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Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is a tool of polarisation, but the issue of citizenship is important

The election manifesto 2014 of the Bharatiya Janata Party contained an important sentence, “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here.”[1] This is no ordinary political rhetoric bandied around during elections. It’s connected with a core Hindutva principle that India is the fatherland and holyland of the Hindus (pitribhu and punyabhu). In his well known pamphlet “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?” V D Savarkar made a distinction between Indian Hindus on the one hand and Indian Muslims, Christians on the other. The Hindus have their holyland here in India, whereas for the Muslims or Christians it is in a far away land. Hindus therefore have a greater claim on India than Muslims or Christians. It’s not surprising that it will remain a natural home for Hindus.

Before we wonder whatever happened to the principle of secularism, let us first consider a possible fallout of the announcement. From the point of Assam’s politics “India is a natural home for Hindus” has a special signficance. During the 2014 elections Mr. Narendra Modi gave an interview to Mr. Arnab Goswami. During the interview Goswami asked, Bangladesh has about 15 million Hindus, are you not giving an open invitation to those 15 million people to migrate to India? Modi evaded the question by observing Hinduism is not a religion but a way life, and other such obfuscations. That the Modi Sarkar would implement the policy was not left to doubt.

The allegation against Mr. Modi has often been that he has not kept his promises. Fifteen lakh rupees were to be distributed to each Indian. One crore jobs a year were to be created. None of these materialised. But some promises have seen the light of the day. In 2016 the Central Government introduced the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 in the Lok Sabha. It has a provision that people of minority communities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan can seek refuge in India even if they don’t have valid documents. After residing in India for seven years they can apply for Indian citizenship through naturalisation (the period is twelve years in general). Which are these fortunate minority communities? Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Bouddhas, Christians, Parsis.

Unlike the rest of the country in Assam the bill set forth political upheaval. Protests against the bill, processions, public meetings started. As per the Assam Accord of 1985, foreigners entering Assam after March 24, 1971 would not be accorded citizenship status. Irrespective of their religion they would be detected and deported. Is the Accord, which was achieved after a six year long movement, and at the price of many martyrs, going to be thrown to the dustbin by the BJP? The Assamese nationalist political parties and groups demanded to know. The irony of realpolitik is, the prominent leaders of Assam Movement are presently the junior partners of the State Government led by the BJP. Their party, the AGP, is denouncing the bill as “jaati-destroying”, is threatening to walk out of the coalition. But it is not walking the talk.

The BJP appears to have adopted a guerilla tactic. Depending on the situation it is choosing to remain untraceable, or, to come out in the open. A couple of weeks ago a Joint Parliamentary Committee delegation visited the region to hear people’s opinion on the bill. In Guwahati and Silchar the JPC held hearings, and the heat spread all over the state. Mass mobilisations were organised in Guwahati and Silchar in front of the JPC hearing venue, against and for the bill respectively. In Guwahati the BJP did not make any representation, probably fearing the hostile public mood. In Silchar they went and expressed support for the bill. The Congress party is in a deeper quandary. In Guwahati the Brahmaputra valley Congress leaders went to the hearing to oppose it, while in Silchar the Barak valley leaders expressed their support for it.

From the point of view of the BJP there are at least two utilities of the bill. The first is the ideological gain. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 is putting legal clothing on the Hindutva idea that India is the natural home of the Hindus. The second gain is related to the NRC.The process of updation of the NRC is not over in Assam. The last list is scheduled to be released on June 30. After that one will get to know how many of the Assam residents are legal and who are the non-citizens. If it so transpires that a large section of Hindu Bengali residents do not figure in the list, the BJP can brandish the bill and market a narrative that through the bill they are going to save Hindus from getting deported to Bangladesh. To calm the indigenous nationalist groups’ discomfort the messaging could be, if so many Hindus leave, Assam would come to be ruled by the Muslims. Therefore, support the bill. Already such statements are being made by the BJP leaders. In the 1930s and 1940s Assam was intermittently ruled by the Muslim League governments. That experience was not something to write home about. Communal insinuations of this nature therefore may work.

On the other hand, if a small number of Hindu residents find themselves excluded from the NRC, the opposition to the bill would have got blunted. For, not many would have to be accommodated. The BJP can still claim to be the protector of Hindu interests. For the BJP the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is a tool to consolidate the Hindu votes.

Leaving aside the games political parties play, one can examine the bill on its merit. The bill is flawed because of its omissions. One wonders why the bill is selective about providing refuge to religious minorities of three Muslim-majority countries. Is it because that would exclude Muslims? Sri Lanka and Myanmar are India’s neighbours too, where religious minorities including Muslims are persecuted. Mass torture of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar is a case in point. Why not extend the special treatment to them? Is it because that would enable more Muslims to become Indian citizens? In Pakistan Shias, Ahmedis have been persecuted for long. Are they not being considered because they are Muslims? One can also question why consider religion as the ground for giving refuge. People get persecuted for their political views, for their sexual orientation and many other reasons. Are those minorities not the right kind of persecuted minorities? The bill is clearly against the spirit of secularism. It is in violation of the article 14 of the Constitution which guarantees equality of all before the law. In addition, it contradicts article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 of the United Nations, which asserts, “[e]veryone has the right to seek and be granted in other countries asylum from persecution as humanity required.” India is a signatory to the Declaration.

Strangely, in order to gain refuge a person does not have to provide evidence that she is persecuted, according to the bill. Belonging to the minority community is enough. In other words, a Bangladeshi Hindu can seek refuge in India even if she has not been persecuted. Being a Hindu is enough. But, when it comes to justifying the bill the ground of persecution is being cited! One wonders if all the talk of minority persecution is in bad faith. Perhaps, beneath all this, the substance is, India is the home of the Hindus therefore being Hindu is enough to get refuge and easy citizenship in India.

A country should give refuge to all those who are persecuted. That could be a minimal ideal to adopt. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 has done a service by putting the focus on the persecution minorities undergo. Unfortunately, it has done so by giving the minorities a coat of communal colours.

 

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Debarshi Das Written by:

Debarshi Das lives in Guwahati and writes on matters related to political economy.

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