Although the BJP/NDA 2.0 government at the Centre is surprised by the scale and intensity of public outrage — particularly among university students and youth across the country — to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) 2019, public apprehension and sustained criticism of the Act is justified.
Though the government claims the new legislation, which amends the Citizenship Act 1955, is driven by humanitarian considerations and empathy for persecuted religious minorities in our neighbour countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, officially declared Islamic states, BJP spokespersons readily admit that the prime object of the Bill is to provide refuge to Hindus who have suffered open, uninterrupted and continuous persecution for their religious beliefs in these countries for the past several decades.
Although the enabling provisions of CAA cover other non-Muslim religious minorities — Christians, Parsis, Buddhists etc — the essence of the Act which received presidential assent on December 12, is to fast-track grant of Indian citizenship to Hindu minorities forced to flee these countries because of public and official harassment. However the notable feature of CAA 2019 is that it specifically excludes all Muslims, including cruelly persecuted Shia, Ahmediyya and Ismaili Muslim sects of these specified countries, from the ambit of the Act.
BJP leaders and spokespersons proclaim that CAA does not impact the citizenship status of any members of India’s Muslim community who entered this country legally or illegally before December 31, 2014. Therefore it reflects to the credit of the country’s academically short-changed and much maligned students in higher education, that they have discerned the danger that the seemingly humanitarian CAA poses to the secular character, and indeed idea, of post-independence India.
Despite the sophistry of BJP leaders who argue this legislation is of limited applicability to undocumented immigrants illegally settled in India during the past five years and future arrivals, the students community — particularly in metropolitan India — which has practised secular social interaction with citizens of all religious persuasions since independence, has been quick to grasp that this is the first officially sponsored legislation to differentiate aspiring citizens on the basis of religion. It specifically excludes Muslims and all sects under Islam even if they suffer religious persecution in these countries. As such, CAA sends out a clear signal that Muslims are not welcome in this country, despite India hosting the world’s second largest Muslim population.
If gazetted into law, CAA will provide this and future governments a precedent to divide Indian society into preferred and less preferred citizens. In the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that the Act has aroused widespread indignation and resentment within the Muslim community and among liberal citizens. In this connection, it’s pertinent to note that members of the Muslim community including all sects who chose to remain in India after partition in 1947, were assured full equality before the law by every national leader of consequence of the freedom movement, including Mahatma Gandhi.
Moreover those opposing this pernicious legislation have rightly made the connection between CAA and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC), to compile which malleable petty officials will be invested with vast discretionary powers to deny officially less preferred minorities inclusion and citizenship.
Admittedly, the constitutional validity of CAA needs the Supreme Court’s stamp of approval. However, the upper judiciary’s time agnosticism and often whimsical judgements of recent years have almost totally eroded public faith in the justice system. Prima facie, it’s clear that CAA is violative of Article 14 of the Constitution which mandates that all persons — not only citizens — within the territory of India are equal before the law and entitled to equal protection of the courts in the territory of India.
Moreover to buttress this fundamental right, the authors of the Constitution enacted Article 15 which expressly prohibits State discrimination against citizens on the grounds of religion, race, sex or place of birth. Yet fear and anxiety that the increasingly politicised Supreme Court may uphold CAA on the grounds of history that lead to the partition of India in 1947, and deny bona fide Muslim citizens unable to provide documentary proof of prolonged residence inclusion in the proposed NRC, is palpable and pervasive within the country’s 200 million-strong Muslim community. The blanket exclusion of Muslims from an Act of Parliament is rightly apprehended as the thin end of a broad wedge, and a dangerous precedent.
The Act is also injurious to the wider interest of India because it will shut the gates in the faces of even highly learned and successful Shia and Ismaili scholars and businessmen fleeing religious persecution in the specified neighbouring countries. Therefore CAA, 2019 is unacceptable and injurious to the unity and harmony of India on several counts. It is in the interest of the BJP and the country that the government refrains from gazetting this ill-advised Act and lets it lapse.
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