Are fears over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act misplaced?

A protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Bengaluru. Anti-CAA protesters believe that a section of Indian Muslims could lose citizenship.   | Photo Credit: Shailendra Bhojak

A day after asserting at an election rally that those “creating a storm” against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) can be “identified by their clothes itself”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that “no Indian has anything to worry regarding this Act”. It is unfair to dismiss without careful consideration the government’s claim that Indians have nothing to fear from the CAA. Not even its critics can deny that all that the CAA does is to offer a benefit: citizenship. It does not take away anything from anyone. And, it offers the benefits of citizenship to persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

True, it doesn’t offer this benefit to persecuted Ahmadiyyas or Shias from these countries. It is discriminatory towards persecuted non-Indians who are Muslims. But what has that got to do with Indians, or Indian Muslims, for that matter? As has been pointed out umpteen times by Home Minister Amit Shah, the CAA doesn’t even refer to Muslims. So why is it being said that this law targets Indian Muslims?

No CAA without NRIC

For an answer, we don’t need to look beyond the Home Minister’s own statements. Mr. Shah has repeatedly underscored two things: one, he will implement the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC), extending the NRC exercise conducted in Assam to the rest of India; and two, the sequence is all-important: he will implement the CAA first, and only after that, the NRIC.

Put simply, the CAA is a safety net that will ensure, and insure, the citizenship of all Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis — not just the lakhs of Hindus classed as “illegal migrants” by the Assam NRC, but also others all over India who might be categorised as “foreigners” when the NRIC is implemented. The citizenship of all of them will first be secured through the CAA, and only then, after all non-Muslims are protected with requisite citizenship-related documentation, will the all-India NRC or NRIC be implemented. If there is no NRIC, there would be no need for the CAA either. The NRIC’s objective is to divide the people domiciled in India into two categories: citizens and “illegal migrants”. The CAA’s objective is to pre-emptively rescue, prior to the NRIC exercise, the citizenship of all Indians except those whose religion finds no mention in the CAA.

Threat of omission

It’s simple arithmetic: add all the religious groups under threat of exclusion by the NRIC (Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Parsis). Subtract from this set all the religious groups secured by the CAA (Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Parsis). We are left only with Muslims as the remainder. They will be the only community excluded from the ‘legislative benevolence’ of the Indian state as incarnated in the CAA. Ready to be scooped up, like so many gasping fish, by the NRIC net.

Every Indian who is puzzled by the intensity of the anti-CAA protests sweeping the country needs to answer a few simple questions: What happens when, after Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian residents of India who are excluded by the NRIC are granted citizenship, thanks to the CAA, only Muslim “non-citizens” remain? Will these stateless people be sent to detention camps? Or will they be accorded an inferior status in a hierarchy of citizenship where non-Muslims occupy a higher position?

Even if the government were to announce that it won’t implement the CAA, the very existence of this legislation is a danger to the social fabric of the country, for it is a tremendous enabler of hate speech. The world’s foremost experts on Genocide Prevention consider hate speech the prime harbinger of genocide. “The Holocaust did not start with the gas chambers. It started long before with hate speech,” observed Adama Dieng, the UN Secretary General’s Special Adviser on Prevention of Hate Speech, on Prevent Genocide Day this month. As a political tool, the CAB-NRIC combo has the potential to encourage hate speech, especially at election time. As an administrative tool, it weakens constitutional safeguards against genocidal machinations, which could prove deadly in the unlikely event of the world’s largest democracy mutating into a majoritarian state sympathetic to such machinations.

Exclusionary precedents

There is ample historical precedent for exclusionary citizenship laws and the ends they served. The Reich Citizenship Law of 1935 stripped German Jews of their citizenship, and everyone knows what came after. Closer home, the 1982 Citizenship Law in Myanmar rendered Rohingya Muslims stateless, despite the fact that they were indigenous to the Arakan region. Myanmar is currently facing charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice.

Assurances by the government that “no Indian will lose citizenship” are to be welcomed. But anti-CAA protesters are convinced that under the CAA-NRIC regime, sections of Muslims will cease to be “Indians” anyway. Once they lose their citizenship, the government can still claim that no “Indian” has lost citizenship, for it is the government which decides who is an Indian and who isn’t.

If it is indeed the case that all fears about the CAA are misplaced, and it is only “vested interests” that are misleading the nation, then it is easy for the Prime Minister to dispel such misapprehensions. Instead of blandly insisting that “not a single Indian will lose citizenship”, he only needs to declare categorically that the government will never, ever conduct anything like the NRIC. And he must repeat this assurance in every election rally, tweet it out, and reiterate it in his radio address. Can he do so? If he cannot, or will not, then what does that say of the intent behind the CAA?

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2021 9:03:59 AM |

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