by Rajesh Sinha 20 October 2020
When the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed by the Indian Parliament in December 2019, it might well have gone as just another piece of legislation being passed by the ruling party of the largest democracy in the world. However, that was not to be. Initially, opposed only by the opposition political parties and socio-political activists, it very soon transformed into a widely publicized, vehemently opposed, heavily criticized, and globally watched and disputed legislation that has put the limelight on India for all the wrong reasons.
Broadly speaking, the act states that minorities from the neighboring countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan fleeing religious persecution in their respective countries will be allowed a fast-track option to secure Indian citizenship and thereby lead a life of peace, security, and dignity. From a moral perspective, it sounds fine and humanitarian. However, it is about the real intent behind the act that doubts have been raised all around.
The Indian Citizenship Act, Article 324 already has implicit and adequate provisions that offer citizenship to foreigners on certain grounds. So the question of having an amended act requires justification. From the side of the Indian government and the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) so far very feeble attempts, including a resort to how leading Indian stalwarts of freedom struggle wished citizenship for fleeing religious minorities from the said countries, have been made in defense of the said act. It also believes that more than 1.5 crore persecuted people from the mentioned countries will get Indian citizenship and thus will get a life of respect and dignity.
On the other side, there is plenty to say against the act. To begin with, the act identifies religious minorities from only the said three countries. It by logic surmises that religious minorities are or likely to face persecution only in the countries mentioned and hence the rest of the world is a better and safer place against any sort of religious bigotry. This logic itself is erroneous as for the last few years, events in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, China in India’s neighborhood clearly show that this phenomenon is not country-specific and indeed is growing alarmingly.
In addition, it hits out at the very root of the fine-tuned diplomatic leverage that the Modi government had been able to carve out in the last few years, particularly among the two of the stated countries in the act, namely Bangladesh and Afghanistan. A wonderfully friendly and neighborly relationship that India enjoyed with them before the passing of the CAA has been hit significantly though much of the resentment remains limited to private and informal channels. The subsequent cancellation of official visits by Bangladesh ministers to India and their expression of public displeasure are indicative of the feeling of being let down by the administrations in Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
However, the greatest point of contention and criticism in the CAA has been the explicit exclusion to Muslims from being treated as prospective affected communities. While other religious communities, in case of religious persecution, are to be given citizenship on a pro-active basis, Muslims find no mention. Though the stated countries are Muslim-majority countries, there have been instances of Muslim Ahmadis in Pakistan and Shias in Afghanistan facing religious harassment there. Hindus in Myanmar, Buddhists in Sri Lanka, and Muslims in Uighur in China, too have faced widespread and unprecedented atrocities. Thus here too, the CAA as moral and legally tenable legislation is brought itself under question.
Then there is the issue of widespread resistance to it. Had it been a few instances of protests in some corners of Europe, the USA, or Pakistan, that could well have been termed as “deliberate interference in India’s internal affairs.” However, the scope and nature of opposition have been too wide to ignore and involves a wide section of the Indian population, common people, intellectuals, retired officials, media, activists, and students.
Further, the long-drawn struggle has secured huge media attention around the world. Coming close to the constitutional changes (abrogation of Article 370) in Jammu & Kashmir that incidentally has huge popular support in India and greater acceptance worldwide, this has been portrayed by many as a frontal attack on India’s image as a secular and largest democratic nation on earth. No wonder, there have been protests and demonstrations in many parts of Europe, the USA, Canada, and Australia by non-resident Indians in those countries, expressing solidarity with protesters in India and against the tenets of the CAA.
To compound matters further, large-scale clashes, fights, and coercive police actions in some educational institutions in the heart of the capital and subsequent rioting in certain pockets of Delhi, at the time of Donald Trump’s India visit in February has given the country a bad press. Many sections in India and abroad have presented the narrative as an extension of the government’s anti-Muslim policy that has been widely reported upon and supported by the western press.
The delicately nurtured diplomatic initiatives of the government too, have taken a hit, thanks to CAA. Friendly governments in the USA, Japan, UAE, Bangladesh, and Iran have been compelled to show their discomfort against the act. The Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina Wazed expressed her displeasure to the media by suggesting that there was no need for a CAA and her government did not understand why this was done by the Indian government. The Iranian President made indirect references to the CAA and used a very harsh statement in criticizing the volatile situation in Delhi recently.
However, the move of the UNHCR to approach the Supreme Court of India to intervene in the matter as Amicus Curiae could well have significant repercussions. While the UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet has credible reputations as a human rights advocate, the interpretation by the Indian foreign policy establishment of this action as a blatant attack on the rights of a sovereign state may well have many takers too. Though the matter of whether UNHCR will have any locus standi on the issue is to be determined by the judiciary it will have far wider ramifications not only on the CAA but also on the involvement of UNHCR on legislative developments of member countries of the UN in future. A number of prominent legal luminaries have spoken in favour of this law as some kind of humanitarian law for persecuted minorities from the named countries while many, including scientists, intelligentsia, and media have seen this as law as discriminatory.
And finally, there is the question of governmental priorities. The Indian economy is currently passing through a difficult and low growth phase. Coupled with the spread of the Coronavirus epidemic and shrinking investment and jobs, the issue currently has taken a backseat. However, the February disturbances in Delhi, described by many as a consequence of the purported faulty, communal CAA policy that led to a lot of bad blood between the government and the opposition, is likely to be back in the limelight once the country recovers from the epidemic. The CAA is also before the judiciary and final judgment about its constitutionality or otherwise is to be ascertained by it in due course. Whatever way the judiciary pronounces its verdict on the issue, the government should consider making more pro-active and constructive moves on the economy and making CAA more inclusive and acceptable in line with the greater interests of the country. Making such moves will help India enhance social peace, economic prosperity, and enhancing its stature as a global power in the near future.