Rights of passage

The second version of the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), due to be tabled on Monday, cannot be called an improvement on the version that lapsed in the previous Lok Sabha, even though it is likely to pass the Rajya Sabha gauntlet owing to support from more political parties. The Bill continues to violate the spirit of the Constitution and, indeed, of the Citizenship Act of 1955, which did not confer citizenship on the basis of religion. The CAB carries a remarkable level of specificity: It provides a path to citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, all Muslim-majority countries, who have entered India illegally before December 31, 2014. The version cleared by the Cabinet on Wednesday, however, leaves out the specific requirement of “religious persecution”, thus evading accusations that the Bill is not secular and, therefore, a constitutional challenge. It has also reduced the proviso of continuous stay in India for such people from 12 to five years, expanding the number of people who will be eligible for such citizenship. This offer of Indian citizenship remains sufficiently narrow for the CAB to attract constitutional scrutiny. The obvious point, which has been discussed threadbare, is that it excludes Muslim minorities — the Ahmadias, Shias, and so on — in these countries.

The premise behind offering citizenship to the religious minorities above is that they tend to be persecuted in these countries. This is a valid premise. The problem is that the Ahmadias and Shias are also persecuted in these Sunni-dominated countries, sometimes as badly as other religious denominations. It is unclear why a regime, in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has publicly expressed the value of Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava (respect for all religions), should not extend a helping hand to persecuted Muslim minorities as well. Equally, neighbours such as Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, which are not within the purview of this Bill, have significant Muslim minorities, which are persecuted to varying degrees. Myanmar has created a worldwide scandal with its appalling treatment of the Rohingyas (to whom Mr Modi’s first government flatly refused asylum) and the election of the Buddhist-nationalist Gotabaya Rajapaksa is unlikely to improve the security of Sri Lankan Muslims.

Greater political acceptance for this version of the Bill has been largely the result of clauses excluding from its ambit three states — Mizoram, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh — these are under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873, which requires anyone entering the state, including an Indian resident of a different state, to have an inner line permit. The Bill will also not be applicable in areas where the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution is in place — that is, the tribal areas of Meghalaya, and parts of Tripura, Mizoram, and Assam. There is also a degree of illogic in these exclusions, principally because they cover precisely the kind of restrictions on residence and land ownership that were scrapped in Jammu & Kashmir. These exclusions were made, Home Minister Amit Shah has explained, because consultations revealed that these states do not want their ethnic compositions disturbed by the influx of non-ethnic minorities (read: Hindus from Bangladesh). Surely this contradicts the Bharatiya Janata Party’s avowed intention of forging national integration through language, religion, and laws?

Besides, to offer the large Hindu population that emerged as “illegal” under the latest National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in Assam a path to citizenship is fraught with risks. It is unlikely to make ethnic Assamese happy and keeps the state’s Bengali Hindu population permanently vulnerable to continuing violence. Mr Shah had said that the CAB would precede a nationwide NRC. Given the visible communal intent of the law, its passage will not augur well for the future of India.

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