The raging debate and protests around the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019 raise important questions around identity. With a protectionist approach, CAA claims to correct a historical wrong and rescue specific religious minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh by offering them a possibility of Indian citizenship. The CAA has incurred five main criticisms: it is unconstitutional; it furthers the Hindutva ideology; it is violative of the Assam accord; threatens tribal identities; and it is arbitrary in its selection of countries and religious minorities that will be eligible.
The debate in Parliament invoked data on the decreasing number of Hindus in Pakistan and the increasing number of Muslims in India, to indicate that the Nehru-Liaquat Pact hasn’t been honoured by neighbouring countries whereas India has fulfilled its commitment.
In 2006, the Sachar Committee Report gave a clear picture of the socio-economic condition of Muslims in India. This compels us to ask if a mere increase in population is indicative of protection of a community or if we must also seek a qualitative assessment of their lives. Moreover, citing data on increases or decreases in population does not take into account, for instance, aspirational or economic migrations or conversions through marriage.
There is widespread fear that the CAA, in conjunction with the proposed countrywide National Register of Citizens (NRC), will facilitate citizenship only for certain religious minorities, leaving Muslims excluded as stateless. Amongst those declared ‘foreigners’ or ‘illegal migrants’ through the NRC, only certain religious communities can be naturalised through the CAA as it now stands. There is no discussion of what will happen to the rest — who will basically be Muslims not verified through the NRC.
Who is a refugee?
It must be noted also that the NRC is an exercise in verifying documents, which large populations in South Asia still don’t possess.
Moreover, through CAA we have limited the understanding of cross-border mobility only as a result of religious persecutions. What about linguistic, political, environmental or cultural persecution? India has evaded the question of refugees for a long time, primarily due to its own large population, economic burden, and lack of welfare services to offer to those seeking refuge. It has, however, taken ad hoc decisions to give refuge to Afghans, Tibetans and other such refugees from time to time.
The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. As a developing country, India’s reservations about signing the Convention are understandable. But what has stopped it from devising its own refugee policy?
India shares international borders with seven countries, and the people in many of these borderlands live in close proximity and have deeply shared histories and everyday practices. Invoking history partially by just referring to the Nehru-Liaquat pact obliterates these shared histories. It also obliterates their everyday lives in the borderlands. If history were to be invoked impartially, it would involve their shared histories and identities, which were divided because of the political borders created over different time periods.
These shared histories and identities remain etched in the everyday lives of a number of communities living on either side of national borders. It promotes cross-border mobility of various kinds — some legal, some extra-legal.
This compels us to look at the different categories of people crossing the Indian borders — refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, illegal migrants, trafficked persons, people visiting estranged family members, tourists, medical tourists, etc. We need ground research to understand these different groups crossing over. And it pushes us to argue for a policy that will take into account the realities of different kinds of mobile populations, especially refugees.
Is it possible for us to base this exercise, therefore, on a shared understanding of a South Asian identity? Or are we only going to base our actions on knee-jerk reactions? A bottom-up approach that takes into account people’s lived experiences is required rather than policies that are framed as responses to correcting ‘historical blunders’.
Let us keep in mind that as a society we have not been able to protect or provide a minimum sense of security to those at the margins of class, caste, religious, gender and sexual identities. In such a reality, the CAA with its selectively protectionist approach is both an overstated measure and a deeply discriminatory one.
The writer’s latest book is Women, Mobility and Incarceration: Love and Recasting of Self across the Bangladesh-India Border .