Amending the Citizenship Act: The Modi Government Needs to Think Beyond Hindu Votes

If the religious persecution of minorities was the actual reason to grant them citizenship, why does the policy fail to acknowledge the persecution of minority Muslim groups in neighbouring countries like Myanmar and China?

Representational Image. Credit: Reuters

Representational Image. Credit: Reuters

With the government set to release amendments to the Citizenship Act, 1955, to be tabled in the upcoming monsoon session of parliament, there is a need to delve critically into the political issues raised by the proposed changes.

Since 2014, the government has been working on facilitating granting Indian citizenship to religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who have faced persecution in their home countries. The move to amend the Act comes in response to a 2012 petition by two NGOs, which pleaded that Hindu and other minorities who migrate to India from Bangladesh to escape religious persecution must not be bracketed with illegal migrants and sent back to that country under the Assam Accord. In 2013, the matter came up for hearing in the Supreme Court and became a national issue, with the bench observing that the problem of religious minorities coming from Bangladesh was not confined to Assam alone.

Making amendments to the Act became a major electoral plank during the 2014 general elections, as well as in the run up to the 2016 Assam assembly polls. In early 2015, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah declared that “some Hindus have come from Bangladesh due to religious disturbances. The BJP will give all of them citizenship once we come to power in Assam next year”.

Although this policy is meant to benefit religious minorities in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is mainly geared towards consolidating a Hindu organisational base for the BJP. This became apparent when the BJP refugee cell urged the government to expedite the Citizenship Amendment Bill for Hindu refugees and to start granting citizenship to them under Section 18 of the Act. Although international norms under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention accord refugee legitimacy to those fleeing their home countries due to humanitarian crisis, by targeting only Muslim-majority countries the government’s policy subverts the varied status of cross-border refugees. Moreover, the move comes under suspicion as India is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention.

If the BJP refugee cell’s proposal is accepted, it will close the doors to migrant minorities, including Hindus, who might want to enter India for reasons other than religious persecution, thereby facilitating the cell’s formation of a data-record and public opinion about ‘Islamic atrocities’ perpetrated on Hindus migrating from countries like Bangladesh.

The proposal is akin to Israel’s Law of Return that allows only migrant Jews to return and settle in Israel. The Law of Return is based on a model that clearly seeks to send out a message of aggressive, reactionary nationalism, which perceives itself to be under siege from other communities. It is a move that violates the policy of pluralism and co-existence on which the constitutional practice of the Indian polity is based.

The proposal is also polarising in its logic, since it also subverts the ground of religious persecution by specifically targeting the Muslims only. If the religious persecution of minorities was the actual reason to grant them citizenship, why does the policy fail to acknowledge the persecution being faced by minority Muslim groups, such as Ahmadiyas and even Shias? The move is in keeping with the government’s exclusivist foreign policy and will lead to further exacerbation of tensions in the region.

Besides, India is already on a sensitive footing with Pakistan in the aftermath of the botched-up joint Pathankot probe, and its quest to better its bilateral relations with Bangladesh and Afghanistan will not be helped by legalising a policy that institutionalises the status of these countries as religious aggressors. The policy would also violate the government’s own ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. If the protection of religious minorities is indeed the target of the proposed policy, why does it not target other neighbouring countries such as Myanmar and China, where, respectively, Muslim, and Muslim and Buddhist, minorities are persecuted?

While it is easy to stoke fires of nationalism through an agenda of facilitating citizenship for Hindu minorities, does the government have answers about the future it wants to ensure for these citizens? The answer remains fraught with dark corners. Currently, Hindus who flee widespread persecution from Pakistan suffer a new set of challenges in India, from having to establish their identity to struggling for a better life, with many of them living on minimum wages in refugee camps without any sanitation or infrastructural facilities. Beyond the populist changes targeted at electoral victories, the government needs to seriously think about ensuring future justice for the groups it mobilises, lest it risks losing their support altogether.

Garima Maheshwari is a researcher at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies.