Recalling the stormy protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, it was not surprising to learn that a young Jamia Millia Islamia activist, Safoora Zargar, says in the BBC’s controversial documentary, India: The Modi Question: “I strongly believe that the CAA can make a lot of Muslims stateless.” Had that danger truly lurked ahead, this column would have been among the first to raise the alarm. But any dispassionate examination of the law suggests that far from being a grim instrument of ethnic cleansing, the CAA is a long overdue compassionate measure to rescue a suffering community that can expect no other saviour. But like many Indian laws, it can be abused.
Shorn of hyperbole, the real challenge concerns Bangladeshi Hindus, some 15 million of whom escaped to India in 2001 alone. Their numbers have fallen from 13.5 per cent of Bangladesh’s population to 7.9 per cent since 1974.
Although their future is what causes concern, it’s also necessary to understand where local Muslim fears and suspicions come from. As a small boy in 1947 I heard my grandmother’s bearer Gafoor say: “The British took Hindustan from us Mussalmans and should return it to us.” That pride has a long history. Lord Dufferin, the then Viceroy, wrote in 1888 that British India’s Muslims comprised “a nation of 50 million” infused with “their remembrance of the days when, enthroned at Delhi, they reigned supreme from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin”. The abrogation of Article 370 -- a “solemn compact” according to the constitutional scholar A.G. Noorani -- must have bruised that lofty self-image. Beef lynchings, invented “love jihad”, Sangh Parivar turbulence, motivated name changes, a threatened uniform civil code and interference with customs and attire appear to support Arundhati Roy’s allegation in the BBC documentary that “the idea is to make India a Hindu nation”.
Having fallen back in the race for self-advancement, India’s Muslims may imagine that protection for 13 million residual Bangladeshi Hindus will be at their expense. But the 30,000 newcomers that the Intelligence Bureau expects as a result of the CAA’s intervention can hardly impact the approximately 210,000,000 long-established Indian Muslims. Not even the frenzied Assamese mobs that deliberately confused Bengali with Bangladeshi Muslims (the Union home minister’s “termites”?) complained that the threat was national. But panic on this count long predates Narendra Modi. Jawaharlal Nehru’s government passed the
Immigration (Expulsion from Assam) Act in 1950, following which Assam published its register of citizens. The 1955 Citizenship Act was repeatedly revised under Indira Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi’s 1985 Assam accord agreed to deport illegal immigrants while legitimising those who had arrived before 1971. Even Mr Modi’s CAA sanctioning a National Register of Citizens and prescribing jail or deportation for illegal immigrants was supported by all parties in Parliament, including the Congress and the Left, with Dr Manmohan Singh, then Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, pleading for liberal citizenship rules for Hindus who faced persecution, especially in Bangladesh.
For all the excitement, therefore, the CAA does not mark any radical attitudinal change. All Indian governments tacitly acknowledged a special responsibility for the Hindus of East Bengal (East Pakistan or Bangladesh). Hence the 1950 Nehru-Liaquat Ali pact’s commitment to safeguarding refugee rights. Even the informal basis of the “jungle passports” used to sneak into India through field and forest or across rivers demonstrated this sensitivity. A Hindu evacuee paid a bigger bribe to East Pakistani or Bangladeshi border guards who were Muslim than to his Indian counterpart, who tended to be Hindu. The opposite applied to illegal Muslim migrants.
Seeking to formalise that situation, the CAA is exclusive rather than discriminatory. It does not pretend to treat all humanity as Jesus Christ or Mahatma Gandhi might have done. Leave alone persecuted minorities in Tibet, Sri Lanka or Myanmar, it does not even extend its benevolence to Dalits in the United States or Britain who also complain of discrimination. Its benignity is confined to six groups -- Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians -- in just three countries: Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Even they must have escaped to India before the end of 2014 to qualify for fast-track citizenship.
The CAA has to be selective since it targets a unique and complex South Asian dilemma. Extending similar concessions to Muslims might make humanitarian logic. But the pie-in-the-sky solution of a non-discriminatory “robust national asylum system” is something for the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, whose office had recommended it, to consider. It’s not for a struggling country that can barely look after its own burgeoning population even if it chooses to posture as the “Vishwa Guru”. Nor can India become involved in the sectarian politics of Hazara and Ahmadiyya minorities under Islamic governments.
If mainstream Muslims do migrate to India, it can only be for economic reasons. In fact, many global migrants -- boat people braving the English Channel, trekkers spilling out of Syria, or Latinos gathered around El Paso -- are economic refugees.
That mundane purpose is often clothed in idealistic garb but the driver remains economic, as much for the Nobel laureate as for the derided Polish plumber.
As for the charge of using religion as a political criterion, how can anyone forget that British India was partitioned on religious grounds? The exchange of population between Greece and Turkey was also based on religion. Northern Ireland would have been part of the Irish Republic today if the six Protestant-majority counties of Ulster had not insisted on remaining with Anglican Britain. Catholics in the largely Protestant Netherlands found a new freedom in Belgium.
The NRC is another matter. Not because its wording is offensive but because its provisions can be abused. One heard even in the 1960s of village policemen in India’s border districts demanding bribes in lieu of proof of nationality from illiterate Muslim peasants. Readers will know that that is how the system has always operated in a greedy, unprincipled and hierarchical society. The CAA is not communal. Certain sections of Muslim society just happen to be more vulnerable than others.
As the old lyric goes, “It’s the same the whole world over, It’s the poor what gets the blame”. If the BBC documentary had really aimed at exposing Indian weaknesses, it would have highlighted how even well-meaning measures like the NRC and CAA can be twisted by corrupt or communal officials to serve their nefarious purposes.