Citizenship Amendment Act: Microsoft chief Satya Nadella's views are modern and progressive, and subtly question new law

Madhavan Narayanan

Did he actually say that? Did he change his mind? Did he tone down what he had said off-the-cuff on India's Citizenship Amendment Act?

You can debate what Microsoft's Indian-born CEO said about the issue, but after a careful examination of his remarks quoted by BuzzFeed and his subsequent statement to clarify his position on the NDA government's controversial law, this much is clear: He favours modern nation-states that do not discriminate on the basis of religion, ethnicity or origin, whether they are citizens inside a territory or immigrants or would-be immigrants standing at the door.

There is no doubt that the Hyderabadi cricket-lover has carefully avoided controversy. But then he calls himself an immigrant success story in the US and also talks of the possibility of a Bangladeshi immigrant leading India's software darling Infosys one day. That leaves little to the imagination €" especially after he described the latest change to citizenship rules as "sad" in the context of anti-government protests.

What he means is clear: You can be a Muslim from wherever, but it should not matter under Indian laws if you are a good person. That just stops short of openly questioning the CAA over which the government has attracted worldwide criticism and street protests in elite campuses at home.

There is a deeper side to this. What Nadella also implies is that an immigrant need not be a liability to her/his adopted land but in fact, could be an asset. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is often held up by pro-immigration activists as a showpiece for what outsiders can do to help America. Jobs was the adopted son of white working-class parents but the biological son of an immigrant from Syria. Some argue that Jobs may not have been born under current US immigration laws.

Vinod Khosla, one of the planet's biggest venture capitalists, is often discussed in the context of the number of companies and jobs he has created in the US. The IIT-Delhi graduate is the son of an Indian Army officer who fought in the China war.

In essence, growing economies and open societies often debate immigration but look at various sides of the issue. Xenophobia is not part of the desirable mindset, nor are ethnicity or religion. In that sense, Nadella's views reflect that of a modern man with an open heart and mind, who likes to look at citizenship with a progressive worldview.

All that still does not answer questions on who seeks citizenship and how: A refugee is not an immigrant and an illegal immigrant is not the same as a student who later seeks naturalised citizenship. In that sense, Nadella's statement has to be weighed carefully. But his words do open up possibilities for India.

What if a persecuted Sufi Muslim from Chittagong or a harassed Ahmadi from Lahore seek Indian citizenship €" or to start with, want a job in Wipro or Biocon? What if the former is a skilled software engineer smart with artificial intelligence and what if the latter turns out to be a specialist in biochemistry?

Theoretical physicist Abdus Salam was from Pakistan and won the Nobel prize in 1980. After being a scientific advisor to the Islamabad government, he left Pakistan in 1974 in protest over the enactment of a Constitutional Amendment that declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims. What if he had sought Indian citizenship? Under the current NDA dispensation, he would be in an immigration queue separate from that of a Hindu trader from Peshawar, even though his persecution might have been equal in degree.

The current wave of protests against the CAA are essentially not about who gets citizenship, but who gets it in an easier way, and who is viewed with higher regard €" based not on persecution per se on a case-by-case basis or general principles, but on the religion of the seeker of citizenship.

In that sense, Nadella's statement is one that in a nuanced way presents a subtle sense of equality that would treat without favour anybody fleeing persecution or seeking an opportunity. Nadella's views open up fascinating facets of citizenship in a modern republic. His words may well find themselves in petitions and pleas challenging the CAA in the Supreme Court.

The writer is a senior journalist and commentator. He tweets @madversity

Also See: 'Hope immigrant in India benefits society and economy': Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella issues toned down statement on CAA after calling situation 'sad'

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella on CAA: What's happening is sad, would love to see Bangladeshi immigrants create next unicorn in India

Satya Nadella criticises CAA: Meenakshi Lekhi lashes out at Microsoft CEO about 'Syrian Muslims'; Abhishek Singhvi shows support

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