The Lok Sabha passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019 with an overwhelming majority. The Bill has evoked very strong reactions from some sections of society. The people in Northeastern states, especially Assam, have opposed the amendments to the citizenship laws as a threat to their ethnic identity; many others have criticised it as discriminatory on the basis of religion and hence ultra vires the Constitutional guarantee of equality.
Over the past few days, I have been watching the debate over Citizenship Amendment Bill closely. Unfortunately, I find the debate sophist, provocative, ill-informed and suffering from prejudices against the ruling party.
Arguably, many find the ruling party lacking in efforts to build wider consensus on important national issues of far-reaching consequences. But the prejudices of those opposed to the ruling party might be equally responsible for the current state of affairs. The consequences are that we see the ruling party that enjoys full majority in the Lok Sabha, often practising majoritarianism to further its agenda.
Insofar as the latest proposed amendments to the Citizenship Act of 1955 are concerned, prima facie I do not find these amendments directly harming anyone. In my view, these amendments only seek to provide opportunity to the non-Muslims from three neighboring countries, viz., Islamic Republic of Pakistan, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and People's Republic of Bangladesh, who have entered India before December 31, 2014, to apply for the citizenship of India after they have stayed in India for a period of five years; provided they have stayed in the areas specified under the Schedule VI of the Constitution (primarily tribal areas and inner line permit areas of the Northeastern states).
To this extent, it does not in any manner change the status of Muslims from the three specified countries, and people of other nationalities who have entered India illegally at any point in time.
The people opposing the amendments seem to be suggesting that these changes are prejudicial to the interest of Muslims living in India. This argument appears prima facie flawed to me. In my view, this amendment apparently does not have any impact whatsoever on the current status of Muslims from the three specified countries and people of other nationalities.
If we compare the state of affairs pre- and post- this amendment, we find that the amendment may, or may not, benefit non-Muslims from the three specified countries, but it definitely maintains
status quo in respect of all others. So, arguably, this amendment is an incremental improvement over the pre-amendment status insofar as the question of human rights is concerned.
From an objective viewpoint, instead of opposing the present measure as inequitable, the humanitarian and just course would be (i) to fully support this amendment that may benefit millions of people living a sub-optimal life in India, and (ii) to continue fighting for extending the similar benefits the other people who have been left out of the scope of this amendment.
However, if we evaluate the latest amendments assuming nationwide implementation of the National Citizenship Register (NRC), we may conclude that besides the non-Muslims from the three specified countries, all other illegal immigrants have been put at relative disadvantage. The pertinent questions to examine in this context would therefore be, whether‑
(a) India, being a secular country should not distinguish between the illegal immigrant on the basis of religion and region and accept or reject all illegal immigrants alike.
(b) India should accept the status quo and admit all those staying in India today as her legal citizen, and implement NRC accordingly.
(c) India, should reject all the illegal immigrants, regardless of their regional, ethnic and religious identities? or
(d) India should leave the question of illegal immigrants for another day.
Awareness campaign needed
In my view, the socio-economic conditions in the country today do not favour major disruption of any kind. It is important that the government builds an environment of trust and optimism to prepare society for the serious technological, demographic, and economic challenges. The better course for the government would have been to engage the common people in pursuit of their objectives. The government must have organised open debates on public platforms and run an extensive awareness campaign on media and listened to the objections more compassionately before taking a legislative measure.
To be fair to the BJP, they have made this promise in their election manifesto and can morally claim the popular mandate for implementing these changes.
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. Read his columns