With promises of attempting to tackle with the pains of Partition and playing the role of the magnanimous sanctuary-provider for those facing persecution, the newest bill proposed by Home Minister Amit Shah, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019, provides grounds to alter the broader parameters of India as we know it. Whether for better or worse, is another question altogether.
The original Citizenship Act, 1955 within Indian law, bars all illegal immigrants (persons who have entered and resided in Indian territory without supporting documents such as passport, visa etc., or persons who have overstayed their designated time period in the respective documents) from acquiring citizenship in the country.
The proposed amendment seeks to change this, allowing a certain group of illegal immigrants to be eligible for citizenship if they are Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Parsis or Buddhists from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh, who have crossed into Indian territory on or before 31st December 2014.
The reasons, as explained by Amit Shah in the Lok Sabha, are threefold. First, are the dwindling numbers of these religious groups in the three Muslim majority countries. Shah asserted that the falling numbers prove their vulnerable positions in their own countries, and the necessity to protect them. This is why it becomes justifiable to grant them citizenship and asylum in India. In contrast, Muslims in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh are not susceptible to any such threats since they are the majority, and thus, need not be endowed with any citizenship rights in India in case of illegal occupancy.
Secondly, Shah drew attention to the corrective function of the act with respect to the suffering faced by these groups during Partition. Many Sikhs, Hindus, Parsis, etc. could not cross over to the Indian mainland after it was divided in 1947 into India and Pakistan, and later with the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Their ancestral homes and cultural roots remain in this country, and the amendment provides the opportunity to recuperate these groups.
Lastly, Shah also seemed to lay significant emphasis on the fact that the Partition of the country took place on the basis of religion. Subtextually, he seemed to suggest the fact that despite India’s secular fabric, it remains a predominantly Hindu nation that should provide asylum to those who face endangerment within Islamic countries.
a) The North East
The North East is arguably the area which has showcased the most opposition against this move. The conservation of tribal identities at the face of increasing mainstream population explosion and movement has always been a pertinent issue in the North-Eastern states. This amendment, by
specifically identifying religious groups, encourages them to occupy the Indian mainland at the cost of endangering the already marginalized tribal identities.
The government has tried to incorporate a mechanism to protect their identity by adding a fourth criterion. Illegal immigrants in certain tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, or Tripura included in the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution, or areas under the “Inner Line” permit, i.e., Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, and Nagaland will not be provided with the provisions of the amendment.
One might be inclined to think of this as a solution, but a closer examination is necessary. Given that these areas are the ones where India shares borders with other countries, this provision seems instinctively counterproductive. Most illegal infiltration occurs from these regions. Denying them entry from these areas seems to work against the purpose of the bill—to provide asylum. The fourth provision and the basic purpose of this bill stand in conflict with one another.
b) The Rest Of India
The NDA government insists that it does not affect on any other of the existing citizens in the country. When faced with the biased nature of the amendment that purposely disregards Muslim illegal immigrants whilst preferring those with alternate religious identities, one major area the government emphasised on was the fact that existing citizens, Muslim or not, will not face any threat whatsoever. Therefore, the amendment does not violate the secular principles of the nation. Rather, it provides further opportunities to safeguard the interests of various religious groups with Indian roots.
But is the amendment as innocuous as Shah and other proponents of this move assure? Before coming to specific problems, let’s just look at what causes illegal migration. Refugees typically cross borders for survival. Religious persecution is one of the many reasons that cause them to battle with their lives. It is why Jews migrated in mass numbers out of the Nazi-occupied areas in Europe, why Rohingyas are fleeing today from Myanmar. However, there are other reasons for migration as well, including poverty and hunger.
The search for a basic standard of living, of work, food and safe residence are other motivators, especially when the same isn’t available in one’s own country. People have crossed over from Bangladesh to India mostly in search of jobs and livelihoods or to avail health benefits. Why religious persecution seems more justifiable as a threat to life than other needs to earn one’s basic livelihood has not been elaborated on.
However, for the purposes of this amendment, we are looking only at one motivator: facing religious persecution. Further, we are limiting the ambit of scrutiny to three Islamic countries. It is unclear why the government is not extending similar facilities to Tamil Muslims and Hindus in the majorly Buddhist Sri Lanka or Rohingya Muslims escaping Myanmar. One could point out this move is also directed at the rehabilitation of Partition victims, and thus, only accounts for those countries that were born out of the same.
The inclusion of Afghanistan then becomes inexplicable. Also necessary to remember is that Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains and Buddhists are not the only ones facing religious persecution in these countries. One could point at the persecution of Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan or atheists in Bangladesh. The magnanimous project that this amendment seems to profess is not one that it truly espouses.
Many foundational points within the amendment—both the three countries and the six religious groups selected are actually inexplicable if one view it purely from the lens of rehabilitating religiously persecuted groups. Another arbitrary criterion is the date—31st December 2014. Few people seem to be talking about why this random benchmark was decided as the make or break date for illegal immigrants.
The more insidious and stronger motivation behind this move is the implicit need to reinvent the identity of India as a nation. In his Lok Sabha speech, Amit Shah pointed to the decline in the numbers of Hindus in India, and the increase in the numbers of Muslims. It seems despite being a Hindu majority nation; an unconscious fear remains regarding the overall presence of the Hindu identity. Shah’s constant emphasis on the tragedy of Partition, painted almost entirely as the work of the Indian National Congress hits a deeper and stronger note with Indians who are still recovering from colonialism and the violence of Partition.
We are in search of an identity that has been denied to us by various historical forces, and this amendment is our guilty pleasure, our realization that the non-Muslim identity is the one we are ‘saving’. Thus, enthusiastic proponents of this amendment have labelled protesters and the opposition as chaotic pseudo-liberals fueled by selfish vote-bank politics. They believe that as one of the few Hindu majority nations in the world, it is naturally India’s duty to protect first the Hindu identity and then the non-Muslim identity.
Meanwhile, the NDA has successfully painted the three Muslim majority countries as breeders of radical Islam without any tolerance for other religions, and the INC as the sole responsible party for the Partition. It remains silent about the merciless massacre of innocent Rohingyas by the Buddhist majority country Myanmar. It remains ignorant of the larger factors that played a role in causing the Partition of India, the most significant being the British imperial state.
This bill is the NDA government’s best shot at providing Indians with a solid identity base by restructuring history and politics. It may claim it isn’t affecting citizens in any way, but it is playing a conscious and active role in refiguring their understanding of what it means to be an Indian.
When one critically views the provisions and reasons behind the bill, it is clear that there are gaps. What binds it together is the larger identity politics of the BJP within the Indian societal framework. And whether we like to acknowledge it or not, most of us who are willing to concede to its claims are those who subscribe to the larger and more dangerous us vs. them rhetoric that they are propagating.