The Union Cabinet has now approved the Citizenship Amendment Bill. We can now expect the Bill to be placed before both houses of Parliament shortly.
As with most things about India, there has been a large constituency, both in India and abroad, that has been trying to spread misconceptions about the intent and content of the bill. We hear that the Bill is against “idea of India,” whatever that means. The global liberal audience, which sees a Hindu fundamentalist hand in everything from sarees to car stickers, is only too happy to cry foul.
Let me make here a humble effort to explain, in a simple Q & A format, the need for the Citizenship Amendment Bill and its justifications, both from a historical and contemporary perspective.
Q: Why does the Citizenship Amendment Bill exclude Muslims? Doesn’t it make the Bill anti-Muslim?
A: The Bill also excludes Jewish people. Does this also make the Bill anti-Semitic?
Q: Why should a secular state have laws that are based on religious identity?
A: India already has plenty of laws that are explicitly based on religious identity. The laws regarding control over educational institutions and places of worship depend almost entirely on the religious identity of who is running them. Laws regarding property, inheritance, marriage and divorce also depend explicitly on religion.
Our model of “secularism” has always been about special privileges for minorities.
Surely the same argument should then be extended to those who have entered the country from Pakistan or Bangladesh. Our model of secularism, when applied to Pakistan and Bangladesh, would mean that it is Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, etc who need special privileges and protections.
Q: Isn’t the Citizenship Amendment Bill against the idea of India?
A: No, the Citizenship Amendment Bill, in fact, embodies the idea of India. Our country was formed out of Partition, which was explicitly based on religion. This is established fact and cannot be denied. Therefore, a law that addresses the injustices of Partition must be based on religion.
Surely, the idea of India is not to deny the history of India.
Q: Isn’t it wrong to make citizenship dependent on religion?
A: The law does not say that the Citizenship of India is based on religion. It merely offers a targeted relief to Hindus, Sikhs, etc from Pakistan and Bangladesh who seek citizenship of India.
Targeted relief to vulnerable people is not discrimination. If there is a drought in Madhya Pradesh tomorrow, the Central Government will declare relief for farmers of Madhya Pradesh. This is not discrimination against the farmers of West Bengal.
There are still many other ways to become a citizen of India via birth, naturalization or registration and none of these laws has anything to do with religion.
Q: Why only Hindus then? There are marginalized communities such as Shias among Muslims as well? Why not include them too?
A: There will always be some subjectivity in defining which communities are marginalized and which ones are not. In fact, the National Commission for Minorities did not recognize Jains as a religious minority within India until the year 2014. The specific Bill in question provides relief to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Christians. There are any number of other religious groups in the world that can claim to be marginalized somewhere. There could be Jewish people, there could even be atheists.
So we can have debates about which communities should be included by name, but this debate will never end. So it cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the Citizenship Amendment Bill here and now.
Q: Isn’t it quite well established that Shias in Pakistan or Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar are vulnerable communities? Why doesn’t this bill include them?
A: As a practical matter, the government of India (or any other sovereign nation) is under no obligation to extend principles of “equal treatment” to foreign citizens.
If there is an earthquake in Bangladesh tomorrow, sure it would be nice of India to send some relief material over there. But whether this aid is given and how much aid is given, will depend on security, trade and diplomatic relations between our two countries at that specific point of time.
The whole world operates on that principle. Not just in humanitarian issues, but even in routine everyday matters such as issuing visas. US Visa seekers from India generally report a very different experience from US visa seekers who are citizens of Germany, for example. Similarly, India offers visa on arrival to certain citizens but not to others.
Q: Won’t this Bill affect India’s moral standing in the world?
A: Only if we are not able to explain our position properly. Every democratic country in the world distinguishes between “asylum seekers” and “economic migrants.”
The CAB merely protects vulnerable religious minorities from being deported to Pakistan or Bangladesh. Most countries allow religious persecution as a basis for asylum claims. Would you have a gay person deported to Iran where homosexuality is punishable by death? Would you say that a policy of not deporting gay people to Iran is discrimination against straight people?
In a nation as ancient as India, history plays a significant role. The Constitution of India opens with “India, that is Bharat…,” thus claiming for itself the whole and the entire legacy of the subcontinent spanning thousands of years.
For example, we see the Indus Valley Civilization as part of our history, even though both Mohenjodaro and Harappa are situated in present-day Pakistan. So is Taxila, where a great Indian university once stood. The Emperor Kanishka, who ruled over a region that is mostly in Pakistan today, is still venerated as a great ruler of India.
Is there such a thing as “Pakistani history”? We have no idea. Two countries were born in August 1947. But only one of them has a history.
This history leaves us with responsibilities that the modern Indian nation simply cannot overlook. And one of these responsibilities is to be a primary protector for those who follow the ancient religions that were born in India. All nations with a history, such as India or China, must carry out these obligations.
India is not just a country, it is a nation with a history. Any other way of looking at India is facetious, misguided and just plain wrong.