“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
– Charles Spurgeon
The Narendra Modi-led NDA government has followed up on its words and passed a Bill in its Lower House of parliament that would accord Indian citizenship to non-Muslims from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who have lived in India for six years, even if they are without any document. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016, however, does not extend this benefit to illegal Muslim migrants. It also is silent about other minority communities in the three neighbouring countries, such as Jews, Bahais etc. Opposition MPs raised slogans during the home minister’s speech in the Lok Sabha with some of BJP’s allies in the Northeast also joining in. Surprisingly, the controversial Bill was not tabled in Rajya Sabha. Whether this bill will muster enough number in the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP does not yet have a majority, remains to be seen. Congress MPs in Lok Sabha walked out while the Trinamool Congress warned that Northeast will burn due to this Bill. That warning has converted into reality. In fact, BJP’s Assam ally AGP has already pulled out of the state government over the bill and asserts that the proposed amendment contradicts the 1985 Assam Accord that had set March 25, 1971 as the cut-off date for foreigners entering the country. The protesters burned copies of the legislation in angry marches and announced a shutdown in the region on Tuesday.
The question that bothers political observers is why religion should be the basis on which citizenship is granted to a person. It all started during the Lok Sabha election campaign of 2014. The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi promised to deport all illegal immigrants from Bangladesh living in Assam if the BJP came to power. The BJP did come to power – at the Centre in 2014 and in Assam two years later, in 2016. But the party did a volte face. Opponents feel the Bill will aggravate the problem of illegal migration. Those in favour feel it will help end alienation of Bengali Hindus living in Assam, many of them in Barak Valley. The Opposition also said the Bill violated Article 14 of the Constitution which guarantees right to equality. The goodwill in helping someone in distress should be appreciated but the intention of the Bill is questionable in the current form. The government, as it is alleged, despite steadfast opposition from parties like Congress, Trinamool Congress, CPM and a few others on the grounds that citizenship cannot be given on the basis of religion and that this Bill’s provisions relating to Bangladesh are in contradiction with the Assam Accord.
There is no denying that deliberately keeping any religious community out of the ambit of the bill is a direct challenge to right to equality provided in Article 14 of the constitution. It is a threat to the idea of secularism that India takes pride in. Another criticism against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 is that it doesn’t take into account persecuted Hindus in Fiji and Sri Lanka. The moot question is if the bill is legislated, will not Indian states sharing borders with Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan witness an influx of illegal immigrants?