OPINION | Citizenship Bill is India’s Moral and Constitutional Responsibility, a Humanitarian Relief for Persecuted Minorities

(by Lalita Nijhawan)

A prominent journalist said that our nation can’t take more people. While there is no nation that can take more than its due, our country can take that burden as it always has for decades. Walking on the streets of India you will see different shades of skin, you will hear different languages that change ever so slightly with a little distance, your heart will sink when you will bear witness to the disparity in income with slums that have numbers ready to challenge any metropolitan city in the West, and be awestruck by grandiose mansions on the other side of the fence. Our country has different religions and social practices, every moment on the streets of our nation you will witness people who openly flaunt their religion with pomp and gusto, so much so that us nationals cannot keep count. This is proof of our secularism, this is testimony to our flourishing diversity.

Author and historian Devdutt Pattanaik beautifully stated that we are the only nation that thrives in chaos, that we are not supposed to function but we do and might I add we function effectively. If you look closely you will see that there is ‘order in chaos’. When we band together despite adversities and are able to move forward with both legs bound, we have nothing to fear as we cannot lose. Yet, we raise our voice for fear of being silenced, protest violently for fear of being ignored, fight every humanitarian and economic act that the current electorate has presented to us.

I see many people being frightened by the opportunities provided in the Indian Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2019, and planning to step back from the title of ‘a nation of diversity, freedom, and humanitarianism’ for imagined slights and unnecessary conditions. Our political parties thrive at the opportunity of opposing each other, for we thrive in chaos and when someone else fails. Perhaps it’s time to stop thriving by stepping onto someone else’s back.

Look closely at who fails if this Bill isn’t passed: it’s the people who are living in our country and are part of our economic strength, it’s the people who have grown to love our chaos. We are hurting millions who have anxiously been waiting for their turn to call themselves ‘Indian’. It’s so easy to throw jabs at US President Donald Trump when he ups the visa regulations making it difficult for foreign nationals to enter or stay in the US, but we can’t rise up to the occasion to show the world that we care with our current attempts at reforms.

During the Syrian war, refugees flocked to Europe in millions and select countries opened their doors, adjusted their policies and even marketed to serve to the minorities. We don’t even have to adjust as we’re already there. We talk about ‘brotherly love’ for our neighbouring citizens, but when it comes to providing a helping hand, it suddenly infringes on our ethnicity. We have survived hundreds of years of war, colonialism and invasions, and yet, the argument that Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019 has the power to distill our values is illogical. It is baseless fear mongering.

Citizenship is a tricky business globally but particularly so in India. Since 1955, the Bill has not been amended and it makes it extremely difficult, if not near impossible, for people to get citizenship. The root of this problem goes back the day we got Independence. At the moment of freedom, people of pre-Independence India were informed they were in Pakistan, which was not a part of Hindustan anymore.

Soon after, the greatest mass migration this world has ever seen took place and many died walking for miles on foot with no food or water, traversing the tough terrain to cross the border and reach India. Some brave ones thought things would calm down with time and wanted to stay in the land of their ancestors. They patiently waited for decades but time has not been kind to them or to their offspring as the persecution lives on in strength and number. Millions of people who have flocked to our land have been unfortunate victims of religious persecutions. All they wish to do now is have a place they can call ‘home’, a place where the future of their children is secure, a place where that they can share their identity with pride.

While introducing the Bill in the Lok Sabha, Union Home Minister Amit Shah correctly implied that we are a democratic nation, but other nations do not have our view of equal constitutional and human rights for minorities. Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are all ‘Islamic States’. The term ‘Islam’ is heavily preferred above all in their Constitution. In these countries, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Christians are the minority communities. There are six religions that have faced religious persecutions regularly and we have opened our gates to them many times in the past and will continue to do so. The Indian Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019 wants to give people a place they can call ‘home’. Every person has that right and the right to have an identity.

The argument put forth by the opposition parties is, ‘why aren’t Muslims included?’ First of all, Muslims are allowed to go through the Citizenship process as well and a famous example of that is singer Adnan Sami. But Muslims won’t flock from Pakistan or Bangladesh or Afghanistan in large numbers because of religious persecution as they are safe and content there.

Another argument being made is that this Bill is divisive. Let’s look at the facts and figures. India is home to 11 per cent of the world’s Muslims, has the second-largest Muslim population in the world and the world’s largest Muslim minority population.

In Pakistan, there were 15 per cent Hindus in 1947 and by 1998 the figure went down to 1.6 per cent -- a whopping decline of 90 per cent in about 50 years. Even today, the population of Hindus in Pakistan is at a standstill of 1.6 per cent. To know the reason for this decline, we must reflect on the recent news where two Sikh girls in Pakistan were forcibly abducted, converted and married off. This shows the miserable condition of minorities in Pakistan. Ignoring sentiments and looking at the hard facts we can appreciate that the Muslim minority in India is neither religiously persecuted nor flocking in millions from neighbouring nations or being suppressed.

On the other hand, our neighbouring nations haven’t been so kind to the minority communities there. Lending a helping hand to minorities trying to escape from Islamic states and keeping the dignity and honour of their women isn’t a national threat or divisive, it is humanitarian. In Sindh, Pakistan the Asian Human Rights report revealed that 1,000 girls from a religious minority were kidnapped, married and converted to Islam. Asia Bibi was provided shelter in Canada. She is a Pakistani Christian who spent eight years on death row due to false blasphemy charges. A lynch mob of 20 people in Pakistan burned a Christian couple alive who were falsely accused of blasphemy in 2014. The people were acquitted of charges later. Even after the Nehru-Liaquat pact, lakhs of people flocked to India due to continued atrocities. Do we stand aside and continue to be spectators?

Also, let’s not forget that there are six religions in total whose wait period to receive citizenship in India has decreased from 11 years to six years. Again, the contingency is that they have escaped religious persecution as political persecution is not covered in the Bill.

India has been a sanctuary for Sri Lankan Tamils but they are not included in CAB as their issue is political. They haven’t been displaced due to religious persecution. Another religious minority that has suffered is the Buddhist Chakma, a segment of Buddhists residing in Bangladesh. In 1962, the Chakma were displaced due to construction of Kaptai Dam and weren’t rehabilitated. They wanted to leave Bangladesh but weren’t let go off easily and in 1971 Bangladesh led an armed resistance against these immigrants. The Chakma have been successfully rehabilitated in India.

In Bangladesh alone, there have been 50 big genocides with millions of people displaced from the country. Hindus aren’t citizens in Bangladesh. There work in the country for 8 to 10 years with work permit and have to keep reapplying for it.

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had said that doors of our country are open for Hindus who were taken as slaves to Africa. Why can’t we do the same for these people? This is our moral constitutional responsibility as illegal immigrants can’t be compared to persecuted people in these countries.

The place we call our ‘country’ is not limited to the borders that we see today. We were once a beautiful civilisation spread far and wide. The Indian subcontinent and our culture spread from Iran to Cambodia. We were united more by culture than our borders. Krishna lived in Dwarka in the far West of India and married Rukmini from the North East Idu Mishmi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh. Shiva resided in the high mountain tops of the Himalayas, while Parvati prayed in the southernmost tip of India, Kanyakumari. From north to south, east to west connection of India in Hindu scriptures existed long before the fences were built. Our traditions, culture, roots and DNA structure exist in those living in a nation that was once one. The only difference between the immigrants that flock to our nation and the citizens of India is the tag we have placed on them, the demeaning term ‘refugee’.

I will leave you with one question: there is no Hindu state in the world so where should Hindus go if they are troubled?

(The author is an entrepreneur, columnist and the co-convenor of Group of Intellectuals and Academicians which advocates for the rights of women in India. Views are personal.)