For the first time in India, citizenship will be defined, for some men, women and children, in religious terms. That is the terrible — and terrifying — burden of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 cleared by the Union cabinet on Wednesday, which is all set to be introduced in Parliament this session. Going by the indications from a subdued and quiescent Opposition so far, this bill will be passed by both Houses this time, unlike in the previous Lok Sabha when the Opposition forced it to a Joint Parliamentary Committee, with several parties submitting dissent notes. That will be a travesty. From the very beginning, this bill has alarmed all those who have stakes in peace and calm in the Northeast — in its present version, it exempts large swathes of it from its provisions, so the dangers posed to a region already roiled by the cloddish National Register of Citizens process can be said to have been blunted somewhat. But the bill, in all its versions, raises a wider, more fundamental worry. By amending the Citizenship Act 1955 to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, while shutting India’s doors on all those who are Muslim, because they are Muslim, the proposed law violates the fundamental right to equality assured by the Indian Constitution, and its explicit prohibition of discrimination on the basis of religion. It also undermines the very foundation of the Republic in a spacious and plural idea that was nurtured and nourished by the freedom movement, an idea that refuted the two-nation theory that led to the creation of Pakistan.
The proposed citizenship law has the potential to make the NRC process, which has ignited more faultlines than it has settled in Assam, and which the Modi government promises, or threatens, to expand nation-wide, into little more than a witch-hunt against Muslims. The NRC’s fig leaf has been that it aims to settle long festering questions of belonging and identity in a region with a history of demographic turbulence. The proposed law’s own fig leaf is that it gives succour and refuge to minorities that are persecuted or fear persecution in Muslim-majority neighbouring countries. But if the citizenship bill is born of empathy for the vulnerable and the persecuted, why not extend it to the Rohingya from Myanmar, or the Ahmadiyas from Pakistan?
It is not just the Northeast, nor even only the minorities, which must worry about the citizenship bill becoming law. Its march to formalisation must concern all Indians who fear that this country will lose an inextricable and precious part of itself if it were to define itself as a nation with two kinds of citizens and citizenship, or if it is seen as one by its neighbours and the world. It must provoke the Supreme Court, which monitored the NRC process that the government at the state and the Centre have all but rejected because its results told an inconvenient truth. Can the nation’s highest court countenance such a drastic and unconstitutional change in the character of the nation, in its very basic structure?