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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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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