The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill: A Tribute To Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill: A Tribute To Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee

by Adithya Reddy - Sunday, June 23, 2019 12:37 PM IST
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill:  A Tribute To Dr. Syama Prasad MookerjeeFamilies crossing the border during Partition
  • The Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016, which among other things seeks to provide succour to non-Muslims who have faced persecution in Islamic nations that border India, is being opposed tooth and nail by a Congress-led Opposition.

    The Bill, if passed into law, will be the greatest tribute to Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee.

One promise in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s 2019 “Sankalp Patra” raised the hackles of the entire left-liberal establishment like no other. It was the promise to implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC) throughout the country, to identify and remove all illegal migrants, except Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis or Christians from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

Essentially, the BJP committed itself to enacting the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 which changes the definition of illegal migrants by providing citizenship to illegal migrants belonging to these six religions from these three countries.

The Bill also seeks to reduce the requirement of 11 years of continuous stay in the country to six years, to obtain citizenship by naturalisation. One ‘constitutional expert’ testifying before the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on the Bill said, “mentioning minority communities, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, and Christians, is violative of the Constitution…it (bill) may be thrown out by the Supreme Court within minutes.”

This was the basic objection of all MPs who opposed the bill before the JPC and is likely to be the fount of any challenge it may face in court once it becomes law.

Article 14 of the Constitution prohibits unreasonable classification of anyone for the purpose of state benefits. There are two limbs to this guarantee - (a) any classification must be founded on ‘intelligible differentia’ which distinguishes persons that are grouped together from others left out of the group and (b) the differentia must have a rational relation to the object sought to be achieved by the law.

Most critics of the Citizenship Bill believe that there is no rational relation between a law granting citizenship to people and classification based on religion. The current leader of Opposition, Adhir Ranjan Choudhary, had raised the following objections before the JPC:

Article 14 guarantees equality to all persons, citizens and foreigners. It only permits laws to differentiate between groups of people if the rational for doing so serves a reasonable purpose. The statement of objects and reasons of the bill does not explain the rationale behind differentiating between illegal migrants on the basis of the religion they belong to…the debate over granting citizenship on the basis of religion was discussed in the Constituent Assembly and thoroughly rejected

Our Constitution has never discriminated between its citizens on the basis of religion. But the question that most such critics miss to answer is; how can the same principle be applied to determine our policy towards migrants who have not been treated the same way in their respective countries?

The JPC, before giving a go-ahead to the bill, studied 9,000 memoranda/representations received from various stakeholders/organisations/general public. Their major findings are two.

First, people from the North East, especially Assam, were extremely wary of creating any exception to the definition of illegal migrants in favour of Bangladeshi Hindus. This is a socio-political issue which needs to be addressed by the government.

Second, the religious minorities whom the Bill intends to protect (Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan) historically faced horrible crimes and indignities, all in the name of the dominant religion in their previous homes.

Sample the following conclusions reached by the JPC based on the representations from Pakistani Hindus who came to Rajasthan and Gujarat:

Discrimination towards Hindu children was very common in Pakistani schools.   Students were subjected to mental torture in schools/colleges. Hindus were tortured irrespective of their caste (Meghwal, Bhil, Adivasi, Raika, Rajput, Kumar). They were called Kafir. Snatching, theft, dacoity, kidnapping were very common. No Hindu was in  government service. No cremation ground was available. People were facing difficulties in burning dead bodies.

Naturally, India was the only destination these minorities had to avoid such persecution. Their status as illegal migrants prevented them from getting integrated into mainstream Indian society despite the lack of cultural barriers.

The persecution that affected migrants covered by the Bill was of a very specific kind. It was purely religious. The protection, therefore, also had to be religious.

The JPC overruled all objections against reference to the three countries and six religious communities. It pointed out that there is a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) issued by the Home Ministry in 2011 which deals with refugees entering India from other countries due to any other kind of persecution.

Hence, the Citizenship Bill addresses a specific category of migrants, whose classification is based on a rational policy; the policy being to extend special help to the six minority communities in these three countries that are internationally notorious for their long history of religious persecution.

Such a policy decision of the Parliament, taken after considering objective material placed before it, is not likely to be interfered with by the court.

If the Citizenship Bill becomes law and survives the legal battle that is mostly likely to be waged by the left-liberal elite, it would be a posthumous victory for one of our great national heroes, Dr. Syama Prasad Mokeerjee.

After all, it was his love and concern for the plight of millions of Hindus who stayed back in Pakistan after partition that was the breaking-point of his relationship with Nehru and the establishment. Nehru’s indifference to the plight of these minorities is an integral part of his legacy of failures.

He wrote to then Chief Minister of West Bengal, B.C. Roy, in 1948 saying:

I have been quite certain right from the beginning that everything should be done to prevent Hindus in east Bengal from migrating to west Bengal…I shudder at the prospect and the magnitude of the human misery that will come in its train. To the last I shall try to check migration even if there is war. 

Nehru’s respect for the integrity and national leadership for Pakistan overshadowed elementary humanitarian concerns.

Dr. Mookerjee later asked Nehru, “What do you care for us Bengali Hindus? What do you care for the criminal assaults on our women?” Instead of addressing these concerns, Nehru was content to have a written assurance from the Pakistani Prime Minister that Pakistan would protect its minorities (The Nehru-Liaquat Pact of 1950).

Exactly a week before this pact was to be formalised, Dr. Mookerjee resigned as Industries Minister from the Nehru Cabinet. A few days later, he delivered what many considered to be ‘one of the greatest political speeches in the annals of independent India’. He said:

I have no moral right to be associated with the government any longer. Recent happenings in East Bengal have, however, overshadowed all their past woes and humiliation. Let us not forget that the Hindus of East Bengal are entitled to the protection of India, not on humanitarian considerations alone, but by virtue of their sufferings and sacrifices, made cheerfully for generations, not for advancing their own parochial interests, but for laying the foundations of India’s political freedom and intellectual progress. It is the united voice of the leaders that are dead and of the youth that smilingly walked up to the gallows for India’s cause that calls for justice and fair play at the hands of Free India of today.

He then went on to describe how Hindus and Sikhs were exterminated in a planned manner in Pakistan. In the many decades that followed, their miseries only multiplied. Yet, the Indian government, which should have been their natural benefactor, remained loyal to Nehru. From 2014, this may have changed. Dr. Mokeerjee may have won.

Adithya Reddy is a Chennai-based lawyer.
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