The controversial Citizens Amendment Bill (CAB) was passed by both Houses of Parliament and became a law last week. Prime Minister Modi dubbed it a historic day as religious minorities from three neighbouring Islamic countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan sheltered in India would get Indian citizenship. And tweeted, “A landmark day for India and our nation’s ethos of compassion and brotherhood. The Bill will alleviate the suffering of many who faced persecution for years”. While the Congress President Sonia Gandhi rued it was the darkest day in Indian politics.
Amidst these strongly opposite views, we evaluate the law. Obviously, since the NDA has majority in the Lok Sabha, the Bill was passed. However, a nationwide debate is on over the legal, political and moral aspects of CAB along-with reactions from the international community.
Predictably, Pakistan has responded negatively with its Prime Minister Imran Khan asserting, “CAB violates all norms of international rights and laws. It is also in contravention of bilateral agreements between India and Pakistan”. He tweeted, “It (the legislation) is a part of the RSS Hindu Rashtra design of expansionism propagated by the fascist Modi Government.”
The Pakistan foreign office added, “It is in complete violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international covenants on elimination of all forms of discrimination based on religious belief” and is a toxic mix of an extremist Hindutva ideology and hegemonic ambition of India. Equally reprehensible are India’s pretentions of casting itself as a homeland for minorities allegedly persecuted in the neighbouring countries.
Given the traditional animosity of Pakistan towards India and the current daggers-drawn relations, one could dismiss statements flowing from Islamabad as mala-fide overreactions. The other reaction came from the US International Commission on Religious Freedom (USCIRF) — a bipartisan, independent body.
It suggested to the US State Department to consider sanctions against Home Minister Amit Shah and other top leaders. Stating, “The CAB enshrines a pathway to citizenship for immigrants that specifically exclude Muslims setting a legal criterion for citizenship based on religion. It runs counter to India’s rich history of secular pluralism and the Indian Constitution which guarantees equality before law regardless of faith”.
On its part, the External Affairs Ministry rebuffed the US body averring, “The statement by USCIRF is neither accurate nor warranted. The Bill (Law) provides expedited consideration for Indian citizenship to persecuted religious minorities already in India from certain contiguous countries.”
Indeed, many in India and the US pay tribute to our country’s rich multicultural ethos and an accommodative Constitution whereby, this new law ‘strikes at the heart of ‘idea of India’, undermines Constitutional values and the rule of law’.
But supporters of the law led by Modi argue the “Bill is in line with India’s centuries old ethos of assimilation and belief in humanitarian values”.
This is the contention one would like to challenge. Arguably, no country can invoke the principle of national sovereignty in ‘law-making’ or governance in regard to human rights and humanitarianism which are universal values. So how do we explain it to the world? One would like to take a progressive nationalist stance in doing so.
What is CAB-Law about? Basically, this is an Amendment to the Citizenship Law of 1955. The new law confers citizenship to migrants from three neighbouring countries belonging to six religions namely, Hindu, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Buddhists and Christians. The debateable point and division in perspectives is the omission of the biggest minority category, Muslims.
What are the political, legal and moral (humanitarian) implications of the law? Politically, are we heading towards a fascist State by excluding one community? Will it create sectarian strife?
One could argue that India cannot be a fascist State even if it becomes a Hindu-majority State. This is a red-herring. Hinduism, unlike any other religion is highly polytheist, horizontally and vertically divided by caste.
The caste antagonisms and contradictions, temporarily subsumed in anti-minority rhetoric will erupt from time to time, which will make the society diverse and politics democratic. India, in the past, has fought off authoritarianism camouflaged as ‘Internal Emergency’. It can withstand any such direct assault on its democratic politics.
The second danger is probable sectarian conflicts or political violence. If the law is implemented smoothly, and the law and order machinery is efficient, this danger can also be mitigated. But, given the messy implementation of Demonetisation, GST, massive intelligence failure in Pulwama, one becomes tentative and speculative.
Legally, one is wary if the law would stand judicial scrutiny. CAB critics aver it violates Article 14 of the Constitution, if not Article 15 and others. Article 14 provides for equality of all persons (not only citizens) and any inhabitant in Indian territory is entitled to equality of treatment by law.
The protagonists would say there are provisions inherent in our Constitution which may address the concerns in Article 14. They are ‘equality between similarly situated people’ and ‘reasonable classification’. Only the legal experts can decide on these.
Also, the basis of offering citizenship, namely, religious persecution is difficult to establish. Those who are persecuted come as refugees, not illegal migrants. When they came into the country, they should have registered their status. Applying or establishing the principle of persecution retrospectively is an undoable and unethical proposition.
In addition, this makes us cast aspersions and accusations on our friendly neighbours like Bangladesh and Afghanistan that they are bigoted States. The moral argument is straight and simple. What are we to do with thousands of Muslims staying in the country for ages? Having allowed them into the country in whatever way, shall we deport them or put them in detention? Or keep them as non-citizens forever?
When European countries are welcoming refugees from the Middle East shall we throw those out already living in our country? Is this the way an aspiring world power should behave?
Finally, to explain it to the world, it will matter little what we say. What will enhance or dilute our image is what we do with people in our territory! How fair and impartial we are with them is what the world will watch! So, let our deeds speak. Nothing anywhere in the world is beyond international eyes, thanks to technology that takes us across the world and beyond.
If India aspires to be a world power, it should behave as one, not make Pakistan its reference point as the NDA Government compulsively does. It may be better than Pakistan but less than any developed democracy. It is time to re-fix our goal posts. Shall we?
The writer is Prof. International Politics, JMI