The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) has reopened a fundamental debate that lies at the heart of India’s identity quest. Who is an Indian is a question that has been central to the task of nation-building since the Raj as the country, after the Muslim League asserted itself as representing the largest minority, was divided on the basis of religion in 1947.
India’s Constitution-makers discussed and debated the topic for almost two years. They ultimately chose a territorial definition of Indian citizenship: Whoever was born in India was an Indian regardless of any other identity marker. This expansive definition stood in stark contrast with the idea of citizenship that Pakistan finally adopted: As the “homeland” of Muslims, this country could only have a Muslim head of state after the 1956 constitution was passed.
Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first deputy prime minister and home minister, commended the Constituent Assembly members for their inclusive idea of citizenship. He had reminded them of Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle in South Africa against racial discrimination and had urged the members to not opt for an ethnicity-based notion of citizenship. This provision, to him and for many other members, was vital since it would be “scrutinised all over the world”.
The Citizenship Act (1955), which resulted from all these debates, now governs the citizenship law in India. Though this law has been amended multiple times, the first successful attempt to insert ethno-religious categorisation of citizenship took place in early 2004 under the Vajpayee government. This amendment, simultaneous to the changes in citizenship rules, was passed in the face of growing unrest in Assam.
While undocumented migrants were debarred from becoming citizens, this amendment allowed an exception for Pakistani Hindus from being considered illegal migrants, claiming that they were a persecuted community: India had begun to abandon the territorial idea of citizenship in favour of ethno-religious notions.
The current amendment to the Citizenship Act relies on the same idea. It intends to give shelter and protection to persecuted minorities by welcoming them as refugees and to grant them a fast track to citizenship by naturalisation after a period of six years. But it is prepared to do it in a discriminatory manner, preparing the ground for a faith-based definition of citizenship.
Indeed, the CAB would only apply to undocumented “Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians, and Parsis” from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Such migrants would become “refugees” whereas Muslims and members of other minorities, or atheists, would remain illegal. The GoI argues that Muslims cannot be oppressed in countries where Islam is an official religion, but Ahmaddiyas and Shias are in Pakistan, like Hazaras (also Shias) in Afghanistan. The CAB also ignores other neighbouring countries, including Sri Lanka and Myanmar, where Tamils and Rohingya are at the receiving end of the state.
These contradictions reflect the majoritarian dimension of this reform. After its inability to secure passage of the Bill in early 2019 because of the opposition or abstention of a majority of MPs in the Rajya Sabha, the BJP re-activated the discourse on the citizenship amendments during the 2019 election campaign. BJP’s president and now the country’s home minister, Amit Shah, had termed the infiltrators as “termites” in one of his election speeches and promised to “throw them out” of India while protecting “refugees” if voted back to power. During the 2016 state elections in Assam, the BJP had already promised to “clean” this province of “illegal migrants” through the CAB.
On top of that, the government has pledged to bring an all-India National Register of Citizens (NRC) to drive out the undocumented “migrants”, repeating the exercise recently completed in Assam. In the contentious final NRC draft of Assam, 19 lakh people were left out from Indian citizenship; at least one third of these people, according to estimates, are non-Muslims.
Hence, after the new citizenship law is passed, these non-Muslims will become refugees (and Indian citizens after six years), whereas an ethno-religious criterion will guide the exclusion of the Muslim migrants from citizenship. These developments are bound to change the political demography of Assam, making the Hindu voters a clearer majority.
A nation-wide combination of the CAB and NRC will mark India as the natural habitat of Hindus while deriding some Muslims as “foreigners”. Indians will be called Indians not only on territorial grounds but also on ethno-racial and religious lines. This worldview is well in tune with the vision of V D Savarkar, the architect of the Hindutva ideology, who wrote: “The Hindus are not merely the citizens of the Indian state because they are united not only by the bonds of the love they bear to a common motherland, but also by the bonds of a common blood. They are not only a nation but a race-jati.”
However, Savarkar, interestingly, added: “Any convert of non-Hindu parentage to Hindutva can be a Hindu, if bona fide, he or she adopts our land as his or her country and marries a Hindu, thus coming to love our country as a real Pithrubhumi (Fatherland), and adopts our culture and thus adores our land as the Punyabhumi (Sacred Land).”
In other words, for Savarkar, conversion to Hindutva (sic) was a way to become a citizen of India, but such a convert had to marry a Hindu too. This definition of the Indian identity has strong affinities with the ethno-nationalist ideologies of the European ideologues from whom the promoters of Hindutva drew their inspiration in the interwar period. M S Golwalkar, for instance, refers to many German theoreticians of the ethnic nation in his 1939 book, We, or Our Nationhood Defined.
The CAB would not only change how the state views its citizens’ rights but, it would also revise the conception of group rights in India. There has always been some tension between the liberal idea of individual rights and group-based rights in the Indian Republic. Until now, group rights have been used for emancipatory purposes to undo the historical wrongs — for instance, through quotas in public education and jobs for OBCs and Dalits. In that sense, the hierarchy of rights on class, caste or gender lines in India is meant for a gradualist, progressive social change.
At other times, group differentiation has been used to respect diversity — through special cultural rights of religious as well as linguistic minorities and tribals, and by re-drawing the internal map of India on linguistic lines. The Modi government plans to radically reformulate the logic of community rights in India to exclude some Muslims from Indian citizenship. In turn, this new definition of group rights will worsen the socio-economic conditions of Muslims, who are already experiencing some decline.
The questioning of the autonomy of India’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu & Kashmir, the Supreme Court’s decision to give Babri Masjid land to build a Ram Mandir, and a nation-wide NRC coupled with the proposed CAB would further change the character of the Indian Republic. India may no longer be a de facto Hindu Rashtra, but, to some extent, a de jure Hindu Rashtra with legally sanctioned religion-based exclusions effected without changing the Constitution. It is now for the courts to decide whether some of these changes will stand the test of constitutionality or not.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 12, 2019 under the title ‘Redefining the republic’. Jaffrelot is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, and Professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London. Laliwala is an independent scholar on politics and history of Gujarat
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