The fire that emanated from the political speeches in the parliament during the debate on the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) of 2019 has engulfed the entire nation in less than two weeks. If the media narrative is any reflection, the country appears vertically divided on the issue.
The people opposing the legislation are questioning the timing, purpose, validity and relevance of the legislation and are worried about the intent of the BJP-led government. This section of people is viewing this step as a part of the larger right-wing nationalist agenda which
prima facie appears against the idea of a democratic, inclusive and progressive nation-state as promised by the founding fathers of the constitution.
However, those in support find it a step in the right direction, as it purports to correct a historical lacuna. This group is strongly supporting this legislation claiming that since it was part of BJP manifesto that earned them an overwhelming majority in the 2019 general elections, the idea is already validated by the wider support of the population.
The government response to the situation, threatening to go out of control if not managed immediately and appropriately, has so far been ambiguous and lacking. On one hand the home minister and BJP acting president have forcefully reiterated that a nationwide NRC is imminent; on the other hand they are invalidating the nationwide protests as ill-informed and invalid because the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA2019) does not refer to NRC.
In my view, there are numerous questions that are still unanswered, intentionally or erroneously, in this whole debate and agitation. For example, consider the following
The objective of the legislation
The stated objective of CAA2019 is to correct a historical lacuna. It is believed that since the constitution of three neighbouring countries specifies Islam as the state religion, non-Muslims in these countries, who had chosen to stay there at the time of partition in 1947, face persecution in their day-to-day life on the basis of their religion. Therefore, these people need to be accepted back in India as citizens.
However, in the present form, the benefit of the amendment is limited to only 33,000 odd persons who crossed the border illegally before December 31, 2014 cutoff date.The unanswered question is what about the persecution of millions of
non-Muslims who chose not to cross the border illegally but do face persecution in their day-to-day life and may want to immigrate? These people would need to follow the long and arduous path of naturalisation to become a citizen of India. Incidentally, all the instances of persecution cited by the home minister during the parliament debate did occur after 2014.
Obviously, the objective of the CAA2019 is not convincing enough.
Religion vs. Community
To implement the objective of CAA2019, the government has apparently identified 33,000 odd non-Muslim illegal immigrants from three neighbouring countries. But it has not been clarified how the government would identify the religion of the people for the purposes of the Act or NRC.It is pertinent to note in this context that —
The Citizenship Act 1955 does not define or even contain the term Hindu or Hindu religion. The Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 also does not define or the term Hindu or Hindu religion. It mentions the "Hindu Community" and not "Hindu religion" anywhere. Does it mean that community and religion are synonymous? Explanation to Article 25 (2) (b) of the Constitution says “Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jain, or Buddhist religion.” If that be the case, why CAA2019 refers to Sikh, Jain and Buddhists separately? In Ramkrishan Mission (1995) judgment, the Supreme Court had said "When we think of the Hindu religion, we find it difficult, if not impossible, to define Hindu religion or even adequately describe it.....It may broadly be described as a way of life and nothing more.” So unless a law specifically defines who is a "Hindu", this judgment shall remain valid and any attempt to define "Hindu" as a religion may be ultra vires. RSS and Hindu Mahasabha leaders have defined ‘Hindu’ as any person who considers India as his Motherland. As per this view, any person geographically and culturally rooted in India is a Hindu.
The question begging an answer is "could a Muslim who claims to follow Hindu way of life and being rooted culturally and geographically in India must be treated as Hindu for the purposes of any law?"
National Register of Citizens
Ill-prepared nationwide NRC is the strongest fear driving the agitation across the country.
As per section 14A added to the Citizenship Act 1955 through the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003, the Central Government is mandated "to compulsorily register every citizen of India and issue national identity card to him for Identification."
As per the Rule 4 of the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003, for preparing the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the central government is required "to carry throughout the country a house-to-house enumeration for collection of specified particulars relating to each family and individual, residing in a local area including the Citizenship status." The Rule 4 further provides that "During the verification process, particulars of such individuals, whose Citizenship is doubtful, shall be entered by the Local Registrar with appropriate remark in the Population Register for further enquiry and in case of doubtful Citizenship, the individual or the family shall be informed in a specified proforma immediately after the verification process is over."The following points are noteworthy in this regard:
There is no column prescribed for mentioning "religion" in the NRC. The Rules do not specify the documents and other evidence that shall be used to verify the particulars and citizenship claim of any person. So the popular perception is that the list of documents and evidence applied to Assam NRC will be applicable throughout the country.
The Assam NRC, as per the Supreme Court Order, required documentary evidence of presence in India before 24 March 1971 for the applicant or his ancestors. If these rules are extended to the whole of India, many people may be left out and may require going through the arduous review and appealing procedure that may take years to complete.
The question is why did the government not complete the regulatory framework well in advance to assure the public and assuage their concerns?The media campaign that indicates the documents that could be submitted for verification for the purposes of NRC has no regulatory basis or even official sanctity.
The exercise of Aadhar and National Population Register (NPR) is apparently similar to NRC. Did the government examine if the data could be pulled from Aadhar registry or NPR to populate NRC? Those not having Aadhar could have been required to obtain it within a specified period or prove their citizenship otherwise, given the official claim that 99.99 percent of people have already obtained Aadhar registration. Consequences
The consequences of the ill-prepared CAA2019 is that the country is witnessing widespread protests, disharmony amongst citizens, civil unrest, a general environment of mistrust and anguish and no-confidence in the administration.
The question that needs to be answered is whether the government anticipated this consequence or not before pushing the CAA2019 in the parliament and making emphatic statements about the imminent implementation of NRC?
If the government did anticipate this, what were the precautionary steps taken to prevent this outcome?
If the government did not anticipate this outcome, why should a common citizen have faith in the competence of the intelligence agencies and law and order machinery of the country that is responsible for their safety and security?
The last and perhaps the most critical question that needs to be answered is whether the intent behind the CAA2019 and NRC is to strengthen the rule of law or create an environment of prolonged uncertainty for political gains?
Vijay Kumar Gaba explores the treasure you know as India, and shares his experiences and observations about social, economic and cultural events and conditions. He contributes his pennies to the society as Director, Equal India Foundation. The views are personal. Read his columns