Following the controversial spree birthed by the Ind-Pak partition and subsequently the Citizenship Act of 1955, the Assam accord of 1985 and the National Register of Citizens earlier this year, we have been served with another bitter-sweet dish by the ruling party - The Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019. Coincidently, this dropped on us on the International Human Rights Day itself. What were the odds?
So, two main alterations made to the Act of 1955 are -
1. The stay of 6 out of 8 years in case of registration and 11 out of 14 years in case of naturalization has now been cut short to 5 years in order for a person to acquire citizenship in India.
2. ONLY those Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis and Jains, who owing to persecution in just three neighboring countries – Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan have fled their country or will flee their country and settle/settled in India shall be saved from the penalizing provisions of the Passport Act and Foreigner’s Act for being illegal immigrants.
Now, for obvious reasons, the alteration #1 has seen arms wide open, but #2 has left many disgruntled.
The point made by the Muslim community and those against the bill is that the act has violated Article 14 of the Constitution and has disrespected the International Customary Law which asks of every state to give shelter to those who are facing persecution for any reason whatsoever, especially religious reasons.
Let’s run through the arguments that have sprung‘For’ and ‘Against’ this step and try to shape up an informed decision about the same.
The bill violates the equality clause emblazed in the Constitution of India under article 14 (Which provides for equality to all and any, irrespective of their citizenship) as it has provided for granting of citizenship to all the religions but Muslims and this distinction on the basis of religion goes against the fundamental idea of the Constitution of India as well as the non-refoulement principle of the International Refugee Law. The bill if passed will be unfair to those who have been living here for decades and those already oppressed and under stress of being driven off any moment.
The bill has not included Muslims as the beneficiaries of the alteration as the provision relates to the three neighboring countries that are predominantly Muslim and the Muslim community is not oppressed or persecuted there. The communities that actually need the citizenship and subsequent benefits and protection of the same are the Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jains and Parsis. As far as the principle of Non-refoulement (Art 33 of the 1951 convention prohibits the states to return a refugee to the frontiers of the land where he faces persecution and where his life and liberty are jeopardized) is concerned, the same comes with an exception as to the situations when inclusion of refugees in the country would be a security concern for the country. Since the inclusion of Muslims in the provision could substantially aggravate the issue of infiltration and may even make it easier for the anti-peace entities to enter and disturb the stability of the country, chances cannot be entertained. (Government authorities have, according to various reports, discovered the presence of members of terrorist groups among the Rohingyas and other Muslim settlements around India).
Further, this act is not going to affect those who are already living in India, only those who have entered India (even illegally) after 31st December 2014 (As there 5 year term shall be completed by 2020) will be considered and they too shall be extended sympathetic consideration. However, the vesting of citizenship by the government to those who enter India in future has to be regularized and that is the inevitable duty of the government.
What about the communities like stateless and friendlessRohingya Muslims (Refugees from the Rakhine state, Mayanmar, rendered stateless and disowned by the Aung San Suu Kyi government) and the Ahemadi(Follower of Ghulam Ahamad, considered as heretics and Non-Muslims in many Muslim countries and oppressed for the same) and Shia Muslims (Minority Muslim sect out of the two main sects – Sunni and Shia) in Pakistan and Bangladesh, Tamil Muslims in Sri Lanka and other Muslim sects who are facing the same issues as the other non-Muslim communities?
Why has the bill not included other countries like – Sri Lanka, Nepal and Myanmar in the list of neighboring countries which have a huge population of people being persecuted and driven away for their religious belief and practices? Not including the Muslims in the provision on the grounds of security shall further contribute to the Muslim community polarization that has already been an issue around the world.
India has to strike a balance between its civil obligation to those distressed and oppressed and its own social, political, economic and security concerns. Further, Government of India has the discretion to exercise in such cases for the welfare of the general public. Even the neighbouring countries which practice Islam have denied the entry to their own kins – Rohingya Muslims due to the economic, social and political concerns or by simply calling them a mythical community. Regarding the Ahemadi and Shia Muslims, one cannot actually discount or escape the 2 nation theory and forget that the Ahemadi Muslims and Shia Muslims chose to be the citizens of an Islamic republic instead of India and now the question is if they have the absolute right to expect refuge in India? The Indian government is as answerable, if not more, to those living in India as it is to the refugees and cannot shun away the probability of making the conditions worse for those who already inhabit the land and infirming the development of the people there by allowing everyone to get the access.
The Muslim influx has also been troublesome in the North-Eastern states in the past and has severely affected the indigenous tribal groups of states like Tripura and Assam which in fact was the reason behind the formation of the ‘Assam Accord’ and adding more pressure to the same would not be a prudent action for the government to take. (I have come across many people who argue that “the accord was not made for the purpose of driving the Muslim immigrants away, but all the immigrants coming in from Bangladesh, and we love our fellow Muslims in Assam”. Here, one has to understand that there is actually a very large chunk of Indian population that is not as comfortable with the Muslim community as those who are. It is understood that, not all Muslims are anti-peace elements, and I can advocate that myself for having met some of the most beautiful humans with beautiful Muslim names, but that is not the case with everyone, especially the orthodox Indians. There is and has been a fear in people due to many events in past that held a connection with the Islamic states and that cannot be ruled out. Further, the government has notified the tribal areas around Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura to be kept from the immigrant settlements.)
In addition to that, India has always kept a broad and welcoming outlook towards the refugee population since its very foundation and standing up to it, India is welcoming the population that it knows for sure is persecuted almost 90 percent of the time. However, when it comes to the Muslim population – Yes! There are Muslims like Ahemadi, Rohingya, Shia and Tamil Muslims, but that is not more than 20 percent of the population there and they are not as fearful of persecution as the other minorities listed in the bill and considering the probability, the government cannot afford to let everyone through the borders.
To sum this up, the government has been answering the questions very boldly but the grounds taken are not bullet proof, rather considerably permeable. There is no arguing about the fact that this action has a political angle to it and the fact that the same has been done keeping the vote bank in mind cannot be denied. The bill can comfortably be connected to the vote bank in the North Eastern states where a large chuck of population views the influx of refugees, especially Muslim refugees, as an ailment and the upcoming polls in West Bengal, and of course a huge part of the Hindu population that is to an extent orthodox in its approach and sees the Muslim community as a threat to the country.
However, the grounds taken by the government cannot be shunned absolutely. Security and economic concerns do have a role to play in such decisions and the security of the Indians cannot be compromised on the basis of sentimental considerations. Yes, it is important to keep in mind the Swami Vivekanand was proud to belong to a nation that has provided shelter to all the immigrants from all over the world, but the times have changed and also, one has to keep in mind that not even he would endorse a step to be taken on sentimental grounds when the possibilities of infringement of security in India are considerable, if not inevitable. Further, the world is aware of the hardships and ailments that India is going through specifically due to over population, and the government has to tread carefully on that ground as well.
So, what might be the best way forward?
In my opinion the bill does need a revision (which will and should eventually be ordered by the apex court) and the government has no choice but to creatively make provisions for refugees from all the neighboring countries and not just the listed three and also make provisions for the oppressed Muslim community there including the Ahemadis and Rohingyas who remain at the sharp side of the stick, and invest in systems that could efficiently filter out refugees who do not have a valid reason to immigrate and who is suspicious, but along with that balance out the responsibility of feeding and keeping secure the 125 Crore + Indians is the way through this. Though, I don’t understand how come the government, loaded with all the resources, personnel, think tanks and experience could not apprehend the protests and all the loss, hue and cry in India and the loss of credibility that the beloved ruling party has incurred? Could this be an attempt to distract the public from more vital issues? Or is there something else that government is cooking? Well! That shall only be answered by the days to come.
In the meantime, until the act is in force, India will have to be more accommodative and for that other states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh may be requested to share the burden and help out over populated and indigenous-sensitive states like Assam and Tripura.
Lastly, it is time that the government tilted towards more of Rashtraneeti than Rajneeti.