It is widely believed that India’s decision on CAA would ‘question the principle of equality before the law’ and emotionally impact the Muslim community of both India and its neighbouring countries, writes Sukanya Bali for South Asia Monitor
Opposition parties have highlighted divisive communal aspects of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to stoke a sense of alienation in minority communities. But often silenced in the popular protests are the repercussions from granting citizenship to 'illegal migrants' on Indian society and the economy.
Since the bill passed, on December 11, 2019, a wave of protests has spread across different regions. The Citizenship Act of 1955 stated that any illegal migrant, irrespective of their religion, was ‘a foreigner’.The 2019 CAA grants citizenship to ‘illegal migrants’ of other religious communities, primarily minorities, in the neighbourhood, except Muslims. Clearly, the events that followed the CAA indicate that religious fault lines have exacerbated in secular India. Simmering divisions within society and between the government, civil population and security forces were brought to the fore with the CAA, clearly favouring non-Muslims.
Protests to the Act have three different categories: Some people are pro-CAA and have raised their voices in support of the Act, primarily pro-BJP or Hindutva-aligned factions. Youths gathered in cities like Bangalore, Patna and Delhi in support of the government. Some are anti-CAA, and have spilled out on the streets of many cities against the exclusion of Muslims from the Act’s ambit. Thirdly, in the Northeastern part of India, especially Assam where, typically, the number of illegal migrants is higher, people are reacting in fear of their cultural identity being adulterated. Assamese youth are against the idea of granting citizenship to any illegal migrant, irrespective of religion.
The CAA grants citizenship to persecuted Hindu, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists, Jain and Christian migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, who have entered India before December 31, 2014. The Act relaxes the period of residence to 5 years from 11 years to people from these six religious communities. The CAA is inclusive of the non-Muslim-persecuted communities from Islamic states of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Muslim ‘illegal migrants’ face deportation or detention.
The bill also exempts certain Northeastern states which come under Inner Line areas -the protected states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur. The indigenous people of Assam have risen against the government that shunned their concerns addressed in the Assam accords.
People migrate for various reasons, ranging from persecution to better economic prospects or a better social condition. Assam, for ages, has been fighting against the influx of migrants, particularly from Bangladesh, in the region. Adding to their woes is the CAA that threatens their livelihood, lays pressure on the demographic composition, environment, and resources.
It also jeopardizes national security and peace. The volume of immigration prevalent in the area alters the population density of these states. Population density in Assam increased from 340 persons/ sq km in 2001 to 398 persons/ sq km in 2011.
Some argue that when the CAA is viewed in the context of the National Registry of Citizen (NRC), there clearly seems to be a crisis. In Assam, with NRC, people had to prove their ancestral lineage in India to a date prior to March 24, 1971, i.e. before Bangladesh's liberation, to be identified as a citizen. The final draft of NRC published, in August 2019, excluded 1.9 million people, many of them Muslim, who failed to produce the required documents.
CAA however, gives an avenue for non-Muslims to get citizenship, partially offsetting the outcomes of NRC, drawing the anger of Assamese youth. Now if the NRC is implemented throughout the country, as per BJP election manifesto, non-Muslims from the prescribed countries could avail citizenship relatively easily with the Act.
So far, at the national level, discussions, debates and protests revolve around the majoritarian Hindu Rashtra-centric political strategy of the BJP. Little importance has been given to the pressure the Act would lay on the cultural identity and economy of, primarily, the Northeastern states.
NRC identifies ‘illegal migrants’ purely based on documentation produced and not on religious lines, whereas the CAA paves the way to citizenship based on religion. The bottom line is that the CAA would squeeze socio-political and economic opportunities of existing Indian citizens. It is widely believed that India’s decision on CAA would ‘question the principle of equality before the law’ and emotionally impact the Muslim community of both India and neighbouring countries. It will also intensify the perception of India being unfriendly to Muslims.
With the BJP in power, 2019 has been a roller coaster for India. BJP performed better than 2014 at the electorate and came back to power with a thumping majority. Whether it is revoking the special status of Muslim-majority Kashmir, the verdict on Ayodhya, the NRC or the CAA, all have had a direct impact on Muslim sentiments. This may create a challenge for India's foreign relations, especially with Muslim countries.
The CAA, that left 26 dead and raised communal divisions, impacts the social, political and economic symmetry of Indian society. Citizenship to illegal migrants entitles them with certain rights and privileges enshrined in the Constitution, inevitably at the expense of existing citizens of India, particularly in a context where India is experiencing an economic slowdown and high rates of unemployment.
Detention in government facilities and the process of deportation will consume taxpayers’ money. India doesn’t have a repatriation treaty with the concerned countries and, therefore, would fail to deport illegal migrants while curtailing their individual freedom, by placing them in detention camps.
The CAA redefines Indian citizenship with respect to religion. It introduces faith as the basis of citizenship, which is argued to be against the longstanding secular ethos of the country. It also creates a sense of categorization, pitting the Hindu majoritarian state against the Muslim narrative about India and is likely to add fodder to the cause of Islamic extremists against India. Maintaining the status quo or enacting a refugee law would have been, for India, the better alternative to CAA.
Forces of populism and identity politics, that catapulted US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to office, is prevalent in every society. Xenophobia, feelings of deprivation, and anti-migrant feelings have supported the building of walls and exit from unions. Similarly, giving citizenhood to migrants selectively through CAA will not go down well in Indian society and have serious social and political consequences.
(The writer is a Research Associate at International Strategic and Security Studies Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies, IISC, Bangalore. The views expressed are personal)