Citizenship Amendment Bill: Avoidable controversy?

Delhi Dec 12, 2019, 03.44 PM(IST) Written By: Achal Malhotra

File photo: Amit Shah. Photograph:( ANI )

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The government of India has suitably and justifiably snubbed those in the West who have criticised the Citizenship Amendment Bill

Amidst heated arguments and loud protests within the Parliament and violent street demonstrations in parts of India, particularly North East, the ruling coalition government in India led by the BJP has managed to push through the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Parliament. It was passed in Rajya Sabha ( Upper House) on December 11, after being cleared by the Lok Sabha (Lower House) earlier. It now awaits the clerical formality of President’s consent to become tan Act. 

The crux of the amendment is that the government of India can now grant Indian citizenship to such members of selected religious minorities from any of the three neighbouring countries namely Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who face/faced persecution in their respective countries. In this context, the Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jains and Parsis have been identified as those minorities which would qualify to seek and get Indian citizenship. The Muslims have been consciously excluded from the list of eligible minorities.  

The thrust of the opposition to the amendment is that it (the amendment) violates the Constitution of India in terms of equality ( Article 14 and Article 15) and is an onslaught on the concept of secularism enshrined in the Constitution as the proposed amendment is applicable on the basis of religion and further it excludes Muslims from the list of prospective beneficiaries.  

During the debates within and outside Parliament, the ruling party has forcefully defended its decision by arguing that the “minority status” and the “persecution of minorities” is the guiding principle and that religion has nothing to do with it. Explaining as to why Muslims have been excluded, the ruling party has argued that the three neighbouring countries under reference are Islamic countries and therefore the question of persecution of Muslims by Muslims in Islamic countries is not relevant in the given context. 

When asked as to why the Muslim minorities such as Shias and Ahmadis being persecuted by the Sunni-majority Muslims have been excluded, if the persecution is the criteria, the government’s counter-argument is that Shias and Ahmadis are sects of Islam, and therefore, issues pertaining to them must be resolved within the framework of Islam in Islamic countries. The government, however, doesn’t seem to have a suitable explanation as to why exclude the Rohingya Muslims minority who are being persecuted not by the Muslims but by the Buddhist majority in neighbouring Myanmar.  

Addressing the apprehensions, particularly of the Muslim minorities within India, where the Muslims constitute close to 15 per cent of the population, the government has repeatedly assured that the amendment is designed to “grant” and Not “withdraw” citizenship and therefore they should have no reason to fear any impact of the amendment on their status. The government has gone further to reveal that more than five hundred Muslims have in the past been granted Indian Citizenship on case-by-case basis.  

In the given context, the pertinent question is: Do we really need the amendment under reference? Authentic statistics and reports are available to establish that the non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh (mainly Hindus, Sikhs and Christians) are indeed under pressure and their population in those countries has declined considerably either on account of migration or due to forced conversions. A large number of them are said to be already present in India but are deprived of several benefits for not being legitimate citizens of India. The humanitarian dimension of the issue at hand is well established.  

However, do we need to amend our Citizenship Act to address this humanitarian issue? There have been in the past several instances when India has accepted Refugees of Indian origin from other countries (eg, Uganda, Burma ) and granted them Indian citizenship. Several hundred thousand “Indian Tamils” (Those who were sent to Sri Lanka as labourers at Tea and Rubber plantations by the British in mid -19th century) were accepted in India and rehabilitated under bilateral India-Sri Lanka agreement. One may, therefore, ask as to why could we not continue with the past practice of case-by-case approach and take appropriate action as and when the situation arose. 

In my opinion, a ready-to-implement instrument sanctioned by the Law of the Land is a far better arrangement than ad-hoc actions, decisions or solutions. However, the government, which has arguably adopted a selective approach both in the selection of countries and minorities could have possibly avoided controversy by not identifying the religious minorities in black and white. It should have served the purpose by simply stating that the minorities currently facing persecution in three neighbouring countries i.e. Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan or those who faced persecution in the past in those countries and are already in India are eligible to apply for Indian Citizenship and their application will be given due consideration after taking into account all aspects including national security while reserving its right to decline.

The government would have thus stated the obvious. The government in its wisdom has, however, decided to be unambiguous in conveying the message that Muslims persecuted by Muslims will not be covered by the amendment. In fact by excluding Myanmar and thus Rohingya Muslims, it has gone further to convey that the Muslims persecuted anywhere in the world will not be automatically eligible for applying for Indian Citizenship. 

Even if the government has been guided by security considerations, which the presence in India in particular of the Rohingya Muslims could pose, the government has given an excuse to opposition to accuse it of taking yet another step in the direction of moving India towards Hindu Rashtra (Hindu State), ignoring the long history and tradition of religious, ethnic and linguistic pluralism in India where practically all world religions are represented and their followers have the freedom to practice and preach their respective religions. 

The amendment implicitly accuses the three countries of atrocities against the minorities. The Afghan government is unlikely to react as the alleged atrocities are attributable to Taliban. In the case of Pakistan, it is immaterial as the relations cannot go worse than what they are now. However, by cancelling the scheduled visit of its foreign minister to India presumable to register its protest, Bangladesh has made its intention clear not to take the accusations of atrocities lying down, and in due course of time, India will have to take measures to repair the damage. 

The government of India has suitably and justifiably snubbed those in the West who have criticised the Bill, describing it for instance as a “dangerous turn in the wrong direction” (US Federal Commission on International Religious Freedom statement). However, the battle at home remains inconclusive as violent protests in Assam defying curfew continue unabated on the one hand and on the other the Indian Union Muslim League ( IUML) has challenged (December 12)  the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Supreme Court alleging that the Bill violates the fundamental Right to Equality of the Constitution of India, and needless to add that its outcome will be keenly awaited.  

 (Views expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL) 
 

 

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