A carefully-crafted CAB can provide a great opportunity for India to showcase itself as an inclusive nation that is a beacon of hope for the persecuted in the region.
The original intent of the bill, of course, would stand undiluted.
The Union government is contemplating a new Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) to grant Indian nationality to Hindus and five other communities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who have sought refuge in the country. The bill was passed by the Lok Sabha earlier this year, but lapsed in the Rajya Sabha since the government did not have the numbers in the Upper House.
The bill, with some amendments, is expected to be tabled in Parliament once again. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had reiterated the government’s commitment to enacting this bill, and Home Minister Amit Shah has also declared that the bill would be enacted before the exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is initiated throughout the country.
The CAB had, however, attracted a lot of flak since it proposed to grant citizenship to only Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis fleeing persecution in the three neighbouring countries. The CAB proposes to reduce the waiting period for Indian citizenship from 11 years to six years for members of these six religious groups.
The exclusion of Muslims from the purview of the bill has drawn sharp criticism from opposition parties in India and even from outside the country, most recently in the US House of Representatives (even though that criticism was ill-informed). The rationale behind keeping Muslims out of the purview of the bill, as explained by Home Minister Shah, is that Muslims cannot possibly face religious persecution in the three Islamic countries.
While the explanation held out by the Home Minister is valid, what is also true is that some Muslims do face persecution in these countries. Taslima Nasreen is a case in point; some 'secular' and outspoken Muslims from Bangladesh have had to flee the country due to death threats issued by Islamists in that country. Ahmadi Muslims, Shias, Balochis and some other groups face a lot of persecution in Pakistan.
It would make eminent sense for India to grant refuge to these persecuted Muslims. Their numbers are not too many, and granting them Indian citizenship will not alter the demography of our country.
As Home Minister Shah had emphasised, there is no question of granting Indian citizenship to those who have entered India illegally in search of livelihood, for indulging in terror activities and after committing crimes in their countries.
Millions of Bangladeshi Muslims have been entering India illegally over the decades and have fraudulently acquired Indian documents like ration cards, voter ID cards, driving licences, Aadhaar cards and even passports through which they have falsely laid claim to Indian citizenship.
These illegal migrants have altered the demographic profile of vast swathes of Assam and Bengal. Many districts in both these states have turned into Muslim-majority ones, and that has triggered social, religious and political unrest in the two states. These Bangladeshi infiltrators have also migrated to other states, and there is no way they can be allowed to stay on in India.
The just-concluded NRC updation exercise in Assam that had been ordered by the Supreme Court was intended to identify such aliens. That the entire exercise turned out to be a largely futile one due to subterfuge, poorly-framed provisions and corrupt officials is another story.
The new CAB should not restrict the privilege of Indian citizenship to any particular religious groups. Instead, it should explicitly state that the process of granting Indian citizenship would be fast-tracked for all people seeking refuge in India due to religious and ethnic persecution in their countries.
It should be made incumbent on all those who seek refuge (in India) to prove their persecution (on religious and ethnic grounds) in their respective homelands. This will be an easy task for Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Christians and Parsis.
Shias also face persecution in Pakistan, but they generally seek refuge in Western nations and there is no reason why they should opt to come to India now. A very small number of them, if at all, would seek refuge in India.
Ditto for the Ahmadi Muslims and Balochis, who are oppressed by Sunni-majority Pakistan. There is, thus, no fear of India being overwhelmed by large waves of non-Sunni Muslims seeking refuge in this country.
As for Sunni Muslims from these three countries (Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan), it is inconceivable that any more than a handful would seek refuge, and be able to prove that they have faced religious persecution, in their countries. The likes of Taslima Nasreen are very few and can be counted on one’s fingertips.
Thus, the primary objective of NRC and CAB — to identify and deport Bangladeshi Muslim infiltrators and grant citizenship to the lakhs of Hindus (and other communities) who have fled religious persecution — will remain undiluted.
However, by not specifying any religious community, an amended CAB will escape the criticism the earlier bill had attracted. A win-win for India will be the opportunity to highlight all the cases of Sunni and non-Sunni Muslims as well as ethnic minorities like the Balochis seeking refuge in India to highlight the intolerance, majoritarianism and worse that prevails in the three Sunni-majority countries, especially Pakistan.
The new narrative that this will create — of India being the refuge of persecuted people from the three neighbouring nations — will be a compelling one and will enhance India’s stature in the global arena.
India has, over the decades, provided refuge to Tibetan Buddhists fleeing persecution in Chinese-controlled Tibet. In the past, Zoroastrians and Jews fleeing persecution have found shelter in India. Making the new CAB a non-sectarian one would be in keeping with this glorious tradition that New Delhi can then highlight to the global community.
As said earlier, there should be strict riders in the amended CAB to prevent it being subverted by Bangladeshi Sunni Muslims who have illegally entered, or are waiting to infiltrate, into India in search of better lives, carry out subversive acts or seek safe haven after committing crimes in Bangladesh.
These masses cannot claim to have faced religious persecution in their home country. But some of them, like Taslima Nasreen, do. The amended CAB should also incorporate provisions to prevent Rohingya Muslims from seeking shelter in India.
A carefully-crafted CAB can provide a great opportunity for India to showcase itself as an inclusive nation that is a beacon of hope for the persecuted in the region. The original intent of the bill, of course, would stand undiluted.