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Citizenship Bill is deeply disconcerting

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on December 10, 2019 Published on December 10, 2019

If made into law, it could take years before it becomes clear how radically it has affected the secular fabric of the country

One bad idea can often lead to many others. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) left us with 1.9 million people classified as ‘illegal immigrants’ — though they still have a right of appeal. Over 50 per cent of these ‘illegal immigrants’ are Hindus and, in the BJP’s scheme of things, need to be saved from statelessness. Hence, the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) has become an urgent necessity for the government. Once it’s raced through Parliament, the Hindus who’ve landed in the NRC net can, after due process, be granted Indian citizenship. On Monday, CAB sailed through the Lok Sabha 311-80 but only after fiery exchanges. It will be a tighter battle in the Rajya Sabha, but it seems likely the BJP will push it through.

But CAB is creating tangled knots that won’t be easily untied. Let’s leave aside for the moment the clearly discriminatory nature of the act and arguments it runs contrary to Articles 14 and 19 of the Indian Constitution. Instead, let’s take a look at that beautiful, conflict-ridden country, Afghanistan.

Why are we offering sanctuary and citizenship to people of Indian origin — as long as they aren’t Muslim — from Afghanistan? Home Minister Amit Shah says the CAB is part of the “unfinished business of Partition”. But Afghanistan was never part of the British Empire, though the colonial power did launch several ill-fated expeditions to subdue the Afghans. We don’t even have a land border with that “graveyard of empires” though it could be argued Gilgit-Baltistan, which should have come to us, touches the sliver of land that’s Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. In actual fact, Pakistan grabbed the scenic stretch of territory that forms Gilgit-Baltistan soon after Partition.

The “unfinished business of Partition” theory leads to a second crucial question. Religion was the basis on which Pakistan was formed — there was certainly no other binding force between the Punjabis and Pathans of West Pakistan and the Bengalis of East Pakistan. But religion was never the magnetic force that held together India with its medley of religions and disparate racial groups from the Punjabis to the Tamilians and Northeasterners.

Hinduism might be the dominant force of the Indian subcontinent but there are around 250 million non-Hindus in our country, and we must build a flexible nation that makes room for all. That’s a view that the BJP and RSS are unlikely to agree with. But as Shashi Tharoor put it after the debate: “The idea that religion should determine nationhood is an idea that defines Pakistan.”

Constitutional arguments

The Afghan question was raised in a different way by the DMK’s Dayanidhi Maran who asked, very reasonably, why Sri Lankan Tamils shouldn’t be granted citizenship? Likewise, Burma was very much a part of the British Empire and ruled from here until 1937. But Shah made it abundantly clear in Parliament that he wasn’t about to offer refuge to the Rohingyas and he certainly wasn’t about to offer them a quicker route to Indian citizenship.

The Constitutional arguments have just begun, and nobody doubts the CAB, when it’s finally passed, will land before a Supreme Court constitutional bench. Soon after the Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi was talking about a constitutional challenge.

He was countered by BJP’s Meenakshi Lekhi, who argued citizenship comes under Article 11 of the Constitution and is, therefore, a legal right and not a fundamental right, as defined by the Constitution. Lekhi’s argument will undoubtedly come under fire and the obvious retort to that is that a legal right must also pass the test of not contravening the fundamental rights.

Finally, the question will boil down to a simple equation: Can India offer citizenship to six religions and refuse it only to Muslims? Doesn’t this offend the principle of equality before the law as defined in Article 14? Is the argument that Muslims can’t face persecution in a Muslim-majority state sufficient to counter this? Does the fact that Pakistan and Bangladesh were created as Muslim-majority states overcome the deficiency of conspicuously excluding one religion from rights offered by the Bill to people from other religions?

But before any Supreme Court challenge, more immediately, even in the North-East, the Bill has been creating waves. Protesters have come out in the streets against it in Manipur, Assam and Tripura. Before he could bring the Bill to Parliament, Shah had to hold marathon meetings with delegations from the North-East who are worried Hindus from Bangladesh will now be able to get Indian citizenship rapidly and settle down in regions where they’ll swamp locals.

This has been ostensibly resolved by saying the CAB will not apply in Inner Line Permit and Sixth Schedule areas. That includes most of the north-eastern States and parts of Assam. At the very last minute, before the Bill was introduced in Parliament, Manipur was added to the list of Inner Line Permit States. It’s a makeshift solution and we will see how the situation unfolds.

One prediction is there’ll be a surge of demands to be included in the Inner Line or Sixth Schedule areas. In Assam, the Sixth Schedule areas can be arbitrary and change from one village to the next. Many areas will now demand they be brought under the Sixth Schedule. Also, the government was forced to introduce a cut-off date of December 31, 2014, for giving rights under the new Bill. That is an artificial construct that will be tough to determine.

Currently, illegal migrants cannot apply for Indian citizenship. People who arrived legally and wanted to apply for citizenship had to have lived in this country for 11 out of the last 14 years. Now that’s being shortened to six years and Hindus, even if they’ve entered illegally, can claim citizenship after six years.

Security concerns

On an entirely different note, R&AW is said to have argued against the Bill on national security grounds. It’s all too easy to imagine a situation where agents are sent across as persecuted Hindus or Christians to blend into the population and work themselves into positions where they might be of use to an enemy.

Many opposition parties are caught in a bind on CAB. The Shiromani Akali Dal is an NDA alliance partner but Sukhbir Singh Badal argued Muslims should also be extended the same rights as people from the other religions. But the SAD went along and voted with its ally. That’s why the Bill looks likely to pass into law. It could take years before it becomes clear just how radically it may affect the fabric of our secular state.

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Published on December 10, 2019
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