On December 15, 2019, the police of India’s capital state, Delhi, forcefully entered the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia, a premier university of higher education, to dispel peaceful protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). What happened next sent shockwaves throughout the nation. The police beat up protesters and innocent students, sparing none, including those sitting for exams.
Since then, India has been brought down to its knees by mass protests over the CAA, which aims to give fast-track citizenship to religious minorities of India’s three neighboring countries — Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. About 19 people have died in Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populous state, according to police estimates. More than 5,000 people are reportedly in police custody. The economy of UP has been hit particularly hard, with businesses losing millions of rupees owing to a stand-off between the police and the people.
The government has barred residents of India’s eastern states — Assam, West Bengal and Meghalaya — as well as those of UP, from using the internet because of fears of unrest. Taking a leaf out of China’s playbook, the government is closely monitoring social media activities. Opponents of the CAA are being identified through CCTV footage, video and photos. Dissidents are being arrested. Even old people are being dragged out of their homes on accusations of fomenting disorder.
The government has imposed section 144 of the 1860 Indian Penal Code in large parts of the country. This colonial-era law prohibits public gatherings of more than four people and has long been an instrument of oppression. The police are firing upon innocent people who are protesting or just gathering together. Their only crime is to belong to a particular religious community. India, the world’s largest democracy, has degenerated into a police state and the situation does not seem to be getting better.
Does the CAA Violate the Indian Constitution?
The Citizenship Amendment Act proposes to give fast-track citizenship to religious minorities who have been persecuted in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh because of their religion. These include Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Parsi and Christian communities. If people belonging to these five faiths furnish proof that they migrated to India before December 31, 2014, they would be eligible to receive Indian citizenship within six years. People of other religions (read: Islam) from these three countries can seek Indian citizenship only after proving that they have been resident in India for at least 12 years.
Protests have erupted across the country to oppose the CAA, even though the objective of the act is to protect religious minorities. Students and young people are opposed the legislation strongly. Reports that the opposition has fueled violence and local goons incited protesters do not seem to be accurate.
The mass movement against the CAA is fueled by the blatant exclusion of Muslims under the act. Protesters allege that the CAA is a violation of India’s secular social fabric and the act goes against the very tenets of the country’s constitution. They also allege that the act deliberately excludes Muslims so that the government can send back Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan. Some even allege that the government is plotting to put Muslims into detention camps just as US President Donald Trump is doing to Central American migrants on the US-Mexico border. Like the US, India fears mass migration. After 1947, millions immigrated from modern-day Bangladesh and Pakistan. In particular, East India experienced a surge of immigrants not only in 1947, but also in 1971 when Indian troops liberated Bangladesh.
Indian Home Minister Amit Shah has defended the government’s decision to include non-Muslim religious minorities under the CAA. His argument is singular: the Islamic republics of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan openly discriminate against religious minorities. Therefore, India must open its door for those persecuted in these countries. Shah points out that Pakistan and Bangladesh, a country born out of Pakistan, reneged on the 1950 Nehru-Liaquat agreement that secured the rights of minorities in India and Pakistan. Both of these Muslim-majority countries have persecuted minorities relentlessly.
India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) claims that the CAA is an instrument to protect minorities does not quite ring true. The act could have included persecuted religious minorities from all neighboring countries, not just Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. To assume that the Uighurs in China or Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan are not being persecuted is fallacious. The CAA is clearly an attempt to consolidate votes through a pro-Hindu, anti-Muslim agenda.
Shah gave a telling response when he was questioned by the media on the blatant exclusion of Muslims in the CAA. “We brought in Tibetans, Bangladeshi Muslims and Sri Lankan Tamilians during their time of need. We can’t bring in everybody,” he said.
Shah does not understand or could care less about the fact that excluding people based on religion in a citizenship act goes against India’s secular ethos. India has always given shelter to persecuted people, irrespective of their religion or race. However, this image of India has changed over the last five years. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP has tarnished India’s secular reputation.
Opponents of the CAA state that the act violates Articles 14, 15 and 29 of the constitution. According to Harish Salve, India’s former solicitor general, the CAA does not violate key tenets of the constitution and cannot be overturned in a court of law. Article 15 of the constitution restricts the government from discriminating against Indian citizens. The Indian government can frame policies that discriminate against foreigners on any ground, including religious ones. If that is true, then the CAA does not violate the constitution.
The Register of Citizens, But Who Counts as One?
The BJP has consistently argued that the CAA does not affect Indian citizens and it will not take away citizenship from legal residents of the country. Yet millions do not believe the government. Despite repeated assurances from top BJP leaders, protests are underway throughout India. People are concerned not only by the CAA, but also another policy of the Indian government that is closely linked to the CAA: the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC).E
The NRC is what it sounds. It sets out to create a nationwide register of all legal citizens of India. Its guidelines are yet to be made public. However, the government has already started creating detention centers for illegal immigrants who fail to come on the NRC. Many people who immigrated to India in 1947 and 1971 do not have a passport or other documents to prove citizenship. There is a real risk that many people living in India since 1947 or 1971 might be identified as illegal immigrants if they are Muslim. Members of all other communities have a backdoor to Indian citizenship through the CAA if they are mistakenly left out of the NRC. Muslims do not, and there is a real risk that they might become aliens in their own land.
The NRC has already been implemented in India’s northeastern state of Assam. In September 2019, 1.9 million people were excluded from the NRC list, of whom several were Hindus. They have a pathway to citizenship under CAA, but Muslims are not so lucky.
So far, there is no clarity on when the NRC will come into force throughout the country. Modi reneged on recent promises made by his ministers when he said the NRC would stay restricted to Assam. It seems that protests have rocked the government into a tactical retreat, at least for the time being.
Over the last few weeks, the Modi government has been under a lot of pressure, internally and internationally. Still, it seems determined to conduct a nationwide survey of citizens. On December 24, 2019, the government announced that it would conduct the 16th census of India in 2020 and 2021, and update the National Population Register (NPR).
The NPR is a list of usual residents, who have lived in a local area for the last six months or more. The NPR database includes information such as name, father’s name, mother’s name, gender, date of birth and marital status. The NPR was brought in by a previous BJP-led government in 2003 after the 1999 war with Pakistan. Unlike the census that paints a picture of the status or condition of residents of India as well as overall population trends, the NPR will contain the demographic and biometric details of every Indian resident at the national, state, district and village level. Many are concerned that the NPR is the NRC by another name.
The government is setting aside 35 billion rupees ($490 million) for the census and NPR at a time when the economy is in the doldrums. Many find this this disturbing. The NPR was last updated in 2015 and linked citizen’s data from the Aadhaar, India’s biometric ID system. It seems wasteful and unnecessary to spend scarce resources on the NPR at this point in time.
Shah has tried to allay public fears by claiming no one will have to furnish any documents for getting on the NPR. Officials have added that data from the NPR will not be used to create the NRC. Furthermore, the NPR will not result in the revocation of anyone’s citizenship. Yet concerns refuse to go away and far too many people feel uneasy by the idea of the register.
Identity Politics and Vote Banks
The CAA, the NRC and the NPR have set the BJP government and the Indian National Congress party on opposite sides of a deep divide. The BJP wants to consolidate the Hindu vote. It is important to remember that the silent Hindu majority harbors a fear for other religions, particularly Islam. Bitter memories of Muslim conquest and discrimination live on. The memory of the partition of British India into India and Pakistan is a living one. The ethnic cleansing of Hindu minorities in both Pakistan and Bangladesh irks many Hindus. People also resent the politics of appeasement by the opposition. This involved cozying up with Muslim clerics in return for these mighty men of god delivering the vote of their community. It also involved turning a blind eye to Bangladeshi immigrants who invariably vote against the BJP. The BJP preys on such sentiments to consolidate its Hindu voter base.
In consolidating its voter base, the BJP forgets that India differs from Pakistan and Bangladesh precisely because the country protects minorities. Unlike Pakistan or Bangladesh, India is a secular country. More Muslims live in India than either Pakistan or Bangladesh.
Furthermore, the Hindu identity is not a monolith. In Assam, people are protesting not on religious but ethnic lines. The Assamese fear that the CAA will nullify the effect of the NRC by granting citizenship to Hindu Bengalis. Already, the Bengalis are outnumbering the local Assamese in many parts of Assam. They want an end to immigration — Muslim or Hindu.
Since 1971, Bangladeshis have poured into India’s border states of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. Local inhabitants have been swamped by newcomers in many districts. In Tripura, the local tribes fell into irrelevance once Bangladeshi Hindus flooded in. Its demography changed and Bengali is now the state language. The example of Tripura demonstrates that the concerns of the Assamese are not entirely unwarranted.
In West Bengal, fears of the NRC and the CAA have given the Trinamool Congress (TMC) the opportunity to shore up its Muslim vote. TMC leader Mamata Banerjee has long turned a Nelson’s eye to immigration from Bangladesh because Bangladeshi voters are loyal to her party and to her. As chief minister of West Bengal, Banerjee is regularizing refugee settlements and issuing identity cards to illegal immigrants.
Immigration is an important issue for India because its growing population already puts pressure on scarce resources. As seawaters rise and Bangladesh sinks, its people have little choice but to flee across the border just like their Mexican counterparts. Concerns regarding illegal immigration are genuine and have to be addressed. However, the CAA and the NRC do not seem to be the answers. India already has multiple records such as ration cards, voter cards, driving licenses, income-tax ID and, of course, the famous Aadhaar. The ridiculous duplication in keeping simple records makes people doubt if the most recent efforts will achieve anything except for alienating and sidelining Muslims.
In recent times, many have compared Narendra Modi to Indira Gandhi, the dictatorial Congress leader of the 1970s and 1980s. She locked up her opponents, promoted her son and proclaimed an “Emergency” to rule by fiat, not by law. This period is recorded as the dark blot on Indian democracy. Many argue that we are living in another form of Indira’s period of Emergency. The police are beating up students and throwing grenades in higher educational institutes. The government is pressuring news channels to black out dissenting political opinions. Many are ending up in jail. Indian democracy is ailing again.
This article was originally published in Fair Observer
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