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Home / Columns / The citizenship bill must be opposed

The citizenship bill must be opposed

Secularism must be defended. But the political Opposition lacks courage, conviction, legitimacy

columns Updated: Oct 31, 2019 19:05 IST
Yamini Aiyar
Yamini Aiyar
By explicitly excluding Muslims from its ambit, the citizenship amendment bill violates Article 14 and undermines secularism
By explicitly excluding Muslims from its ambit, the citizenship amendment bill violates Article 14 and undermines secularism (Sanjeev Verma/HT PHOTO)

In a few weeks from now, Parliament will debate (and likely pass) a crucial amendment to India’s citizenship law. If passed, this amendment, along with a possible nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC), will enable the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to inch closer toward fulfilling its electoral promise of removing “infiltrators” and “termites” from India. But this electoral promise will be achieved at the cost of fundamentally undermining the constitutional principle of secularism and altering what it means to be an Indian. Given its import, it is critical that the proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 (CAB) be subjected to wide public scrutiny and debate.

Introduced in Parliament in 2016, and passed in the Lok Sabha in January 2019 after receiving recommendations from the joint parliamentary committee (JPC), the bill seeks to fast-track citizenship for persons belonging to specified minority communities, namely Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Chirstians from a specified list of neighbours — Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The bill stipulates that persons belonging to these specific communities and countries will not be treated as “illegal”, and will be eligible for naturalisation as Indian citizens within six years rather than the stipulated “no less than 11 years” of residence in India. In addition, the bill has a far less debated, but equally consequential provision, regarding the cancellation of registration of Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) cardholders on grounds of violation of laws in the country. The CAB never made it through the Rajya Sabha in the 16th Lok Sabha. But the issue of citizenship went on to become a critical campaign issue for the BJP, best encapsulated in home minister Amit Shah’s infamous speech promising the removal of “every single infiltrator from this country”, except Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs.

The CAB serves as the vehicle to achieve this promise by providing an explicitly religious basis for determining legality and fast tracking citizenship — note the exclusion of Muslims from the list of specified minority communities. The bill, in its statement of objects and reasons, is silent on its rationale for specifically identifying certain “minority communities” and “countries” at the cost of others, or even the need to fast-track citizenship through such an amendment in the first place. In fact, the purpose of this bill is only made explicit when read in conjunction with two amendments made to the Passports Rules (2015) and Foreigners Act (2016), referenced in the CAB, which make specific exemptions for these religious communities with specific reference to their need to seek shelter due to experience or perceived “religious persecution”.

The clearest articulation of the “religious” persecution argument is in the recommendations of the joint parliamentary committee report. This rejects the suggestion of adopting a “secular” criterion for determining persecution by using the term “persecuted minorities” because, to quote from the report, the goal of “religious persecution’ would be lost sight of”. But even if religious persecution is the objective, there is no explicit rationale offered for why the bill chooses specifically to exclude Muslims.

But one doesn’t need to look far. The rationale for excluding Muslims is evident in the public commentary and speeches related to the bill, including from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In a 2019 campaign speech, he described the bill as an “atonement of the wrong that was done during India’s Partition”. The CAB is a step in the direction of legitimising through law the ideological construction that Hindus are the natural citizens of India. It is about a “right to return”; a “homecoming”. By introducing religion directly into citizenship laws and making explicit the exclusion of Muslims, the bill marks a definitive rejection of the constitutional promise of a religion-neutral, universalist conception of citizenship based on birth on Indian territory.

As several scholars have argued, the proposed amendments are in direct contravention of Article 14, which guarantees to all persons equality before law (an argument the joint parliamentary committee takes care to engage with, and ultimately dismiss). In doing so, it fundamentally undermines the basic constitutional ethos of secularism — all religions are equal in the eyes of law and that the State shall not propagate one particular religion. And it is to defend this principle of secularism that the CAB must be resisted.

While the challenge CAB poses to secularism has been well recognized, including in dissent notes to the JPC recommendations, the failure of the Opposition to mobilize political resistance to the CAB is worrying. Political resistance, such as it is, is limited to the implications of the CAB on the Northeast, and in particular Assam. But given its import, real resistance to the CAB necessitates a robust defence of secularism. For the moment, a confused understanding of political relevance, and fear of going against the majority opinion, has left the political Opposition without the courage, conviction or legitimacy to challenge the bill, thus pushing secularism to the margins of our polity. This poses a real danger to democracy.

Yamini Aiyar is president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal