Former Chairman, National Commission for Minorities
The Constitution of India had laid down only the basic law of citizenship, leaving it to Parliament to fill in the gaps. A Citizenship Act was accordingly put on the statute book in 1955, containing provisions sufficient for the needs of the time. Until it completed 50 years of its life in 2005, the Act had been amended seven times for various purposes. On coming to power in 2014, new rulers of the country began thinking of reforming the citizenship law according to their own policies. Soon came the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2015, overhauling the chapter on overseas citizenship. A second amendment Bill was moved in Parliament in 2016, which could not see the light of day, till recently. Before the end of the outgoing year, it was moved afresh with no substantive changes. Preceded by the NRC embroilment in Assam, and followed by rooftop shouting that it will culminate into a similar pan-India exercise, the new law has created unprecedented unrest in society.
The new law announces a bonanza of Indian citizenship for refugees from three neighbouring countries — Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan — provided that they are not Muslim. The basis for exclusion, not mentioned in the Act, but repeatedly proclaimed by its architects, is that Muslims are the ruling community in all three countries. This points out to two basic assumptions on their part — first, followers of the six faiths specified in the Act have come to India only because of their persecution in their respective countries, and for no other reason; and second, no Muslim can ever be persecuted in the so-called ‘Islamic’ countries. Both these assumptions are wholly baseless and not warranted by ground realities registered by international agencies in their periodical reports on religious freedom worldwide.
The presence of a large number of Afghan refugees in India is common knowledge. They have been coming to India for the past four decades, beginning with the Soviet invasion of their country in 1979. In later years, they fell victim to inhumanities inflicted in their homeland by the so-called Taliban. But what is their religion? One who wants to know this should simply go to the Lajpat Nagar colony of South Delhi, where Afghans — all Muslims — have, in their own words, built a mini-Kabul. One Najeebullah among them, who runs a grocery shop, when asked why he had come to India six years ago, said: ‘We were persecuted in our own home, looking death in the eye, day and night. Thank Allah, nothing of the sort scares us here.’ Only last evening on visiting my cardiologist in Lajpat Nagar, I met a nurse who looked like a foreigner. Asked about her nationality and religion, she said she was an Afghan Muslim born in India and brought up by her parents who, on facing severe harassment in Afghanistan, had taken shelter here. Will she and her family, poor Najeebullah the grocer, and thousands of others like these unfortunate souls, now be deported to Afghanistan to face inhuman treatment there once again? The CAA passed by Parliament of secular India says ‘yes, they will have to be’.
As regards Bangladesh, we keep forgetting that as a sovereign country ceding from Pakistan, it was, in a way, our own creation. But for the political encouragement and military support from India, East Pakistan would not have turned into Bangladesh. Finding a friend in us — a big brother, so to say — thousands of locals, tired of the sickening religiosity and linguistic bias in Pakistan, had crossed borders. They were followers of different religions, including Islam. Most Muslims among them took petty jobs here — I know many Bangladeshi domestic workers, drivers, street vendors and cobblers; all Muslims. Will the CAA administrators send all of them back to Bangladesh, and let only those remain amongst us who are not Muslim?
As far as Pakistan is concerned, no law in India prohibits Indian men from marrying Pakistani women. The Hindu-law concept of ‘sapinda’ relationship not allowing endogamy is unknown to Muslim law which allows, rather encourages, marriage with first and second cousins. The Partition of the subcontinent in 1947 had largely divided Muslim families between India and Pakistan, but this had not put a stop to the practice of marriage within one’s family — even today, there are Pakistani women in sizeable numbers married to Indian men, waiting for years for a decision on their applications to Indian authorities for citizenship. Will the CAA appliers do the obnoxious job of breaking the families by sending them back to Pakistan?
There has been, in recent years, scant regard for the ideals and goals that the Constitution had set after the country had achieved Independence. The new trend is justified by the votaries of the so-called ‘cultural nationalism’ by their own interpretations of the Constitution, and some dubious judicial decisions of the past. But, how about the international human rights law incorporating, inter alia, a number of UN instruments on refugees and displaced persons, none of which envisage any selectivity based on nationality or religion? Does our newly amended citizenship law conform to the standards of morality, rationality, humanism, intolerance, non-discrimination, and the like set up by the general and refugee-specific human rights instruments put on the international statute book, beginning with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Or do we now care least, not only about those instruments, most of which had been unconditionally endorsed in the past, but also international public opinion?
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