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Political Subjectivity In Narratives Around India’s Polarized ‘Citizenship Amendment Bill’ – Analysis

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Who can be a citizen of India has become a point of contention nowadays after the Citizen Amendment Bill appeared in Indian Parliament. In a very emphatic way, Indian Home Minister has presented his arguments over the strength and validation of the polarized “Citizen Amendment Bill-2019” in both Houses.

These arguments are, to be sure, objectively sound signifiers for a common citizen to accept it as reality; but when it comes as a political subject, several critical opinions coexistent with global, national and regional level discourses, begin to read its validity. It has generated a thorny view between “us and others” using religious metaphors; one cannot simply brush aside its far-reaching consequences. The bill passed in the Parliament does in no way stand for redefining the citizenship, but postulates re-citizenization as ‘New Normal’ in objectives terms.

A Peek at the Past Developments

Presently, India is leading up to the process of re-citizenization across the country. Indian Home Minister has used many pasts-narratives emerged during partition which draw special attention to this point.

India remained under the direct occupation of British Crown from 1858 to 1947. When India gained independence, it was primarily divided into two kinds of territories. One was known as British India and other known as Princely states. With the declaration of India becoming republic on January 26, 1950, residents of British India became citizens of India but the residents of erstwhile princely states did not acquire the status of citizen. The status of citizen had been extended to them through the formulation of Citizenship Act of 1955.

By all means, the idea of citizenship has always remained a contentious issue, and in order to avoid such kind of conflict, the constitution-makers of India made provisions relating to Citizenship by adding Article 5 to Article 11 in part II of constitution. Citizenship Act of 1955 specifies four grounds for the grant of citizenship viz. birth, descent, registration and naturalisation. Citizenship Act 1955 has been amended several times. Primarily people gains citizenship on grounds of birth or on stay of 11 years, but the latest amendment alters the same for the alleged persecuted minorities of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhist, Parsis and Christians of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

The Citizenship Act, 1955 has undergone many developments leading to many amendments such as Citizenship (Amendment) Acts introduced in the year of 1986, 1992, 2003, 2005, 2015 and 2019. After taking a careful stock of all Acts, I confirm that barring Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, none of other Acts had any religious effect. The new Amendment Bill passed by both houses, seeks to determine citizenship status on religion-based identity which possibly never happened in India’s hitherto democratic history. It has been framed to accord citizenship to persecuted minority/illegal community-Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jains, Parsis and Christian migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. It also gives relaxation in the citizenship by naturalisation by six years of their residence. Earlier, there were 11 years for the same under the Citizenship Act, 1955.

Based on existing South Asia, China and USA media reports and political discourses among Indian scholars, the CAB entails religious-based document buttressing the narrative of Hindu-India. The Bill in conjunction with the ongoing NRC has already led to widespread protests in northeast India. Since it allows cross-border immigrants to be settled there, it might lead to unpredictable influx of Hindus/non-Muslims from neighbouring Bangladesh. Chetna Sharma (2019) has confirmed the reason in her study that North-eastern states particularly Assam is known for its ethnic composition and ideational identity, not to speak of any religious identity. It would add ‘another layer of complexity’ in Assam thereby challenge the existing Bill. 

Earlier, India did not have any specified or structured mechanism on providing for citizenship to refugees. With the passage of this bill, all minorities barring Muslims who are either being persecuted in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, or those who are already residing in India, will get speedy citizenship through amended provisions of naturalisation. It should also be noted that, unlike CAB, the NRC is not based on religion and seeks to identify undocumented/illegal immigrants. The CAB tends to endorse who can be a citizen of India. The NRC, however, provides for helping instrument to the CAB meeting its objectives which, by all means nullify the fact of having no religious base. 

“Partition Narrative”  

The partition and widespread migration across Indian subcontinent shaped the political/public discourse on citizenship which was marked by multiple influential factors including the metaphor of cartographic representation; concoct narratives of yore/religion; metaphorical/ideological imaginations; and semantics of contiguous territories. The partition triggered by religion had left long-lasting imprints on the minds of people of Indian sub-continent. It made them to identify themselves with above-mentioned factors—countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh defined citizenship on Islamic lines and rest sections including Muslims accidentally became a part of Hindu majoritarian India. Sharma (2019) noted that Hindu and Sikh refugees were given different treatment from that of Muslims in post partition, and resultant suspicion between them honed afterwards policy frameworks. 

Before the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019 was passed in the Parliament, only Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugees were considered as legal immigrants. Now, it promises to provide citizenship to illegal migrants of persecuted non-Muslims minorities fleeing from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Since, the notion of Citizenship was not unified throughout in India because of the aftereffects of the partition; it would be absolutely wrong to say that the Indian citizenship, at that time, was based on religion or any other factor. Indian classification of illegal immigrants as refugees was basically based on some laws such as the Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939, Foreign Act 1945, Passport Act, 1967, and now the Citizen Amendment Act, 2019.

Sharma (2019) quotes Antara Dutta ‘s argument over Muslim refugees that, after independence-

Muslim refugees found themselves under a double finger of suspicion for being both outsiders as well as Muslims. It was assumed that Hindu refugees were forced to flee because of religious insecurity but Muslims who first left in the wake of post-partition riots but later want to return are migrants, not refugees. They had migrated voluntarily to Pakistan because of their attachment to the idea of the Pakistani nation.

India has already been facing the issue of illegal migration that is why it didn’t ratify the UN Refugee Convention, 1951 and 1967 Protocol for the protection of refugee rights. Moreover, India has been lacking a strong national refugee protection network in spite of being one of largest home to asylees/refugees. Thus, in the absence of any domestic/regional framework, India did never come forward to take regional leadership role. India, with unspecified reasons, has confined it to its internal affairs.

Noting that the Bill drew reaction from provoked Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, raised his concern on his twitter handle that “Indian Lok Sabha” citizenship legislation which violates all norms of int human rights law & bilateral agreements with Pak. It is part of the RSS “Hundu Rashtra” design of expansionism propagated by the fascist Modi Govt. On the other hand, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abdul Momen outrightly rejected Shah’s remarks on the minority persecution in the country. In a conversation with Dhaka Tribune on Tuesday night, he said, “What they are saying in regards to torture on Hindus is unwarranted as well as untrue.” He also added that “…..We have no minorities. We are all equal. If he [Shah] stayed in Bangladesh for a few months, he would see the exemplary communal harmony in our country.” India didn’t consider her bilateral relations with these countries.

Religious test of “CAB”

A notion has been constructed around the narrative of dramatically decreasing non-Muslim population in Islamic countries of South Asia after the partition. Mr. Shah alleged that there were 23 per cent minority population in Pakistan which now has dramatically been reduced due to persecution. Against his argument, BBC has reported that he (Shah), in fact, presented the combined data of then West Pakistan and East Pakistan. Census data 1998 shows that Hindu population in Pakistan (West Pakistan) had not changed significantly from the 1951 level of around 1.5 to 2 per cent. However, it is true in case of  Bangladesh that the Hindu population decreased from around 22 per cent in 1951, 14 per cent in 1972 to around 7 per cent in 2018. 

Apart from there are other non-Muslim communities in which Ahmadis were declared non-Muslim by Pakistan government in 1970s. In Afghanistan, non-Muslims have 0.3 per cent share in total population. In 2018, around 700 Sikhs and Hindus left the country due the conflict. However, all these countries have made provisions regarding the rights and to follow their faith. So, it does not seem appropriate to declare these countries as oppressor states for minorities. It may create troublesome for those living in these countries, and so is for India’s neighbourhood policy.

Home minister announced in the Parliament that Congress had divided country on the basis of religion but it does not seem to be true. Because, the country, that was formed after the partition was not based on any particular religion. Further, he went on to justify on basis of reasonable classification which means, provide for special provisions for selected persecuted minorities barring Muslims. In fact, the government is using the clever way of keeping its agenda intact under institutional mechanisms like CAB and NRC. In other words, it is trying to make its ideological discourse the language of the institution without bothering to infuse among common people its meanings and reflexologies.    

On response to this argument, senior advocate Sanjay Hegde told that religious discrimination remains the major factor behind this. It could help even without referring to different religions, therefore not based on intelligible differentia. He went on to say, “Reasonable classification has to do with the nexus of the classification. He (Shah) has only got one part of the phrase right. If the nexus of the classification is fleeing religion persecution, then all kinds of people can be fleeing religious persecution…….”

He (Shah) also told that it does not violate Art 14 of Indian constitution. However, Equality before law is not only for Indians but it is for every person who faces Indian law or falls within the purview of law. Mohsin Alam Bhat argued that minority communities in India’s neighbourhood have been persecuted not only on religion basis, but also on the basis of other factors including race, ethnicity and language etc. He added, “While equal protection—enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution — does not necessarily mean exact treatment, a law that promulgates differential treatment on the basis of religion must be based in rationality, else it will be deemed unconstitutional.”  The alleged reasonable classification, in fact, intends to change the basic structure of Indian constitution.

Even it was also decoded that Indira Gandhi too gave citizenship to Bangladeshi refugees during her time. However, Indira Gandhi did not use religion symbolism or announce any reasonable classification. Hegde substantiates this, “Indira Gandhi never said that only Hindus from East Pakistan would be welcome, rather anybody from East Pakistan who was fleeing the Pakistan Army was allowed to come into India.” She (Indira) declared that Bangladeshi refugees were allowed to stay in India only on compassionate basis till the normalcy restored, after that they would be sent back to home. Here, it is not a matter of justifying Indira Gandhi right or wrong, but to discern the reality behind citizenship prejudices.

The Bill states that there are atrocities against non-Muslims in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, Islam being the state-religion. It has resulted in dwindling non-Muslim populations. This clearly indicates that the government is just selling its “Hindu India” narrative by limiting oppression to the level of religion factors. Let’s assume it as logical reality for a while that India wants to become a welcome refuge to persecuted religious minorities, then it has to include all minorities. Ahmadi and Shia are also Muslim minorities who are facing persecution in Pakistan, and so is the situation of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and Tmils in Sri Lanka. Anupma Roy (2019) alleged that the “majoritarian notion of religion-based citizenship, although intrinsic to BJP’s idea of India, are not shared by majority of people in this country.” She added that people who consider it non-discriminatory, are actually invoking the “the moral imperatives of correcting the past perceived past wrong” citing the Partition. In doing so, the CAB undermines the idea of inclusive citizenship enshrined in Indian constitution.

Last but not least, the Bill is silent about its aftereffects, how it will accommodate these immigrants within its territory and ensure their security. It is already grappling with problems like poverty, hunger and unemployment. Wouldn’t it create identity challenges among people living in border regions? And Assam turns out to be the first such example. The ongoing multilayer protests though not mass protests show that majority of Indian people is not in support of BJP’s notion of religion-based citizenship.

The CAB is also seen in tandem with the NRC. With CAB-NRC, people are likely to face the state of statelessness, ending up in detention camps, and running after barristers and Foreigners Tribunals at larger level. In this case, the current regime remains insensitive to the real public discourse which would invite great aggression among people. While religious persecution of minorities is welcome notion of determining citizenship, it has to maintain the dignity of India’s constitutional value of secularism, devoid of violating secular foundations of citizenship. 

*About the authors:

  • Dr. Sandeep Singh is teaching at the Department of Political Science, School of Humanities, CT University, Punjab, Ludhiana, India. Email: [email protected]
  • Mr. Jagmanjot Singh is teaching at the Department of Political Science, School of Humanities, CT University, Punjab, Ludhiana, India.

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