Wrong to dub Citizenship Amendment Bill communal, unconstitutional; critics conflating persecution of minorities with those fighting for their rights

  • The CAB says that since India is umbilically tied to these nations and the persecuted minorities take refuge in the land of their ancestors, it is only fair that they are given citizenship rights

  • By that token, we now come to the second question that has been raised against the Bill, and has been the bone of contention among its critics

  • Worth noting that the CAB does not prevent Muslims from applying from Indian citizenship. Muslims facing religious persecution in their own nations may still apply for naturalised citizenship and their cases may be considered

The Union Cabinet on Wednesday cleared the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019. The bill is set to be introduced in Parliament on 9 December where it will be up for debate and discussions but it already has generated enough heat to polarise opinion in public discourse. The key charge of the Opposition and critics of the government is that the bill is fundamentally flawed because it is "communal" and "unconstitutional".

The BJP-led government at the Centre, that has brought the amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955, refutes those charges. It claims that the new bill — that was passed in the Lok Sabha in 2016 but was sent to Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) — takes care of "all stakeholders" and is in "India's interest". The bill was re-introduced in January 2019 after the JPC had submitted its report.

Before we analyse the charges against the new draft it is worth pointing out the key features of the bill. The CAB seeks to amend the 1955 Act and provide citizenship to persecuted minorities from three neighbouring countries — Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian refugees from these three nations who have been forced to seek shelter in India due to "religious persecution" in their respective countries or if they migrated to India "fearing" such persecution, would be granted Indian citizenship. No such provision exists for Muslims since they form the majority in these Islamic nations.

Salient features of the new bill include granting exemption to a large part of the North East region from applicability of the proposed law (effectively entire N-E except Manipur), definition of who is an illegal immigrant, and a cut-off date for entry into India to 31 December, 2014. It also has specific clause related to Overseas Citizens of India (OCI).

 Wrong to dub Citizenship Amendment Bill communal, unconstitutional; critics conflating persecution of minorities with those fighting for their rights

File image of protests in Assam against the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Getty Images

Let's address the first question that dogs the controversial legislation. If it is India's stand that it won't accept illegal immigrants — the norm for every nation in the world — why is it willing to give citizenship status to people of these six communities who have migrated to India? The CAB, argues the government, seeks to accommodate minorities who face religious persecution in their own nations (three specific neighbours, not the entire world) and have been forced to seek shelter in India to preserve their faith. How serious is the existential threat faced by these religious minorities?

Scholar Farahnaz Ispahani of Hudson Institute, a former member of Pakistan parliament, points out in her 2013 article Cleansing Pakistan of Minorities that "at the time of partition in 1947, almost 23 percent of Pakistan's population was comprised of non-Muslim citizens. Today, the proportion of non-Muslims has declined to approximately 3 percent."

Professor Abdul Barakat of Dhaka University who has done extensive research on the fate of religious minorities in Bangladesh, has written in his book The Political Economy of Reforming Agriculture: Land Water Bodies in Bangladesh that there will be no Hindus left within Bangladesh within next 30 years.

In 2016, while addressing a book launch ceremony at Senate Bhaban of Dhaka University, professor Barakat told Dhaka Tribune that from 1964 to 2013, around 11.3 million Hindus left Bangladesh due to religious persecution and discrimination. It means on an average 632 Hindus left the country each day and 230,612 annually.

In Pakistan, Hindus, especially, are subjected to ethnic cleansing and targeted attacks. Just to give one example among scores, in February this year a temple was vandalised in Pakistan's southern Sindh province by a mob that set fire to idols and three sacred books, including Bhagwad Gita and Guru Granth Sahib.

Another report says that around 5,000 Hindu families are forced to leave Pakistan each year facing "forced conversions". Quoting a Pakistani newspaper, ANI reported that Hindu girls in particular are targeted to convert them to Islam.

The CAB says that since India is umbilically tied to these nations and the persecuted minorities take refuge in the land of their ancestors, it is only fair that they are given citizenship rights. By that token, we now come to the second question that has been raised against the Bill, and has been the bone of contention among its critics. Why does CAB not extend this benefit to Muslim refugees?

The answer is evident in the nature of the legislation that seeks to protect and be the natural home for persecuted religious minorities from these three Islamic nations. Since it is nobody's case that Muslims, who form the majority in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, face religious persecution in their own land en masse like the six communities mentioned in the bill, the case for providing them shelter on this ground becomes infructuous. This also explains why CAB is not a "communal" piece of legislation as has been alleged by its critics.

Some critics have pointed out that Muslims are persecuted too — such as Baloch people, Shias or even Rohingyas.

This is a conflation of issues. First, the Baloch do not face religious persecution, they are battling for their independence. Second, the Shias may prefer going to their land Iran instead of applying for Indian citizenship. Rohingya Muslims, who belong to Myanmar, are outside the purview of the CAB. They also come with a threat to internal security as many scholarly studies have pointed out (see here  or here). In any case, India need not be the home for a minority group that may find refuge in many other Islamic nations.

Worth noting that the CAB does not prevent Muslims from applying from Indian citizenship. Muslims facing religious persecution in their own nations may still apply for naturalised citizenship and their cases may be considered.

As BJP general secretary and RSS ideologues Ram Madhav has clarified, "Naturalised citizenship is an option for others who legally claim Indian citizenship. All other illegals will be infiltrators. No country in d world accepts illegal migrants."

What this bill proposes is to identify the refugees who have migrated to India for economic reasons and seeks to protect its own citizens and resources from aliens whose large-scale entry have deprived legitimate citizens of their rights and have also triggered demographic changes.

To argue, as AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi has done, that this bill targets Indian Muslims and seeks to implement a "two-nation theory" is arrant nonsense. The rights, benefits and privileges that bona fide Muslim citizens of India enjoy is not threatened, undermined or subverted if non-Indian Muslims are denied citizenship rights. This is a specious conflation and an untenable argument.

The CAB is India's belated response to the realities of its neighbourhood where Afghanistan, Bangladesh and specifically Pakistan - that was carved out of India exclusively for Muslims - has failed to put up its end of the bargain and protect the right to life, property and practices of minorities who now face existential crises.

The CAB does discriminate in favour of the persecuted people, but it is a 'positive discrimination' where the (six) communities facing ethnic cleansing in their respective nations have been given some extra benefits over other refugees. As this piece in Swarajya notes, "It would have been negative discrimination had India been granting citizenship to anyone and everyone from these countries as a matter of their right and then suddenly stopped it only for Muslims. That would have perhaps been constitutionally suspect. But in the present instance, it is a clear case of positive discrimination and hence perfectly in tune with settled constitutional principle…"

Th final question is regarding the unconstitutionality of the Bill. Some critics have quoted Article 14 of the Indian Constitution that says: "The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth" and have argued that CAB "goes against constitutional guarantee of the fundamental right to equality under Article 14 of the Constitution."

This is a specious argument. Article 14 of the Indian Constitution applies to Indian citizens whereas the CAB deals with illegal immigrants from neighbouring nations. Constitutional rights of an Indian citizen cannot apply to non-Indian aliens.

While the determination of the new citizenship rights is based on religion, the ground for such determination has been clearly laid out. The discrimination being talked about here is a "positive discrimination" prior to the application of Constitutional rights based on a specific threat faced by minorities in India's neighbouring nations. Liberals should welcome it, instead of conflating the issue with phony arguments.

While India may offer citizenship to persecuted citizens whose life and faith in endangered, it is not India's duty to economically uplift people from other nations in its neighbourhood. Indian citizens have the first right over its resources.

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Updated Date: Dec 05, 2019 20:36:04 IST