When India proposed amending the constitution earlier this month to give fast-track citizenship to people who have fled religious persecution in other countries, it seemed to many that the government was truly magnanimous — caring for suffering people in true tradition of India.
But when the new Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) was passed recently and was signed into law by the president, people wondered whether it was out of genuine concern for the hapless illegal entrants that the government amended the constitution or it was another step toward turning India into a Hindu nation.
“The Indian government’s claim that the citizenship law aims to protect religious minorities rings hollow,” Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch’s South Asia director, said in a statement.
Opinions, both legal and political, differed, but many leading experts and academics believe that the government should have given a second thought before passing the bill that is discriminatory and that it was almost certain to be challenged in the Supreme Court.
At the core of the controversial law is a provision that allows granting fast-track Indian citizenship to all illegal immigrants, including Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, Jains and Parsis — but not Muslims — from neighboring countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to become citizens of India
These illegal immigrants, who have fled religious persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan before 2015, are to be granted citizenship in six years instead of 12 years of residency that has been the standard eligibility requirement for naturalization.
The reason for opposition to CAB and protests against it, both in India and in the U.S. and other countries, stem from the government’s alleged bid to shut the door on Muslims from these countries even if they face same religious persecution in their countries as other religious communities.
The United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom have warned India’s controversial National Register of Citizens list before the CAB, saying it could turn into a humanitarian disaster of horrifying proportions.
After the CAB passed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “A landmark day for India and our nation’s ethos of compassion and brotherhood! ... This Bill will alleviate the suffering of many who faced persecution for years.”
Although the government has sought to assure that all existing Indian citizens would remain unaffected by the law and it was only trying to facilitate the legal recognition of refugees and asylum-seekers fleeing religious persecution from the Muslim-majority countries, the argument did not seem to cut much ice with either most Indians back home or with expatriate Indians in the U.S.
Professor Moolchand Sharma, a former member of the law commission, NitiAyog and a law professor, told India Today TV that the discussion regarding religion-based citizenship had occurred in 1950, and in 1971, but had been rejected by the Parliament. “What are we doing? This is religion-based classification,” said Sharma, who has called the CAB a “doubtful law.”
In the U.S., protests and criticism against the new law came from leading academics as also from people across professions, age groups and backgrounds.
Vishakh Cherian, an Indianapolis-based engineer with background in technology said although he does not belong to any political party and has in the past supported many of the BJP government’s decisions like banning triple Talaq, he does not support the new citizenship law.
“I’m also an immigration activist in Indianapolis supporting fairness and equality in U.S. immigration, but I cannot agree with the provisions of the Indian bill. I fail to understand why a person’s religion is a criterion for deciding whether a person seeking asylum from a neighboring county should be granted the right to apply for citizenship or not,” Cherian said.
“My opposition is based on the fact that the government is targeting the Muslim community in violation of the Constitution that prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion,” the 39-year-old Kerala native who has been in the U.S. for about ten years, told India Abroad.
“My point is why we are singling out Muslims, including those who are minorities like Ahmadis in Pakistan and face persecution at the hands of Muslims in their countries, from getting the same privilege like others. That is the only problem I have with this law and that is the reason why I can’t support, the CAB,” Cherian said.
He pointed out that author Taslima Nasrin, a secular feminist from Bangladesh has faced the persecution at the hands of Muslim fundamentalists in her country. “So, why can’t she be given the privilege of Indian citizenship like in the case of non-Muslims facing the same plight in these countries. I think that is not fair and smacks of double standard,” he said.
There appear to be many other young people of Indian origin from different backgrounds across the U.S. who are opposing this law solely because the law discriminates against Muslims from getting Indian citizenship.
“Why single out Muslims. That is patently discriminatory. I can understand if the government said India cannot accept any more refugees or asylum-seekers because it already has a huge population and face constraints in terms of resources. I can understand that reasoning but not this most untenable argument for blocking out Muslims,” Jithin Herald, who lives in Orange County in California and works in information technology industry, said.
So, why then the government is singling out Muslims?
An explanation came from academics like Angana Chatterjee, co-chair of Initiative on Political Conflict, Gender and People’s Rights, at the Center for Race and Gender, University of California, Berkeley and Audrey Truschke, assistant professor in the Department of History at Rutgers. Truschke said the bill is an appalling assault on equality, human rights, and the vision of India’s founding fathers. “It is also completely unsurprising since it stems from a political ideology, namely Hindutva, that uses hatred of Muslims as a foil for itself,” she said.
Chatterjee said that,”The CAB stands to rip asunder the body politic. For India, it will engineer fault-lines akin to the Partition, worse, rooted in the ideology of Nazism. The CAB, together with the NRC and the siege on Kashmir of Aug. 5, represents the weaponization of Hindu ascendancy and majoritarian politics.” According to her, “The calculated exclusion of Muslims with impunity sanctions Islamophobic fervor.”
Asked how deep the concern is both in India and among Indian Americans that the government move would lead someday to the creation of a Hindu Rashtra, Chatterjee said, “the Hindu Rashtra, the majoritarian state, is here! We are witness to its establishment, the laying of its foundations. Hindu nationalists are amplifying their seemingly irreversible crusade to render India into a Hindu state.”
She said that the BJP now, progressively control the symbolic, idiomatic, and functional aspects of statehood. “The endurance of the BJP and Sangh Parivar’s power in the 2019 national elections signals a twenty-first-century, post/colonial turned neo-imperial reign of majoritarian Fascists in India.”
Journalist Barkha Dutt in an opinion article in the Washington Post on Dec. 9 said many within India — and many more outside of it — have likened the country to a “Hindu Pakistan.” She said the new citizenship law after its passage by Parliament has just upended the entire premise of India’s nationhood. “It will validate what the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, called the two-nation theory: the belief that Muslims and Hindus needed to be organized into separate countries.”
Cherian says that he has this suspicion that a lot of the things that the government is doing these days is because they have a larger agenda to make India where only Hindus will be welcome. “If you connect it with NRC, abrogation of article 370 and the triple Talaq Bill, then everything seems to be interlinked and that leads me to believe there is a larger agenda of the government,” he said.
President of Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP) Krishna Reddy sought to clarify the government’s position, saying it is a much-needed bill as it gives relief and dignified life to the refugees who were persecuted in three countries because of their faith.
“It is unfortunate that some people are projecting it as anti-Indian Muslim, which it is not. Muslims, who are the majority in those countries can still apply for Indian citizenship through the regular naturalization process. And many have been granted citizenship in the last many years,” Reddy said in a statement.
India is home to about 200 million Muslims while Christians account for about 29 million.
The new citizenship law also triggered criticisms and protests by organizations in the U.S. representing the minorities, like the Organization for Minorities of India, staging a rally at the Civic Center Park in Santa Clara, California.
The Boston Coalition and Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia also held a protest demonstration on the steps of MIT on Dec. 14. The demonstrators included members of the Dalit, Muslim and other communities They wondered when the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is implemented all over India, as is the government’s plan, how will a landless Dalit from Bihar, or a migrant laborer from Bengal, or woman Adivasi from Andhra Pradesh be able to prove their citizenship?
“Their precarious migratory existence, compounded by natural disasters, makes it next to impossible to keep their documents secure. We have seen during NRC’s implementation in Assam that it has excluded not just Muslims but also hundreds of thousands of Hindus. Basically, this act is anti-people,” the group said in a press statement.
Referring to NRC, Arif Hussain from Cambridge, Massachusetts, said that the initiative is inherently anti-poor and against marginalized communities as they are the people who have little documentation and will be penalized most. “It also enforces on the whole country a Northern and Western Indian Brahminical notion of nationality which is based on religion whereas as we can see from the protests in Assam and elsewhere, the South Asian idea of a nation is multi-layered and historically religion has not been the primary aspect of it,” Hussain said.
Kaleem Kawaja, a NASA engineer and executive director of Washington-based Association of Indian Muslims of America, felt the enforcement of these two laws may cause very substantial cracks in the Indian society since Hindus in East India and South India have definitely not experienced any revulsion or anger towards the Muslims with whom they are very well integrated, in many aspects of their lives.
“Tying future Indian citizenship to only being a non-Muslim, creates a very dangerous outlook that some politicians may use to foster violent conflicts among the diverse Indian population and with India’s neighboring countries where majority population is Muslim,” he said.
Chatterjee said the government argument that the bill will safeguard the country against Muslim infiltrations from neighboring counties like Bangladesh, was not tenable. “It is meant to be divisive and to segregate Muslims at the margins as second-class citizens, whose belonging is always in question, and whose identity is always suspect, and whose lives are precarious,” Chatterjee said.