Explaining India’s CAA: It is by no means anti-Muslim

Western liberal circles condemn interference in their internal politics by others and even punish them for this, but openly interfere in the internal politics of other countries. They should learn to respect the sovereignty of other countries

India amended its Citizenship Act, 1955 in December 2019 to allow persons belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Christian faiths, who have illegally migrated to India over the years from three neighbouring Islamic countries, namely, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, to acquire Indian citizenship on a relatively fast track basis. The exclusion of Muslims from the amendment has been criticised by India’s political opposition, sections of the civil society, leftist student groups and others for being unconstitutional, diluting India’s secularism and eroding India’s democracy.

The BJP won a huge majority in India’s general election in May last year. Amending the Citizenship Act of 1955 has been on the party’s agenda all along. In its previous tenure, the amendment could not be passed because the party did not have a majority in the Upper House. This time also the party lacked a majority in the Upper House but was able to get the legislation through with the support of a section of the opposition. In other words, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed after an intensive debate in both houses of the parliament when all the issues raised by the opposition, including the perceived anti-secular nature of the amendment, were answered by the government. The constitutionality of the legislation has, nonetheless, been questioned by opponents, and the matter will be adjudicated by the Supreme Court of India.

The CAA was necessitated because Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain and Christian minorities, who have entered India over the decades and settled down in the country, could not acquire Indian citizenship under the pre-amended citizenship law. These minorities entered India for many reasons - persecution, discrimination, physical insecurity, threat of forcible conversion, and so on. In 1947, minorities in Pakistan, mostly Hindus and Sikhs, constituted about 23 per cent of the population; today they constitute about 5 per cent, with Hindus at about 1.65 per cent.

In 1971, at the time of Bangladesh’s creation, Hindus constituted 19 per cent of the population, whereas in 2016 they constituted only 8 per cent. These are telling figures that testify to the large scale exodus of minorities from Muslim majority neighbouring countries. The number of Muslims, however, stands at 200 million in India from 92 million in 1947.

Now, these non-Muslim minorities, primarily Hindus and Sikhs, could only migrate to India and nowhere else, given that their historical home is India. But then, amongst those who have entered India illegally over the decades have been Muslims from Bangladesh. They did so not because of religious persecution or discrimination but for better economic opportunities, encouraged also by the Bangladesh’s regimes of the past for political reasons.

Their case is different, as they can return to their country of origin, after, of course, identification as illegal migrants. The Indian government estimates that there are about 20 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India.

India is unique amongst the major powers in not having a system that legally identifies its citizens. It does not have a citizenship register or the system of national identity cards. This is an anomaly for a country that has a long open border (1,758 kilometres) with one of its neighbours (Nepal), a longer porous border (4,096 kilometres) with another (Bangladesh), and several thousand kilometres of contested borders with two others (China and Pakistan - 4,056 kilometres and 3,323 kilometres, respectively).

The government has repeatedly clarified that the CAA is to grant citizenship on a one-time basis to a particular group of persons with no alternative options and not to take away the citizenship of any one, much less an Indian Muslim. The CAA has a cut-off date of December 31, 2014, after which no illegal immigrant, whether Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Christian or Muslim would be eligible for citizenship under the amendment. So, the CAA is by no means anti-Muslim.

The opposition elements in India believe that they have got an issue to put the Prime Minister Modi-led BJP government on the defensive, and hence the resolutions passed by the opposition-ruled Indian states not to implement the CAA. The opposition is over-dramatising the issue and indulging in unrestrained fear-mongering.

Outside observers need to better understand the dynamics of internal politics in a raucous democracy like India. However, because the issues of refugees, migration, targeting of minorities anywhere, and rise of nationalism have international resonance, western liberal circles, which have anti-Indian lobbies embedded in them traditionally, have picked up the CAA and NRC controversy in India and have begun a malicious campaign against the government.

Besides showing disrespect for Indian democracy, they are openly interfering in India’s domestic politics on the side of the opposition. These circles should learn to respect the sovereignty of other countries. They condemn interference in their internal politics by others and even punish them for this, but openly interfere in the internal politics of other countries. They should not believe that they have a responsibility to shape them or that they have a better idea of how other countries should be governed.

Sibal is former foreign secretary of India