The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 of the Parliament of India, which received Presidential assent on December 12, has a stated objective that appears upon first glance to be rather innocent. The purported goal is to provide a safe haven in India for persecuted religious minorities from other countries. However, hidden beneath the sophisticated wording of the Act lies a nefarious intention, one which has not gone unnoticed, thanks be to God. You see, although the proponents of this legislation speak with great orchestrated zeal about the need to welcome people from the vicinity of South-East Asia, the Act actually covers only three of India’s neighbours: Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. All of these three are – notice! – Islamic countries. Other neighbours such as Nepal, China, Myanmar and Sri Lanka are very quietly left out, despite the fact that there is strong evidence of religious minorities experiencing persecution in many of these countries, the Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and the Tamil Hindus of Sri Lanka being two prominent examples.
This careful (and obviously deliberate) exclusion is itself suspicious and meritorious of outrage and protest, but it gets even worse. Even with the inclusion of these three nations mentioned in the Act, only six religious communities are actually offered refuge: Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Zoroastrians and Christians. If you notice, there is one community that is left out: Islam, despite the fact that the Ahmadiyya and Shia communities – both of which identify very strongly as Muslim and have a significant following in these areas – are sometimes just as marginalized and persecuted as Hindus and Buddhists, if not more so.
What this Act effectively results in is a horrendous state of affairs that would have scandalized the founding fathers of the modern Indian Republic. For the very first time in our history, citizenship is being offered in a special and expedited manner to members from some religious communities and not others, in clear contravention of the right to equality enshrined in the Indian Constitution, which has been held by the Indian Supreme Court to apply to all and not just Indian citizens. Perhaps if no Muslims in the neighbouring countries were being persecuted on religious grounds, this Act could have been justified. But there are Muslims being persecuted on the basis of their beliefs – quite a lot of them actually! – and this law silently excludes them.
Proponents of this law have argued that although certain Muslim communities are indeed marginalized in these lands, these are ultimately inter-sectarian disputes and therefore not nearly as grave a divide as the inter-religious schisms. However, this is patently false. There are quite a few Muslim fundamentalists who are of the opinion, for example, that Ahmadis are not a competing sect of Islam, but rather are entirely outside the fold of Islam. If you want evidence of this, see an example here of extreme anti-Ahmadi rhetoric by an ultra-conservative Sunni. This has also spilled out into the political sphere. In 1984, an amendment was passed in Pakistan which prohibited Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslim or from posing as Muslims, a crime which was punishable by three years in prison!
Moreover, one might ask what the need was to selectively mention religious communities in the Act. Why not simply offer refuge to anyone who has been persecuted on the grounds of his/her religious belief? What difference does it make whether he/she is an adherent of an ancient faith like Hinduism or a community founded five years ago? Religious persecution is religious persecution, regardless of which faith or community we are talking about.
However, the Indian government is adamant. The Indian Home Minister Amit Shah insists that no Muslims are persecuted in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh on religious grounds. This is manifestly false (as I mentioned earlier), but suppose for a moment (for the sake of argument) that it is true. Even then, this still leaves an important question unanswered: why are other neighbouring states left out? Why not talk about Myanmar and the Rohingya community who have suffered so terribly at the hands of fundamentalists? Why include Bangladeshi Hindus and ignore Burmese Muslims. India’s government insists that they are not anti-Muslim, but their acts (as well as the words of many of their leaders) suggest otherwise.
Thankfully, however, the country has not stayed silent on this issue. India has, quite literally erupted in protest. Be it Delhi, West Bengal, Bihar, Hyderabad or the North East of India, thousands are coming out onto the streets to oppose this discriminatory legislation, though not always for the same reasons. Almost every opposition party – including the right-wing former BJP ally Shiv Sena – has voiced its disapproval. And in many cases, protests have turned violent. Obviously, I condemn any form of unlawful violence, but I do not think it can be reasonably denied that the BJP government is responsible for passing a bill that has angered and divided large sections of the country.
In such a situation of unprecedented public unrest, the right thing for the government to do is halt all legislation and seek dialogue with the protesters. After all, India is still – at least in theory – a democratic country in which the government is directly accountable to the people. However, this is not happening. Rather, the authorities have seen fit to resort to seemingly totalitarian measures in an attempt to suppress public dissent. The internet was shut down in Assam for more than 24 hours, and now in parts of West Bengal as well. Delhi police stormed the campus of Jamia Milia University on the night of December 15, firing live rounds on students and tear gas shells in the university library, giving us scenes from an Orwellian novel rather than a constitutional democracy. A female journalist from the BBC reported being the target of male law officers: her hair was pulled, she was beaten and her phone was broken. These are but a few examples of public vandalism and violence perpetrated by the very people tasked with maintaining law and order. In short, the country is in flames.
The issue has not gone unnoticed by the international community. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has criticised the Indian government over the “fundamentally discriminatory” nature of the law. The United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) even sought sanctions against the Home Minister Amit Shah. The Act has also drawn strong (though perhaps hypocritical) criticism from both Pakistan and Bangladesh. In all of this, my heart goes out especially to the Ahmadi community. They are perhaps the most peaceful religious denomination that self-identifies as Muslim, and yet they are subject to horrific persecution. Shias still have a safe haven in Iran, but Ahmadis literally have nowhere to go in the Islamic world. The exclusion of Ahmadis from the Act is bizarre and barbaric. But it only serves to show the regressive mindset of the current government.
Indians need to wake up and realize that this is not at all a harmless piece of legislation. This may well be the first step to a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ or ‘Hindu Country’. This is a frightening prospect; for centuries India has been a land of religious tolerance and cultural pluralism. Any attempt to homogenise the country is a direct assault not merely on its Constitution but on the very spirit of what it means to be Indian. As an Indian, I think it is incumbent upon every one of us to take a strong stand against this exclusionary bill and to resist this attempted move towards what truly seems to look like fascism.
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