The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) is now a law. Even if the courts overturn it or stay its implementation, it has raised some serious questions about the kind of nation India is becoming. No one disagrees with the idea that those facing persecution in other lands should be granted relief/ asylum/citizenship in India. The issue is, in a liberal democracy like India, should religion decide who must be included or excluded? There are three strands of thought running through the country at present.
First, those who voted in favour of the Bill did so on the grounds that Hindus and a few other religious minorities have faced persecution in the neighbouring Islamic countries and needed protection. They believe that Muslims cannot be persecuted in these Islamic countries, hence their exclusion from the CAB is justified.
Further, the exclusion of the other minorities from other neighbouring countries, like Hindus and Muslims in Sri Lanka was justified on the grounds that there already existed a provision for them under the 1964 pact signed between Sirimavo Bhandaranaike and Lal Bahadur Shastri according to which a few lakh Tamils would be granted Indian citizenship. So, it was argued, there was no need for another provision at this time.
It was further argued that while India abided by the Nehru-Liyaqat pact of 1950, Pakistan did not. India protected its minorities while large numbers of Hindus had to migrate from Pakistan. The sharp decline in the share of population of Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh and a rise in the share of population of Muslims in India is given as evidence of this asymmetry. The implication is that while Muslims have other Islamic countries to seek refuge in, persecuted Hindus can only come to India and the nation has an obligation towards them.
The second line of reasoning has emerged from those protesting vehemently in the Northeastern states of India. They are opposed to any migration of any religious community to India. They fear that a flood of migrants will swamp the region and marginalise their culture and language. Bengalis from Bangladesh have had an impact on the demography of these states. The fear is that the CAB would lead to further migration and the indigenous people would lose their identity. Perhaps this fear in the states of the Northeast could have been assuaged if migrants had been settled in other parts of the country.
Given the poor state of governance in the country and the chaos that was created during the implementation of the NRC, people of the Northeast do not have faith that the promises made to them will be kept. Neither the indigenous people nor the Hindus or the Muslims have faith that there would be fair play in the years to come. Further, given the poor economic situation in these states, there is a fear that migrants would take away the scarce jobs and reduce economic opportunities for the local people.
The third line of argument is from those who oppose the CAB on grounds of religious discrimination. They do not want Muslims to be excluded from the Bill and see it as an attack on the secular fabric of the country. They agree that people have migrated to India due to persecution in the neighbouring countries which has not only been along religious lines but also ethnic and linguistic.
Economic factors like poverty are also an important cause behind migration. The opposition also argues that the move is aimed at diverting attention away from a weakening economy. The CAB would also further deepen the communal divide in the country and alienate the Muslim community.
There is fear that in the prevailing charged communal environment in the country, minorities will face persecution and be treated as second class citizens. Any Muslim can be accused of being a foreigner and the onus will be on them to prove otherwise. A lot of people do not have proper documentation – as in the North East during the NRC process. Since the neighbouring countries will not accept these people, the question arises whether they would be permanently put in detention camps since their numbers are also quite large.
Apart from the human costs, the economic burden of setting up detention camps and holding people there will be large and given the present state of the economy, should this additional burden be incurred? Given the uncertainties that are likely to follow, investment – especially foreign investment – will be set back. This could lead to further slowdown of an economy that is already tanking.
The BJP argues that it is fulfilling a promise in its manifesto. Does a promise in a party’s manifesto mean that the once the party comes to power, it has to implement it? Mostly, a large number of promises remain unfulfilled. Further, people do not necessarily vote for one particular issue out of the hundreds of promises made in the manifestos.
Did the BJP win the 2019 Lok Sabha elections on this issue? Not clear, because the issue after Pulwama and Balakot became the need for a strong leader. All other issues, including the economic distress of many, were marginalised. So, why is the ruling dispensation raking up a divisive agenda by making people take a stand as pro-Hindu or pro-Muslim?
India is celebrating Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary and in the Hind Swaraj in Chapter X on ‘The Hindus and Mahomedans’, he says:
“India cannot cease to be one nation because people belonging to different religions live in it. The introduction of foreigners does not necessarily destroy the nation; they merge in it.” “… those who are conscious of the spirit of nationality do not interfere with one another’s religion. If they do, they are not fit to be considered a nation. If the Hindus believe that India should be peopled only by Hindus, they are living in a dreamland.”
He argues that it is the “English advent (that) quarrels recommenced” between the Hindus and the Moslems.
So, the issue is that by raising a communally divisive agenda, are we now carrying forward the unfinished agenda initiated by the British colonisers who used divide and rule? One can understand why a foreign power did what it did, but why would a party claiming to be nationalist do so? Perhaps, to consolidate its hold over the majority community so as to remain in power in spite of its inability to solve the real problems confronting the country.
Arun Kumar is Malcolm S. Adiseshiah Chair Professor, Institute of Social Sciences and author of Indian Economy since Independence: Persisting Colonial Disruption.