On December 13, 2019, I got up in the morning and, as usual, switched on the mobile phone to find in WhatsApp a copy of the Gazette notifying the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. What it meant was that the previous night, the Rajya Sabha had cleared the Bill concerned and the President, Mr Ramnath Kovind, had given his assent to the Bill. In other words, the citizenship law was amended overnight.
Why was the government in such a tearing hurry? Would the heavens have fallen if the Bill was sent to a select committee for a detailed hearing as the Opposition had demanded in the Upper House? Already, the Northeast, especially Assam, had started burning in protest against the government initiative on citizenship.
True, the Narendra Modi government had gained a clear majority in the Rajya Sabha and it could have its own way with legislation. This was not the case during much of Modi’s first term when the Congress-led Opposition dominated the House.
Modi came to power promising development but what kind of development could a bunch of nincompoops, who believe that Indians could master the aviation technology millennia before the Wright Brothers acquired it, think of except the disastrous demonetisation?
Modi and his Sancho Panza knew that if they won a second term, it was not because of the tallest statue that they built in Gujarat but because of the communal polarisation that they achieved by exploiting Pulwama and the hard Hindutva they relied on during the campaign. A woman accused of terrorism became the symbol of the resurgent BJP that came back to power.
It is not for no reason that the first legislative action of the Modi government was enactment of the Triple Talaq law under which a Muslim man who divorced his wife under the Sharia law was declared a criminal in a country ruled by a person who deserted his legally-wedded wife.
Already, the Supreme Court had declared that triple talaq had no legal sanctity and the woman concerned continued to enjoy conjugal and other rights. It was a totally unwarranted law, enacted only to terrorise the Muslim mind. By the way, how many cases have been registered under the law so far? Let me know if any of my readers have heard about such a case.
Emboldened by the triple talaq law, Amit Shah ventured into Kashmir abrogating Article 370 and declaring Jammu, Kashmir and Leh as Union Territories. Even after nearly four months of deployment of the largest contingent of the armed forces, the government does not have the courage to lift the sanctions like switching off the Internet on the Valley while mouthing white lies about Kashmir inside and outside Parliament.
Nowhere else in the world has a whole state become an extended jail where people suffer for want of essential items like insulin for a diabetic patient. When a judge facing charges of moral turpitude became a plaything in the hands of the government, manipulation became easier.
Small wonder that even while describing the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 as an act of violence and stating that there was no proof that the mosque was built demolishing a temple and that the Muslims were in continuous possession of the disputed structure and that there was no self-appearance of the idol, the apex court could promise only five acres of land somewhere in Ayodhya to the Muslims.
What the ruling party won was a Pyrrhic victory about which it could not tout much. In fact, the judgement was a clear validation of all that the Muslims had been claiming ever since Lal Krishna Advani found in Ayodhya an issue to resuscitate the BJP, which was deep in the dumps with just two members in the Lok Sabha after the party was led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the 1984 elections.
The BJP’s penchant for outright lies was exposed when the list of illegal migrants in Assam was released. The process of identification of such people whom some government leaders refer to as termites was supervised by the Supreme Court. It came out with a figure of 19.2 lakh, out of which a majority were Hindus. The BJP propaganda was that they numbered more than a crore and that they would declare a whole area in Assam as another Bangladesh.
For once, the BJP had cow-dung on its face. It was faced with the task of throwing out the illegal migrants, having campaigned for it all along. BJP leader after BJP leader began asserting that not a single Hindu would be thrown out of the state even as the government began constructing concentration camp-like jails to accommodate those who were declared illegal aliens. The irony was that even the labourers employed for the construction were illegal migrants themselves.
By the way, how did Assam find the “foreigner”? Syed Zafar Mahmood, who heads the Zakat Foundation and who I met recently, has an interesting story to tell: “It was 2005-06. I recall the scene clearly: it was I who’d asked that young IPS officer to tell us how they identified a “foreigner”.
“God must have put a curtain over his wisdom (to translate literally from the Urdu!) for he seemed to forget who he was talking to. One man in particular. Well past 80 then, but in the middle of a project that was, in scope and intent, perhaps one of the biggest of his life. One he would be known for, and to which his name would be given...Justice Rajindar Sachar.
“Along with Sachar sahib there were Sayyid Hamid, Abusaleh Sharrif and me. We were surveying India’s social reality, no less, in particular the socio-economic status of its Muslims, for what would become the Sachar Committee report. This was Assam, hence the “foreigner” question.
“To this curious bunch of surveyors, that young IPS officer blurted out the unspoken rule, “ Lungi, daadi aur topi”. In short, if you’re Muslim, you’re a foreigner. It was exactly as people had told us. Other policemen jumped to their feet, going red in the face trying to deny it. Sachar sahib lost his cool at this point, but what could he do? We were in search of reality, and it stared us in the face everywhere”.
It is in this context that Modi and Shah thought of making an amendment in the Citizenship Act. To legitimise the Hindu illegal and to throw out the Muslim illegal. Until the enactment of the new law on the December 12-13 night, religion was never employed to discriminate people.
What the new Act ensures is that refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who are in India since 2014, not March 25, 1971, which was the cut-off date under the Assam accord, who belong to Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist and Christian communities would be given citizenship if they had stayed in India for at least five years, not 11 years as was the case earlier.
For once, Muslims were excluded from those eligible to get citizenship. This is outright discrimination based on religion when the Constitution guarantees equality even to foreigners who live in India.
Little surprise, Reshmita Ramachandran who practices in the Supreme Court challenged anyone to prove any text, religious or secular, which visualises a situation where there is no discrimination based on status or religion or caste or gender or physical and numerical strength as the Indian Constitution while giving a talk at Kerala Club on Dec 13.
Used as Amit Shah and his master are to reading one of RSS founders Guruji Golwalkar’s ‘Bunch of Thoughts” where he visualises Muslims and Christians as second class citizens deprived of many of the rights that the Constitution guarantees them, it did not prick their conscience when they thought of amending the Citizenship Act to deprive Muslims of asylum.
Let it be mentioned that it was out of fear of annoying the West that Christians were included in the list of acceptable refugees. Incidentally, Modi heads the first Government without a Christian minister. It did not even include a Christian in the Minority Education Commission, though they run the largest number of educational institutions.
Why the Assamese and the people from Tripura are up in arms against the Act is because of their fear that the Hindu Bangladeshis would eventually be allowed to settle down in Assam while the Inner Line Permit System in vogue in Arunachal Pradesh and other smaller Northeastern states would prevent them from going there.
They even fear that Assamese would eventually be replaced by Bengali as the most commonly spoken language in the state. The people of Tripura also fear that their tribal characteristic would disappear if the Bengalis are given citizenship.
Be that as it may, why is the new law unacceptable? India is a secular country and discrimination based on religion is unacceptable and even unthinkable. If religious persecution is what motivated Shah to enact the law, why did he forget the Hindus and Muslims who are persecuted by the Sinhala majority in Sri Lanka?
There are Christians who sought refuge in India because of persecution in Bhutan and Nepal, both of which are among the six countries with which we share borders. In Faridabad and Delhi, there are Rohingyas from Myanmar with which we share a border. They are the most persecuted community in the world because they are of Bengali origin and are Muslim. Visit one of their camps in Delhi and you will really find hell on earth.
Why was Afghanistan included when we have only notional, not actual, borders with that country? The most persecuted community in Pakistan is not Hindu or Sikh or Christian but Ahmadiyya and Shia. When an Ahmadiyya Physicist won the Nobel Prize, Pakistan observed some sort of a mourning forcing him to donate the medal to his alma mater, the Aligarh Muslim University, where I had the privilege of holding it in my hand for a few seconds.
While denying citizenship to the Ahmadiyya and Shia communities, he offers it to the Jains, his own community and Parsis, when the fact is that there are few Jains and Parsis seeking asylum.
Persecution is not always on religious terms. The most persecuted person in the world is Julian Assange of Wikileaks. It is not because of his religion that he became persona non grata for a country like the US where imprisonment for decades, if not centuries, awaits him if he lands there.
In India, many of the so-called illegal nationals were born and brought up here. Imagine a Bangladeshi family which migrated to India in 1971 and had a child immediately thereafter. Today that child is 48 and, for all you know, he may have even a grandchild. How can you deny him, his parents and his children and grandchildren citizenship just because they profess Islam?
Religion is a personal affair. A person has the option to convert. Will a person lose his citizenship if he renounces the religion in which he was born and accepts another like Dr BR Ambedkar? A refugee does not come with proof of religious identify. Religion should never be a criterion for citizenship.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad had a leader in the nineties who wanted all the cows in Britain which were being culled for medical reasons to be brought to India. If the BJP wants India to be a Hindu Rashtra, it should give a call like Israel to Hindus all over the world to return to their land of origin. Just last fortnight, 30 Indians were caught trying to enter the US through the Mexican border. Each of them had paid Rs 30 lakh to enable their immigration.
Why do people want to migrate from India? It is a process that can never be stopped. If India goes down the path of development, few would try to sneak into the country. Modi and Shah seem to be doing their best to make it a land where MPs claim that speaking Sanskrit would cure a person of diabetes and astrology was the science of all sciences.
The government repeatedly claims that the Muslims have nothing to fear about the Citizenship Act. It is the same government which claims that the system of keeping a national register of citizens would be extended from Assam to all other states. In other words all those who wear a lungi, a beard and a topi would be asked to prove that they were descendants of Indians, not foreigners.
That is precisely why people, especially minorities, are worried over the Citizenship Act. They know that it is a prelude to what is destined to come. They also know that it is democrats like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Recep Erdogan of Turkey, not to forget Hitler of Germany, who caused the severest damage to democracy.
The burning tyres in Assam are a warning to the government that it would not be allowed to tamper with the basic structure of the Constitution, except at its own peril. Hope Modi & Co would not convert India into a Hong Kong and would, therefore, freeze the Citizenship Act forever. Therein lies their redemption!
(Published on 16th December 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 51)