are fleeing persecution should be deported back to their place of persecution. This doesn’t, however, mean that they should all be eligible for citizenship either. Only persons whose persecution has attained a permanent character (such as those covered under the Act) ought to be granted this protection. After all our policy is no absorption unless we absolutely must. Maybe if things don’t improve for the other refugees in the next 50-odd years, we may require additional ad-hoc legislation like the Act to extend protections to them. But right now, as it stands, there is no infirmity with the current government policy.
The fact is blatant misinformation about this Act has been spread by vested interests and this misinformation is bringing this country to the brink of a full-blown riot. People are openly encouraging protests to turn violent. It is almost as though the opposition wants to live in a wet dream fantasy of being the opposition in a Nazi state. This misinformation needs to be countered. The Central and the state governments need to start a mass information campaign to inform people about why we needed this Act. What this Act will do and why this Act is correcting a historical situation that has arisen given India’s position as being the only liberal democracy in an otherwise battered South Asia. The very existence of India as a nation-state could perhaps turn on correcting the spread of this misinformation.
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Updated Date: Dec 18, 2019 16:05:15 IST