Is the Citizenship Amendment Act An Attack On Secular India?

The Indian parliament has passed the Citizenship Amendment Act amid hue and cry from the opposition and protests all across India. This Act amends the 1955 Citizenship Act. It is for the first time in the history of independent India that religion is being used as a legal criterion for deciding refuge and nationality.

As per this Act, Indian citizenship will be accorded to religious minorities of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, who have been victims of religious persecution in their native country. The Act specifies that the religious minorities must be either Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Parsis, or Sikhs, i.e. people of only non-Muslim faith. Immigrants who entered India before 2015 will also no longer be considered as unlawful settlers. The Act also provides protection to such refugees, tackling any legal cases after being discovered as illegal drifters.

Amit Shah in Parliament introducing the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019
Amit Shah in Parliament introducing the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019. Picture Courtesy: Business Today

As per the new law, the undocumented refugees must have inhabited in India in the last one year and for at least six years in total to meet the requirements for citizenship, in contrast, the 1955 law stipulates 12 years’ residency as a prerequisite.

For obvious, clear-to-the-eye reasons, this Act is being claimed to be in violation of the secular ideology of India and its constitution. The new law raises many valid questions and further induces questions about the intent of the government, which is not known for its secular philosophy.

The opponents of the new law argue that it breaches the Fundamental Right to Equality stated by Article 14, because it violates the principle of “equality before the law” and the “equal protection of laws” assured to all individuals, including non-citizens. Naturalisation and citizenship in the name of the religion, they say, is total discrimination and against the basic structure of the humanitarian and secular Constitution of India.

One of the valid and major criticisms of the Act is the exclusion of the religious minorities from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and China-administered Kashmir (Aksai Chin), which the government asserts are undividable parts of India.

  • The leaders claim in their parliament speeches that they will sacrifice their lives to get back PoK, but, by the logic of the Act, won’t let a persecuted Hindu from PoK take refuge in India!?
  • Questioning the reason and claims of the government; does it not consider the people of PoK and Aksai Chin its own?

If the intention is to safeguard tormented minorities, then why Muslim sects like Ahmadiyas, Bahaiis, and Shias who are more oppressed in Bangladesh and Pakistan than Hindus or Sikhs, have been left out of the Act’s purview. Likewise, how can the Hazara community of Afghanistan be excluded? The problem of minority persecution is the worst within the Muslim sects in Islamic countries.

Though Bangladesh is technically an Islamic nation their Constitution promises equal rights to people of any faith or religion. The inclusion of Bangladesh but the prohibition on the migrants from China, Maldives, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka raises more questions.

The harassment of Uighur Muslims in China is hidden from none. Inflicted atrocities upon the Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka are also well documented. The genocide of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar is currently under trial in the International Court of Justice.

After severe protests, the selective exclusion of the north-eastern region from the purview of the law has also not gone down well with its challengers. The new law is argued to be against the very fabric of the Assam Accord of 1985. Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, and Manipur are excluded from the ambit of the law. Manipur will be included in the ‘Inner Line Permit’system. Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Tripura are also more or less sequestered from it.

What happens if some persecuted non-Muslim religious minority migrates to the aforementioned areas?

The motive of the Act has been put to question by the Muslim community in India. The Act has been enacted at a time when the National Citizenship Register (NCR), which means to get rid of illegitimate residents migrated from predominantly Muslim Bangladesh, is under the process of implementation. On August 31, 2019, the final list of NRC omitted nearly 20 lakh people, of different faiths, from its last citizenship list in Assam.

  • Is the government’s intention to essentially legalise the nationality of all those non-Muslims (around 13 lakh) who were identified as illegal immigrants as per the NRC?
  • Is it a cover-up for the inefficient implementation of NRC, which landed a large number of people in detention centres that also included former personnel of the armed forces? Remember a whopping Rs. 1600 crores were spent on that exercise! And, it has not yet been implemented.
  • As per UNICEF, every year about 42% births go unregistered in India. How does the government plan to identify illegal residents?
  • Even if the government rightfully identifies the infiltrators, where will they send them? Of course, Bangladesh (or any other country) will not take them back. Saying “we shall throw them into the Bay of Bengal” is all at once – funny, deplorable, irresponsible, and ridiculous.
Is the government’s intention to essentially legalise the nationality of all those non-Muslims (around 13 lakh) who were identified as illegal immigrants as per the NRC?

The law has initiated extensive discussions on equality before the law and the necessity to provide refuge to foreign persecuted communities. The questions and arguments by the opponents seem to be valid to some extent and have put under scanner the true motive of the non-secular pro-Hindu ruling party. Various valid questions have been raised.

  • Why is it necessary to accord citizenship to refugees? Why not just help them in every possible manner and send them back to their native land at an appropriate time?
  • Is not offering citizenship to illegal immigrants against the very stand of the government, which by the means of NRC aims to send back outsiders?
  • This law is being implemented retrospectively, from 2014, why?
  • What is the requirement to reduce the period of necessary habitation for acquiring citizenship from 12 years to 5 years?
  • How do you figure out whether a person has been subject to any type of persecution?
  • Does the government really intend to isolate Muslims as a class?

The law has not gone down well with the USA as well. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has threatened the Indian government officials with sanctions if Muslims are not included among ‘persecuted’ minorities. USCIRF is the same organisation that had proposed denial of the USA visa to current Indian PM Shri Narendra Modi.

There is no doubt that humanitarian issues are very important and must be looked after diligently without any type of bias. But, any government should not be too much worrisome about the issues related to immigrants and refugees, their priority must be their own citizens. Such matters must be dealt with a gentle heart and international cooperation and without any undue delay. Presently, the Indian government ought to focus on its citizens, especially at a time when the country’s economy is dwindling and educated unemployment is at a record high.

Furthermore, at a time when the world is keeping an eye at us following the abrogation of Article 370 from the constitution, Indian policymakers must refrain from taking any such step that provides anybody with an issue that may be exploited at an international stage.

The nature of this Act is wrong ethically as well as strategically, and there is no denying that theoretically, it is possible to use it along with the NRC as a lethal tool to identify, discriminate, and even persecute people based on religion.

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