Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina. (Twitter/@MEAIndia)
Snapshot
  • There are ways of engaging both the campus protesters and our neighbours on what CAA is all about.

    It only needs strategic thinking and a willingness to make the case for CAA clearly and unapologetically.

Two challenges have been thrown up by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA): one is the rise of violent student and public protests in some parts of the country, often orchestrated by an alliance of Muslim organisations and institutions and those who think of themselves as “secular”. The other is the possibility of a deterioration in India’s diplomatic ties with Islamic countries, and Bangladesh in particular.

The answer to the first challenge is obvious. While there are many vested interests fanning the flames, there may also be a genuine misunderstanding of the intent of the law among the public, often due to media-created over-simplifications and binary logic.

The intent of the law is to fast-track the naturalisation of persecuted Hindus, Parsis, Jains, Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan – all three being Islamic states where non-Muslims are second class citizens by definition.

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Thus, illegal migrants from these defined persecuted minorities can seek citizenship by naturalisation after five years of residency, provided they have entered the country before 31 December 2014.

The others – mostly Muslims – who are also illegal immigrants, can seek naturalisation after 11 years. The discrimination, if any, relates to giving persecuted communities a six-year advantage over Muslims and other religious sects and sub-sects. This relief is also one-off, for it applies only to those who came in before December 2014.

The problem is that this differentiation in treatment of persecuted and non-persecuted communities is being interpreted as anti-Muslim, and students are easy to mislead as they are more likely to accept over-simplifications of issues than some others.

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The way to address this challenge of making students understand is two-fold: one is to put out large posters and information modules in educational institutions, with the same being published in all major English and language publications and TV channels over the next few days.

CAA needs to be explained for what it is, and not be allowed to be defined as anti-Muslim by vested interests. If this is done intelligently and quickly, many protesters may well agree with the benign nature of CAA.

The second thing to do is to appoint empathetic and intelligent interlocuters who can engage with student bodies on campus and answer their queries on the CAA. Not all may be convinced, but engagement will take the edge off the current confrontationist mood in campuses.

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The other big challenge is diplomatic – especially with Bangladesh. India has had excellent relations with Bangladesh during the tenure of Sheikh Hasina, who has helped us not only with cross-border terrorism but also by fighting jihadi elements in her country. It is important to ensure that this relationship is nurtured even after the flap over CAA, which led to Bangladesh cancelling the visits of its foreign and home ministers last week.

Bangladesh’s concerns are understandable, for it is migrants from that country who have inundated the North-East – and spread themselves elsewhere too. The CAA is embarrassing to Bangladesh for another reason too: it indirectly accuses Bangladesh of being the persecutors of its minorities.

India needs to send both its External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, and its Home Minister, Amit Shah, to hold detailed discussions with Bangladesh on the nature of CAA, and how its impact will not be allowed to ruin existing relationships.

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But can India really do anything where Bangladesh’s sensitivities are handled correctly without diluting CAA? It won’t be easy, but there are a couple of ways forward.

Both in the past, and more recently, Bangladesh has offered to take back its citizens if India can provide proof that they are indeed its citizens. Such statements were made by Sheikh Hasina’s adviser Gowher Rizvi last year, and two days ago by Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen.

Assuming these offers were made in earnest, Jaishankar and Shah have an opening where they can offer Bangladesh a deal that involves the following elements.

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#1: Bangladesh can be asked to provide its own citizens’ lists, so that these can be matched with the identities of the illegal migrants now residing in India. If these two databases can be compared, we can offer Bangladesh a proper list of people it can offer to take back.

#2: We can offer Aadhaar and other technology for Bangladesh to enumerate its own citizens so that both countries know which citizen belongs to whom. This will enable us to seamlessly track people movements and handle the fallout in a humane manner. When borders are porous, it is such data that will help manage these movements without disrupting either country’s voter lists.

#3: India should also consider offering Bangladeshi citizens, including those currently staying on illegally, two options. One is to offer free entry and exit rights to India for communities who feel persecuted – this is the segment the CAA addresses. The other should be for Muslim illegals who can be allowed to stay back on two- or three-year work permits without naturalisation or citizenship benefits. They should be asked periodically about their country of origin so that no claim to naturalisation is created.

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Future movements of Bangladeshis to India, and Indians to Bangladesh, should be through a joint mechanism that offers work and long-term stay permits but no entitlement to citizenship.

#4: India should also offer Bangladesh a longer-term conversation on how it can protect its own minorities, and whether India can help provide them a measure of security by setting up safe zones inside Bangladesh. If this is not acceptable, Bangladesh could offer other verifiable guarantees for protecting the Hindus who remain there, leaving open the possibility of even those given citizenship in India under CAA to periodically visit their former homeland. Or even seek Bangladeshi citizenship again.

This, at the very least, would require Bangladesh to remove Islam as the guiding principle of its Constitution. As long as Bangladesh remains an Islamic country, the case for CAA remains strong.

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There are ways of engaging both the campus protesters and our neighbours on what CAA is all about. It only needs strategic thinking and a willingness to make the case for CAA clearly and unapologetically.

There is also one clear statement that the Narendra Modi government can make: that the need for CAA emanates from the nature of the state in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. If these states become truly secular and guarantee equal citizenship and protection to their minorities, CAA can be restored to its previous version.

The statement will address the elephant in the room: Islamist persecution in these three neighbouring countries. If there is no recognition of this reality, CAA is easy to demonise. The true demon is not CAA, but Islamism.

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