Students shout slogans and hold an Indian flag during a protest against the Indian government's Citizenship Amendment Act (CAB) at the University Campus of Mumbai on Monday. Photo: AFP/Punit PARANJPE

There is quite a large hullabaloo in parts of India over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), with strong opinions expressed by some that this law destroys the soul of the Indian constitution and the very idea of India. But these arguments are based on simplistic conclusions.

No violation of equality

Equality, which is guaranteed by Article 14 of the Indian constitution, doesn’t mean that the condition of every individual is the same. If that were so, there would have been no special rights for the tribals, Dalits and the religious minorities.

Apart from that, the provisions within the bill provided the criteria of reasonable classification that allows formation of a group. Here, the group formed is of six religious minorities – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism – in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh – the three constitutionally declared Islamic countries – facing religious persecution. These six religious minorities are often persecuted and are the very least or almost not represented in the power centers of these countries.

Also, the CAA doesn’t take away any rights of Indian Muslims. Importantly, Article 11 of Indian constitution mandates Parliament to regulate the right of citizenship.

Why no Ahmadis, Shiites, Hazaras or Balochs?

True, there have been persecutions of Shiites, Ahmadis, Hazaras or Balochs in these three countries, particularly in Pakistan, where Ahmadis are not even recognized by that country’s Islamic constitution as Muslims. But these persecutions are mainly for ethnic or political reasons, not necessarily religious – the purview of the CAA. Whether Pakistan recognizes them or not, India regards Ahmadis as Muslims. Importantly, both Shiites and Ahmadis, just like the dominant Sunnis, regard Allah as the only true God and the Koran as their main authoritative text. It is not up to India to interfere in the sharp sectarian divisions present within the Islamic world.

Why exclude other neighboring countries?

Many critics of the CAA are concerned about the exclusion of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, many of whom are currently in refugee camps in Bangladesh. The Rohingya are an ethnic community who are considered by Myanmar to be Bangladeshi immigrants. Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, herself regards the Rohingya refugees as a threat to her country and the region.

There have been multiple reports by intelligence agencies of exploitation of Rohingya extremism by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. In 2017, a brutal massacre of 99 members of the Hindu Rohingya minority in Rakhine was carried out by radical Rohingya Muslim groups, as reported by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Also, there were reports of forced conversions of Hindu Rohingya in the Bangladesh refugee camps.

One mustn’t forget that India has the right to ensure the security of its own people. It seems that apart from security threats, India doesn’t want to be caught in the middle of an arguments between Myanmar and Bangladesh over the Rohingya’s origin. That’s why even Rohingya Hindus who themselves are trapped between Muslim extremists and the Myanmar army are also not included in the CAA.

Persecution of Sri Lankan Tamils, both Hindus and Muslims, is also for ethnic and political reasons – factors not addressed by the CAA, which focuses on religious persecution. Plus, the separatist war responsible for this ended long ago. However, there have been agreements in the past between the governments of Sri Lanka and India for repatriations of Tamils to Sri Lanka. India had also conferred citizenship to many of them.

Citizenship granted on standalone basis

All problems can’t be addressed at the same time and it is not India’s responsibility to solve all the problems of neighboring countries. Nevertheless, India has given shelter to thousands of refugees and asylum seekers, despite not signing the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Currently, there are 31,000 refugees and asylum seekers from such countries as Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea and others. Those refugees not covered under the CAA will continue to be protected by India’s ad hoc refugee policy.

The fact is citizenship has been granted at various times on a standalone basis to refugees such as Ugandan Hindus and Sikhs of Indian origin, Hindus of Bangladesh, and Hindus and Sikhs of Afghanistan. In 2014, about 14,864 Bangladeshi nationals were given Indian citizenship after incorporation of more than 50 enclaves following an agreement between Bangladesh and India.

Importantly, the CAA doesn’t alter the present naturalization policy regarding citizenship. Over the last six years, many Afghans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, including hundreds of Muslims, who applied for citizenship have been granted citizenship through this process. One prominent example is the Pakistani singer Adnan Sami, who got it in 2015.

Understanding protests in Northeast India

As far as the protests in Assam, Tripura, Sikkim and Shillong, Meghalaya, are concerned, their demand is to keep their regions out of the ambit of the CAA – to preserve their own culture, language and literature. They are not wrong.

In particular, it is Assam that has attracted much attention. It is not that the Assamese community is blind to the religious persecutions of erstwhile East Pakistan, modern Bangladesh. Already, in the Assam Accord of 1985, Assamese organizations agreed to accept Hindu Bengali refugees who came to Assam until March 25, 1971 – which is also the cut-off date of the Assam National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Importantly, the NRC, which is abhorred by some Indian intellectuals, has strong support among the people of other northeastern states too, as they fear repetition of the fate of Tripura, which until the early 1950s was a tribal-majority state but turned into a Bengali majority after an influx of Bangladeshis. So the central government should consider exempting the entire northeast region from the CAA, which in any case already excludes a large portion of the region.

The theory of CAA-NRC combination

Let’s be clear that the NRC is about detection of illegal immigrants, people who entered India illegally for economic reasons, while the CAA grants citizenship to certain refugees who came to India on or before December 31, 2014. Saying that the NRC is a process to throw out Muslim immigrants – not Hindu immigrants, who are now saved by the CAA – is not exactly right, as the citizenship won’t be granted automatically. People have to fulfill the criteria of staying for a continuous six years, and also the Hindus who came after 2014 won’t be eligible for that safety net. Significantly, the NRC is based on the two acts – the Foreigners Act of 1946 and the Passport (Entry into India) Act of 1920 – that are mandated to detect, detain and deport any illegal foreigner.

Last, one must not forget the difference between illegal immigrants and religiously persecuted refugees, people who were forced to leave their homelands just for practicing their own religion. The main purpose of the CAA is to give a legal identity to these ill-fated nationless folk. Denial of citizenship to these refugees who have lived in India for years is to rub salt to their deep wounds. So, if not today – then when?

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