INDIAN Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent move to drive the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) through Parliament of India has ignited nationwide remonstrance that has often turned violent. Given that the exercise relies on extensive documentation to prove that their ancestors lived in India, many Muslim citizens fear that they could be becoming stateless. The big question that stirs the mind of many Muslims is: Who will be regarded as an Indian citizen? And who will be considered an illegal foreigner? The communal segregation and apartheid regime is being introduced via this divisive and polarized citizenship bill.
Opponents of the said bill say the law is exclusionary and violates the secular principles enshrined in the Constitution of India, as well the UN’s Charter of human rights. They justifiably argue faith should not be made a condition of Indian citizenship. The bill provides citizenship to religious minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), says this will give sanctuary to people fleeing religious persecution. Let’s be clear: The law isn’t truly about protecting the region’s religious minorities. Instead, it challenges India’s secularism by making religion part of the basis for citizenship. Whilst the top leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) deny that the bill discriminates against Muslims, the BJP’s President Amit Shah has repeatedly indexed his desire to crack down on Muslim immigrants. “A Bharatiya Janata Party government will pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal,” he said in April, referring to Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. Speaking in the state of Jharkhand earlier this month, he repeated himself: “I assure you that before the national election in 2024, I will throw them all out.”
It goes needless to say that euphorically Premier Modi’s extraordinary political success (apparently under fire) reflects both his deeply-rooted ideological instincts and his quest for utter opportunism. Having crushed the Congress Party in May’s election, he thinks himself as an inevitable force to India’s future while becoming the Indian leader for another five years in power, and few obstacles in his path. But the current divisive developments highly suggest that Modi is sowing seeds of India’s social-political and constitutional destruction. There can be no doubt about where that path is leading. The legislation, warns the noted scholar Pratap Bhanu Mehta, is a giant step towards converting a constitutional democracy into an unconstitutional ethnocracy. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) has already left nearly two million people at risk of arbitrary detention and statelessness in India’s northeast state of Assam. In August, Assam completed the NRC following repeated protests and violence by Assamese groups against ethnic Bengali settlers who they said were affecting the cultural, ethnic and economic rights of Assam’s original inhabitants.
The proposed law violates India’s international obligations under international law to prevent deprivation of citizenship on the basis of race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin as found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other human rights treaties. The 1992 Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities establishes the obligation of countries to protect the existence and identity of religious minorities within their territories and to adopt the appropriate measures to achieve this end. Governments are required to ensure that people belonging to minority groups, including religious minorities, may exercise their human rights without discrimination and in full equality before the law. Notwithstanding the fact that India’s broader naturalization laws remain in place, these amendments will have a discriminatory effect on people’s access to a nationality”, Jeremy Laurence, a spokesperson with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said on Friday. A Muslim political party along with lawyers and rights groups have challenged the law in India’s Supreme Court, arguing that it violates the country’s secular constitution. The UN Human Rights Office says it hopes the justices will consider whether the law is compatible with India’s international human rights obligations.
Today, India faces worldwide criticism and denunciation of its new law. After the citizenship law’s approval, a State Department spokesperson said, “The United States urges India to protect the rights of its religious minorities in keeping with India’s constitution and democratic values.” Sam Brownback, the US envoy on religious freedom, voiced respect for India’s institutions. However, he said the United States was “concerned” with the citizenship bill, and called on India to “abide by its constitutional commitments.” The US Commission on International Religious Freedom called for sanctions on India if the CAB passed, calling the bill a “dangerous turn in the wrong direction.” The US, UK, and France have issued travel advisories for their citizens travelling to India.
Needless to mention, the new laws are also the culmination of the long-held view by hard-line Hindu fanatics that India’s constitution needs replacing. Muslims, they believe, are descendants of Hindus who were forcibly converted. According to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the RSS, a forerunner of the BJP, so too are Christians. In true form, BJP leaders have been using inflammatory and dehumanising language to describe Muslims. Home Minister and BJP President Amit Shah has described them as “termites” and claimed the NRC would be used to “remove them”. One could reasonably think that it is a dangerous time to be in India, especially for those who have had believed in the idea of India after the partition with Pakistan, and the successive generations that mistakenly thrived on that idea. The idea of a nation chartering on the principles of cultural and religious diversity— of people from different regions, of different religions, and of different castes and colours are at risk. Now under the Modi’s regime, the Hindu right-wing in India is busy trying to change the social fabric of the nation and turn it into a Hindu nation — run by the upper-caste Hindus. The prime objective for them is to gain traction by changing the constitution.
—The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of Washington Foreign Law Society and European Society of International Law.