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Why the Citizenship Bill endangers the very people it claims to help

  • Published at 12:07 am December 13th, 2019
NRC assam
File Photo: A protester holding a plackard against CAB and NRC Reuters

Playing this kind of politics is nothing if not anti-national

The Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019 has been cleared by the Union Cabinet and is likely to be brought before parliament in the week ahead. It will probably pass the Lok Sabha again, as it did once before, this January. 

It had failed to clear the Rajya Sabha on that occasion; while its prospects of clearing the Upper House have improved in the intervening months, this is still by no means certain. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) still does not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha and will require the support of allies, including some from outside the National Democratic Alliance, to pass the legislation.

The party’s reason for bringing the Bill has been articulated several times by its leaders, from Prime Minister Narendra Modi down. Speaking at a rally in Jammu in February, soon after the bill was passed in the Lok Sabha the first time, Modi had said: “There are many children of Maa Bharati who have faced persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh … We will stand with those who were part of India at one time, but got separated from us.” 

Other BJP leaders have given variations of the same argument for passing the controversial bill, which proposes to give citizenship on relatively easier terms to non-Muslims from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. 

The basis of the argument is that minorities in those countries, which have Muslim majorities, have faced religious persecution since 1947, and that India is the “natural home” for at least those among them who follow “Indic faiths,” meaning Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains. 

This is indisputable. In fact, my own family, on both my father’s side and my mother’s side, had to flee from what is now Bangladesh following the Partition of India. My father’s family settled in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya and later in Assam. 

He was a student in Jorhat, Assam, when the “Bongal Kheda” riots against the Bengalis started in the 1960s. He had to flee again, and ended up in Shillong, now the capital of Meghalaya. Growing up, I witnessed and experienced endless hostility and riots against Bengalis, year after year. 

Three generations of my family have experienced the Partition and its aftereffects. I have known numerous people whose stories are similar. I was, therefore, happy when the northeast seemed to be moving on from that politics of “insider” and “outsider.” The BJP and the RSS have brought it back, with their insistence on the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Bill. 

Old divides that had healed are being set alight again. The BJP believes it can control the situation, any situation, through the classic mix of “saam, daam, dand, bhed.” I am not so sure. 

The Citizenship Bill in its second avatar makes important exclusions. The states covered by the Inner Line Permit and areas under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution -- meaning tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram -- have been exempted from the bill’s provisions. 

This means practically all of Meghalaya, over half of Tripura, but only a small part of Assam, and no part of the plains of Manipur. Arunachal Pradesh, while not covered by the Sixth Schedule, is covered by the Inner Line Permit. Mizoram is covered partially by the Sixth Schedule and is an Inner Line Permit state as well. Nagaland beyond Dimapur is covered by the Inner Line Permit.

What this implies is that Assam and Manipur, Dimapur in Nagaland, and regions outside the Sixth Schedule in Meghalaya, and Tripura will have to accept those who might be benefited by the Citizenship Bill. The long history of ethnic politics in Northeast India suggests this is not likely to happen peacefully. 

The blowback, if any, will not be in Gujarat or Karnataka. It will be in Assam and Manipur, and the people affected will be those who live there, especially the local minorities, meaning Bengalis, Hindu, and Muslim. 

The descendants of refugees who came in 1947 and all the way until 1971 were well settled and accepted as Indians until the NRC came along in Assam. As a result of the NRC -- from which some 1.9 million people, including an estimated 1.1 million Hindu Bengalis, and 100,000 each of the Gorkhas and local tribals such as the Bodos were excluded -- the people who had been living their ordinary lives in peace are now facing statelessness, winding up in detention camps, and running after lawyers and around Foreigners Tribunals. 

The Citizenship Bill is unlikely to be of any use to them. They have already applied to be recognized as Indian citizens under the NRC. The legal proceedings are on and they are now required to prove their Indian citizenship. Moreover, as Suhas Chakma of the Rights and Risks Analysis Group has pointed out, it would be odd for the Gorkhas and the Bodos to claim citizenship on the grounds that they fled from Bangladesh or Pakistan.

The Citizenship Bill applies only to migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. It, therefore, won’t benefit Indians. However, the NRC, because of its requirements of “legacy data” and documentation from 1971 or earlier, has ended up creating problems for a lot of poor Indian people who simply don’t have the right papers, or have fallen through some crack or the other of the Kafkaesque bureaucracy. 

The Citizenship Bill won’t help them unless they now say they are non-Muslim Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, or Afghans.

Anyone born in India before July 1, 1987, is a citizen of India by birth. Therefore, the question of needing a Citizenship Amendment Bill to give citizenship to those people does not arise. Anyone born outside India before 1947 who came to this country at the Partition has probably had over 11 years of residence by now and is in no need of a shortening of the residency requirement by five years. 

Anyone born before December 3, 2004 and one of whose parents is or was Indian is also an Indian citizen. So, who exactly does the bill help?

It claims to help the migrants who came fleeing religious persecution before December 31, 2014. The Passport Rules were amended in 2015, so non-Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan who might have arrived fleeing or fearing persecution were already exempted from the penal provisions they would have attracted had they came without visa and passport. These people can now get citizenship in six years instead of 11. 

In his deposition before the Joint Parliamentary Committee studying the Citizenship Bill, the then Intelligence Bureau chief had clarified it would directly benefit 31,313 persons, mostly Hindus from Pakistan holding Long Term Visas who are living in camps in Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Delhi. Where are the other potential beneficiaries of the bill? 

If there are any -- the number currently is probably negligible -- they will have to go through an application and verification process. What that verification process would be like, no one seems to know yet. 

However, completely doing away with a verification process would risk opening the doors to spies and terrorists coming from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, claiming to be Hindus fleeing for fear of persecution. 

On the other hand, if there is an application and verification process, the kind of mess that resulted from the Assam NRC might be repeated. The process could take years after the application is submitted, and even then is unlikely to be free of errors and the usual extortionate corruption. 

The blatant politics of the exclusion of Muslims is likely unconstitutional. It is also something that, along with the routine denigration of Bangladeshis, is being noticed across the border. There are still 17 million Hindus in Bangladesh and they are currently living there more or less as well as Muslims in this country. Bangladesh is still a secular country and its secularism is hard-won. 

The gains of 1971 will be lost to India if Bangladesh slides into Islamist arms. The Bangladeshi liberals have fought hard, and often paid with their lives, to prevent this. However, as Tariq Karim, former high commissioner of Bangladesh to India, wrote in a piece for East Wind journal, “If the Indian state today is redefining itself as a Hindu Rashtra … it may well trigger questions in Bangladeshi minds as to why the latter should continue to remain secular.”

The combination of the NRC and the Citizenship Amendment Bill seeks to turn India into a Hindu Pakistan. It endangers India’s Act East policy and friendly relations with Bangladesh. It puts at risk the lives and properties of the very people it claims to help, while cynically manipulating uninformed mass opinion elsewhere in India through a pliant media reduced to peddling propaganda for money. 

The long-term implications of this kind of politics of the NRC and the Citizenship Bill for narrow electoral gain can, therefore, only be described as anti-national.

Those with no skin in the game are once again gambling with the lives of the same people whose ancestors paid the price for India’s freedom through the Partition.

Samrat Choudhury is an author and journalist, and a former editor of newspapers in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru. He tweets as @mrsamratx. This article previously appeared on newslaundry.com and has been reprinted by special arrangement. 

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