US President Donald Trump’s executive order that halted immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries kindled great outrage on Indian social media. Forewarned by Pastor Niemöller and haunted by visions of rejected H-1B applications and useless green cards, Indians expressed solidarity with the American protesters. Their emotions were stirred as they watched the American Dream being defended at its very portals: JFK, EWR, SFO, ORD, the airport codes stamped onto the boarding card of every NRI. News that a federal judge in Brooklyn had stayed the most odious parts of Trump’s order produced an outpouring of relieved likes and smileys.
This principled stance seems to fade closer home: the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which openly discriminates among illegal migrants on religious grounds, has drawn little more passion than a handful of edits and op-eds. Currently pending with a joint parliamentary committee – whose report is to be presented in the coming Budget session – the bill seeks to make it easier for certain religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to become Indian citizens by naturalization. In its current form, the bill will make illegal Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian migrants eligible for citizenship after six years of residence; Muslims from those countries will still need to wait the full 11 years.
This means that if a Sikh and a Hazara family fled the Taliban together, and are living in India without documentation, the Sikh family will become eligible for Indian citizenship five years before the Hazara family does, the only difference being their religious affiliations.
Let’s be clear: Trump’s executive order refusing entry to thousands of travellers who hold valid visas or residency papers is much crueller than an amendment that simply shortens the time taken for certain classes of illegal migrant to become eligible for Indian citizenship. But Trump’s decision, which many Americans see as discriminating on the basis of religion, does so only implicitly. Muslims are still permitted to enter from countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the order does not actually name any religious groups.
India’s citizenship amendment bill, on the other hand, openly discriminates against Muslim immigrants from the three specified countries. In doing so, it potentially violates the right to equality enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution, one that is guaranteed to both citizens and foreigners. It is therefore ironic that the main opposition to the bill so far comes from Assamese nationalists who see it as a dilution of their strong nativist stance against Bengali migration, be it Hindu or Muslim.
India actually has a solid record of taking in refugees and immigrants, and in 2009 was said by the UN to be the eighth-biggest recipient of refugees worldwide, with around 5 million (including around 3 million of Bangladeshi origin). But compare our discourse on immigration with that of the supposedly intolerant Trump: our government officially refers to illegal Bangladeshi migrants as “infiltrators”, and in the past four years shot dead 68 of them as they attempted to cross over. Even as Trump insists that he will get Mexico to pay for his border wall, and is ridiculed for it, India has already completed 82% of a planned 3,326 km-long fence along the Bangladesh border, supported by all political parties, scheduled to be finished in 2019.
Illegal migration is a legitimate object of political debate, and in places like Assam it has produced instability and fundamentally shaped the state’s politics. But it’s one thing for a state to restrict immigration for social or economic reasons, and quite another to overtly discriminate against specific religious groups. It would be appropriate to rethink this bill.
Amitabh Dubey is an analyst of politics and economic policy. The views expressed are personal.