There was, for a while now, the ominous rumbling of distant thunder. Today, this is fast gathering into a menacing storm, one which can ultimately destroy India as we know it. Many had hoped that the idea of amending citizenship laws in ways which exclude from citizenship people of just one religious identity would be abandoned in the face of vehement opposition in the states of India’s Northeast. They also expected that talk during the communally-surcharged summer election campaign of 2019, of extending the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) to states outside Assam, was just electoral provocation, which would be stilled after the polarised election accomplished its objectives.
But it is now apparent that the Union government, the ruling party and their ideological lodestar, the RSS, are determined to introduce both the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) and national NRC, in pursuit of their political agenda. Home Minister Amit Shah declares in Parliament his commitment to deport every “infiltrator” from every square inch of Indian soil, asks states to build detention centres for foreigners, and affirms his resolve to pass the CAB in ways that protect the interests of states of the Northeast. Several BJP chief ministers and leaders call for the extension of the NRC to their states. And Mohan Bhagwat, RSS chief, assures Hindus that they will not be harmed in any way by the NRC.
The result is widespread panic and dread in Muslim settlements across India, including in Bengal, Bihar, UP and the metropolises. People are desperately asking what documents will be required to prove they are Indian citizens, what the cut-off year will be — 1971, 1947, 1951, 1987 — and what will be the consequences for those who cannot muster these documents. No one in the ruling establishment is supplying answers, and the trepidation and confusion only mounts each day. Even in our homeless shelters in Delhi, Muslim homeless people are asking us — “What will become of us? We have no documents.” Meanwhile, Indians of all other religious persuasions are unperturbed.
For the first 40 years of freedom, until 1987, anyone born in India was deemed an Indian citizen. In 1987, the law was amended to require, in addition, that at least one parent was Indian. In 2003, I could become a citizen only if one parent was Indian and the other not an illegal migrant, defined as one who has entered or stayed in India without legal authorisation.
This laid the seeds of the terrifying exclusions which lie ahead. What the CAB, if passed, would do is to allow illegal migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, who are of every religious identity except Muslim, to become Indian citizens. Combined with the 2003 amendment, this would mean that only Muslims who are unable to prove that they did not enter India unlawfully would be deemed illegal migrants. Not only they, but their children, and in turn their children, would be denied the right to Indian citizenship. This denial would be in perpetuity, because there is no redress in the law for the progeny of such persons to ever become Indian citizens, even though they were born in India, and know and aspire for no other country.
This amendment would also mean, in effect, that the NRC will have no impact on people other than Muslims, because all others would qualify for Indian citizenship even if they are undocumented. The NRC, after the CAB, would, in operation, only require Muslim Indians to establish that they or their ancestors entered India lawfully. Other Indians may be mandated to produce documents, but even if they fail, they would qualify for citizenship. The Supreme Court has already shifted the burden of proof to individuals to prove their citizenship based on documents such as of birth, land ownership or voting rights, which most impoverished and poorly lettered citizens find difficult to muster. To make matters worse, the home ministry under Shah has already notified the right of every state government, and even district magistrates, to establish Foreigners’ Tribunals, and for these tribunals to frame their own procedures and standards of proof.
The Union government is confident of passing the CAB in the Rajya Sabha, given the divided and ideologically confused Opposition. But even before this change in law, the Union government, by a notification in 2015, had exempted non-Muslim “illegal immigrants” from the three neighbouring countries from adverse legal action, and in 2018, had accelerated the process for their citizenship.
The CAB, and indeed these notifications, fly in the face of many fundamental rights under the Indian Constitution. One of these is the right to equality. After all, if religious persecution of illegal migrants in India’s neighbourhood is deemed to qualify migrants for accelerated citizenship, then why not extend this to the Rohingya from Myanmar, Uyghurs from China, Ahmediyas and Shias from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and indeed secular bloggers and homosexual Muslims from these countries?
But even more fundamentally, these amendments strike at the soul of the secular democratic constitution of India. The India we inherited from Mahatma Gandhi, B R Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad was a country which belonged equally, in every way, to all its people, regardless of which god they worshipped or if they chose to worship no god. India was not imagined as a country that would either exclude or include people on the basis of their religious identity.
A hundred years ago, the Hindu Mahasabha, and in 1925, the RSS, imagined another India, one in which Hindus would rule and dominate, and in which Muslims would be expelled or forced to live as second-class citizens. The current ruling establishment believes that 100 years later, their time has come. The CAB, followed by a nation-wide NRC, in which effectively only Muslims will have to prove their citizenship, will result in untold fear, suffering and dislocation of millions of Muslim citizens.
This is the fearful tempest that threatens to engulf India in the coming months, one which will destroy in its wake this country as it was imagined and promised. Our Muslim sisters and brothers are today seeing clearly the threat of this impending catastrophe. The rest of us continue with our lives, unconcerned.
Do we not realise that this will mark the death of India’s secular democratic constitution?
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 3, 2019, under the title ‘The rising storm’. The writer is a human rights worker and writer