The CAB-NRC package is flawed and dangerous
Last Wednesday, the Cabinet cleared the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB). It is expected to be tabled in Parliament this week.
The bill’s essence is simple. It seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, Parsis and Jains from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh — as religious minorities, fleeing persecution — will not be considered illegal immigrants if they have entered India on or before December 31, 2014.
All immigration cases against them will stand abated. They will also be eligible for Indian citizenship on an expedited basis, after six years of residency.
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There is a caveat. States which require an Inner Line Permit — Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh — and Sixth Schedule areas in certain northeastern states — which include parts of Assam, almost the whole of Meghalaya, and parts of Tripura — will be exempt. This means those who become citizens availing the new provisions will not be able to settle and exercise rights in these areas.
The idea was in the 2014 manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It introduced the bill in Parliament during Narendra Modi’s first term in office, but could not get it through the Rajya Sabha. In the 2019 election campaign, the party’s manifesto reiterated its commitment to bring in CAB. The matter assumed greater urgency when the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was updated in Assam, leaving out 1.9 million residents, a significant section of whom were Hindus.
So what is driving the push for the CAB? For the larger Sangh Parivar and the BJP, the issue is one of deep ideological belief. Their logic is straightforward. Hindus in India’s neighbourhood have faced hardship, violence, and persecution. They have nowhere to go but India. These migrants deserve rights and dignity — and where else but in India can they get it?
One of the BJP’s campaign constants is that India is “infested” with illegal Muslim migrants. They, the party claims, have been used as a vote bank by “secular formations” at great cost to national security and locals. In Assam in particular, the BJP converted what was an essentially anti-immigrant sentiment to an anti-Muslim sentiment and cheered on the NRC process. But when the outcome emerged, the calculations went awry. Far too many Hindus were out of the register. CAB provided a solution to this problem.
But promising this led to an additional complexity. Northeastern states were furious, for the resentment there remains deep against “outsiders” of all religions. They began fearing an influx of more migrants, especially from Bangladesh. It was to address this discontent that the BJP has introduced the set of exemptions in the new draft bill. In this way, it hopes to strike a balance. Keep the core of the CAB intact, but also assure the northeast — where the BJP is now politically dominant — that it will not be burdened.
The political push also became necessary because of an additional promise the BJP has made — of a nationwide NRC in order to identify citizens and “expel” immigrants. In Assam, the NRC happened without the CAB, leaving Hindus excluded.
This also had an adverse impact in West Bengal, where the BJP is seeking to make inroads. Mamata Banerjee was able to use fears about the NRC, and possible exclusion from it to win back the momentum, as seen in the recent bypolls. The plan now is to first do the CAB, and then push the NRC, so that non-Muslim individuals who are left out have a way back in. The party believes that this move will both give the Indian state the strongest-ever documentation of all its citizens, but will also turn out to be electorally beneficial in Bengal and the Hindi heartland.
This is the ideological and political backdrop to the CAB maze. But the entire move is flawed and undermines India’s foundational values and constitutional principles.
India is a secular country. Religion is not the basis of citizenship. Religion cannot be the basis of discrimination. And the state cannot take decisions based on religion. The CAB pointedly excludes Muslims. Those who suggest that India is the natural home for Hindus, but not Muslims, clearly see Islam as a foreign religion.
Nothing can be more distressing for the around 200 million Muslims of the country, who have always been both Muslim and Indian and see no contradiction between the two. The CAB also formalises inequality, on religious grounds, in direct contravention of the values of the Constitution.
The CAB-NRC package deal will also be one of the most cumbersome, expensive, and challenging bureaucratic exercises ever undertaken by the Indian State — and will place an extraordinary burden on citizens. Assam is proof that it is the most marginalised citizens who will struggle to produce the paperwork demanded by the administration. India lacks the state capacity to undertake this process in a humane manner.
The entire initiative is inconsistent with the scale of the challenge. There is no substantial evidence to show that illegal immigration is happening on the scale that the BJP often suggests, or that it has drained Indian resources. There is also no clear end goal either. BJP president and home minister, Amit Shah, has promised that all immigrants will be “expelled” before 2024, but expelled where? Is it Bangladesh, which is widely seen, especially in the Northeast, as the source country? But this stands in contradiction to government’s categorical assurance to Dhaka that the NRC is India’s “internal affair”. Any move to deport immigrants will undermine the relationship with Bangladesh, which will not accept them. Or will they be sent to detention camps? Can a nation, with rule of law and international humanitarian commitments, keep millions locked up in jail-like conditions for the failure to produce paperwork?
It is clear that the implications of the CAB-NRC package have not been fully throught through. It is a bundle that undermines India’s ethos, values, citizen rights, foreign relations, and international image.