India is losing the promise of inclusivity

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee
Citizenship Bill, citizenship amendment bill, Union Cabinet, Union cabinet decisions, Nirmala Sithararaman, Citizenship Bill in Parliament

The Citizenship Amendment Bill is being opposed across the North East while in Assam, groups see it as a “threat” to the indigenous communities of the region. (File Photo)

The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) was passed in the Lok Sabha on December 9 and in the Rajya Sabha December 11. It introduces special provisions for Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains and Buddhists fleeing persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Amending the Citizenship Act of 1955, the CAB makes partial gestures of inclusivity, but within an exclusionary framework. The idea of citizenship has been broadened to include persecuted migrants seeking asylum. But the criterion includes minorities only from Muslim-majority countries, and persecuted Muslims have been kept out. By excluding Muslim refugees from the CAB, and including everyone except Muslim immigrants in the proposed National Register for Citizenship (NRC), the government has closed the doors to India’s largest minority from both sides.

The US Commission for International Religious Freedom issued a statement, that the CAB, “runs counter to India’s rich history of secular pluralism and the Indian Constitution, which guarantees equality before the law regardless of faith”. The statement is a good reminder of how India is losing the promise of inclusivity.

In response to Algu Rai Shastri’s question in the Constituent Assembly debates on January 8, 1949, who sought clarity on “who is a citizen of India and who is not”, Jawaharlal Nehru, responded, “So far as the refugees are concerned... we accept as citizens anybody who calls himself a citizen of India”. He based the idea of asylum on a combination of free will with affectivity. The decision to belong comes from the feeling to belong, and both deserve to be respected. This is perhaps the widest possible humanist consideration behind defining the citizen.

During the Debates, on August 12, 1949, Mahboob Ali Baig from Madras pondered why should any Indian (he did not specify religion) wanting to migrate from Pakistan “on account of civil disturbances” be put under question. Baig reminded the House that during the transfer of power, there was an agreement by both parties to protect and safeguard minorities. But, after the transfer, Baig said, “there was a holocaust. there were tragedies which compelled persons to migrate”. Arguing against the logic of suspicion, Baig stated, “to say those people coming to India might become traitors and therefore, they should not be allowed to come back, that is no reason at all. With this temperament you will never become strong.” Any nation based on paranoia cannot be strong.

Baig argued that people migrate out of “circumstances” where the mind is full of fear and doesn’t work freely, or with clarity. It does not warrant any discrimination against those people based on their identity. There is no reason to deny them asylum.

Nehru voiced a similar opinion, regarding “Nationalist Muslims. who were driven out by circumstances and who having gone to the other side saw that they had no place there at all”. Considered “opponents and enemies”, when their lives were made miserable in Pakistan, these Muslims expressed a desire to return, and some did. Pakistan considered these Muslims its enemy not based on religion, but nationality (even ethnicity). Be it religion or nation, suspicion is a territorial sentiment. Trust must die, for the enemy to be born. In Nehru’s account, the sentiment of warmth cancels suspicion. He also draws a tacit distinction between the circumstantial and the filial: Those who return home can reclaim their belonging.

Tabling the Bill in the Lok Sabha, Amit Shah said, “The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill wouldn’t have been needed if the Congress had not allowed partition on basis of religion”. The logic of Partition is enhanced, not cured, by blaming the tragic event to justify a new law of segregation. It is a contradictory and self-serving logic, seeking to restore communal divisions by accusing others of it.

Bihar’s Brajeshwar Prasad made the point during the debates that “the mischief of partition should not be allowed to spread beyond the legal fact of partition”. The communal politics of Partition, Prasad felt, must end after Independence. But it was inevitable that the logic — or the law — of that politics would linger. Partition is not just a legal, but a historical fact, and it was survived by the politics that created it. On the question of migration, Prasad raised the interesting argument that everyone under the colonial territory deserved to find asylum in India. It was an anti-colonial idea of citizenship. He said, if people who have “always lived in the Punjab and on the frontier have come and become citizens of this State; why cannot a Muhammadan of the frontier be so when we have always said that we are one?”

In contrast, Amit Shah said in the Rajya Sabha, the government was interested in persecuted non-Muslims from the three Islamic states alone. He scoffed at the Opposition for limiting its secularism to Muslims. The obverse logic is chilling: To consider the rights of Muslims is no longer necessary for secularism.

BJP leaders have consistently blamed Nehruvian secularism for being a politics of “appeasement”. Provoked by this accusation, Nehru had said during the debates: “Do the honourable Members who talk of appeasement think that some kind of rule should be applied when dealing with these people which has nothing to do with justice or equity?” The bogey of appeasement diverts attention from what minorities deserve. Nehru also defended the secular state by objecting to the impression that it is something “amazingly generous, given something out of our pocket”. The argument in favour of the secular state was never to imply something extraordinary. It was meant to cure people’s historical prejudices, and keep a nation-state from relapsing into majoritarianism. Both these possibilities have today regained their hold on the polity and the social sphere. We are poised to lose, not find, the ethical understanding of who ought to be a citizen of India.

This article first appeared in the print edition on December 13, 2019 under the title 'Who is a citizen?' Bhattacharjee is author of Looking For the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India.