The uproar pertaining to and emerging from the Citizenship Amendment Act has largely been associated with its relation to the National Register of Citizens exercise currently underway in Assam and proposed for the entire country by the government. The CAA has largely been criticized for being a tool that could allow all non-muslims to stay in India and to deny citizenship to Muslim immigrants. There is some legitimacy to such apprehensions and arguments given the political extremes that exist in the current ruling dispensation. At the same time, it also seems to me that the whole picture of India’s immigration policy over the years is far more complicated, the NRC and CAA debates when looked at from this perspective have provided space for debate and also to some extent hope.
The CAA is not the first time India’s citizenship act has been amended. Under the original act of 1950 anyone born in India from the date of enactment of the constitution was a citizen by virtue of their birth in India. Later the acts were amended first in 1987 and then again in 2004 under UPA-I. In the first instance to add a restriction that one of the parents should be an Indian citizen and in the latter case, to impose further restrictions that both parents must be Indian citizens to guarantee a child born in India citizenship by virtue of their birth. Why did this policy shift take place making it gradually difficult to become an Indian citizen by virtue of their birth in the country? This is where the entire debate about the immigration policy of India has its roots. The uncontrolled (and at times encouraged) influx of immigrants into India after the Bangladesh war, the immigration of Tamils due to civil war in Sri Lanka and the flow of Tibetan refugees were some of the forces which led to a protectionist citizenship and immigration policy.
On the other hand, a lot of leeways were provided through the provisions of citizenship by registration and descent. The list is comprehensive but with one key difference, in those cases, individuals are not defacto citizens they must go through an application process. Such a process is obviously easier for the government of the day to regulate even on a case by case basis at times. The case for NRC also developed out of these crises and in fact, the amendment of 1987 must be viewed in conjugation with the Assam Accords of 1985. Public sentiment and fear against immigrants, at times justified, led to these policy changes.
Now the Assam Accords being not only an agreement between the civil movements of Assam and the Indian government but was also being a follow up to an agreement between the sovereign governments of India and Bangladesh must have been respected with prompt action. But as always political calculations and vote banks came in way of long term deliberations and policy implementations. Finally, the Supreme Court had to intervene so much so that it asked the machinery responsible for the execution of the NRC to directly report to it.
With this background in the back of our minds, let us look at the problem at hand. The CAA must, therefore, be viewed as an exception. This is the first time that the government has taken a less protectionist stance on the matter of immigration and considered long-standing humanitarian demands. The demands for Rohingyas and Ahmediyas are much more recent compared to the identification of state-sponsored persecution of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The decline in their populations in these countries is living proof of their persecution.
It is also relevant here to mention that although the Bangladesh genocide brought in an influx of immigrants irrespective of religion, the flow of Hindus and other minorities continued in large numbers as late as the early 2000s, this is when the Bangladesh economy picked up and religious extremism was slowly sidelined. Is it also not a fact that people belonging to the Muslim faith who form an outright majority in Bangladesh cannot be kept at an equal footing with religious minorities with a recorded history of religious persecution against them. That would be comparing unequals and against the spirit of Article 14. Is the fact that the migration of these minorities goes much beyond the aftershock of the 1971 genocide not relevant?
The larger point here is that this should be used as an opportunity to provide relief to genuine refugees and asylum seekers. After the Eminent Persons Group of the UNHCR headed by former CJI Justice PN Bhagwati submitted its report, a comprehensive refugee policy was envisaged. Dr. Shashi Tharoor with his long experience of working with the UNHCR did propose a private members bill “The Asylum Bill” in Lok Sabha in 2015, bills such as this will go a long way in changing India’s view towards immigration from protectionist to considerate.
The CAA does not touch the status of citizenship seekers who are Muslims, they still have the same channels to apply for citizenship as they had before the CAA was enacted. Their claims under the NRC procedure are also untouched, everyone excluded can appeal to tribunals, apply for citizenship under the citizenship act by registration, descent and naturalization. Should the implementation of the Assam Accords and the process of identification of illegal immigrants be completely stalled just because some relief has been provided to a persecuted section of the society which has nowhere else to go? When did we become so protectionist? Shouldn’t the process be completed and then everyone provided with an option to either return to their original countries or naturalize to Indian citizens under a robust and well planned Asylum law?
To me, this is where the protests and debates must focus their energy. One can never support the abuse of power by the police and state mechanisms but at the same time, the moral high ground of a legitimate protest is lost the moment even a small section of it turns violent, remember Chauri Chaura. Social movements and student protests have been integral to changing the political discourse in India, be it the dark days of the emergency, or the Mandal commission or the Assam movement. Organised non-violent protests based on rational demands and motivated out of facts and goodwill are always welcome in a democracy. The Prime minister should also at this point make it a personal mission to pacify sentiments and start a dialogue, this is something only mass leaders can do, he must rise to be a statesman. I beg of him. Bring order and let us all calm down and sit and talk and as Neruda said not move our hands so much.