In a historic moment, the Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill (2019) after a passionate debate. The bill was given the President’s assent on 12/12/2019 and became an Act and come into effect with its publication in the official gazette of India. It provides a narrow window of a clear path to Indian citizenship to the non-Muslims from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who arrived in India before December 31, 2014. The Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhist, Jains and Parsis from these three officially Islamic countries fleeing religious persecution will no longer be deported back and will be eligible for the citizenship even if they lack valid documents to prove their identity.
With this, a long-standing demand, ever since the failure of the Liaquat-Nehru pact, of protecting religious minorities in the neighbouring countries has been fulfilled. It is important to note that this demand was older than the political mobilisation for the Ram Mandir, older than the demand for abrogating Art 370 or demand for a Uniform Civil Code. It was in opposition to the Liaquat-Nehru pact that Syama Prasad Mukherjee resigned from the cabinet of the Nehru in 1950. He argued that this pact has left the non-Muslims in Pakistan at the mercy of the Pakistan who is unlikely to honour its commitment of the safety of the religious minorities and that state-controlled exchange of population was the only way out.
Ever since the Jan Sangh and BJP have been demanding the right of refuge and citizenship to the minorities fleeing religious persecution from Pakistan and later Bangladesh as well. The promise to grant them citizenship also figured prominently in the election manifesto of the BJP in both 2014 and 2019. And by passing the bill in the face of hostile opposition, BJP has fulfilled yet another of its election time promise.
This bill is an important act of humanitarianism as it provides a chance at a better life to a de-facto stateless people by restoring their human dignity. It is also important because it emancipates the forgotten religious minorities esp the Hindus who were left to suffer without any voice being raised in their support. For too long they were treated like the orphans of the world and left to wither away due to inhumane discrimination and exclusion, forced conversions and repeated episodes of ethnic cleansing.
It is important to note that most of the Hindu refugees are from Dalit and other weaker castes who were unable to flee during the partition or were simply not allowed to migrate to India to ensure a captive workforce for the menial jobs in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. But now they have a ray of hope by becoming the citizens of the Republic of India. And it was the iron will of the Prime minister Shri Narendra Modi and commitment of Home minister Shri Amit Shah that made it possible.
The new act has also drawn criticism basically on two grounds; that it discriminates against the Muslims and it threatens the demographics of the north-eastern states of India. The allegation of discrimination against Muslims comes from the same opposition parties who not so long ago had branded even the Indo-US nuclear deal as anti-Muslim. Their main argument is that the amendment violates the Art 14 of the constitution by discriminating against the Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. But the Art 14 doesn’t mean treating everyone similar irrespective of the context but that equals would be treated equally, whilst un-equals would have to be treated unequally.
It seems that the opposition has forgotten that such maximalist reading of the Art 14 will render several other constitutional provisions void like Art 26-30 which provide for the autonomy of the minority institutions including non-compliance of the reservations for SC and STs. Also, the act doesn’t stop any foreigner Muslim including from these three countries from becoming the citizen of India. The only difference is that he/she would have to follow the standard procedures for the same. Therefore, the argument of discrimination and violation of the secular fabric of the country doesn’t hold at all.
The act is simply focused on the religious minorities from the three officially Islamic countries. Even Hindus from other parts of the world will have to follow the same standard procedures as Muslims. Questions have been raised as to why the persecuted Muslim sects like Ahmadis, Shias or others like Baluch etc have not been included. But the act only provides for the religious minorities and not ethnicities like Baluch or Hazaras. It provides for religious persecution and not political strife. Also, Ahmadis are not considered to be a minority by India and India would do well to stay out of the theological or sectarian clashes within Islam. These objections against the act are hollow and an afterthought; opposition for the sake of opposition.
The only real concern of the legitimate protests by the people of the north-east who are anxious that local demographics might change. It is to address these concerns Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram are kept out of the preview of the act and Manipur are protected via the Inner Line Permit. The 6th schedule areas in Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura are also kept out of the ambit of the preview of the bill. It will be a good step to distribute the new citizens across India like that was done with the Tibetans and refugees during the partition. This will reduce the demographic burden on the border states of the north-east who are the major recipient of immigrants from Bangladesh.
The new act is a pivotal point in India’s political history as it is for the first time the Indian state has stood up for the Hindu rights at the international stage without any apology. It has also reaffirmed its civilisational tradition of providing safe heaven to the persecuted religious minorities from across the world.
(The author is an Assistant Professor at the
University of Delhi)