Remaking the idea of who is ‘Indian’

Remaking the idea of who is ‘Indian’

Seminar, 30 January 2020

IN December 2019 Parliament delivered a deathly blow to India’s secular, plural constitutional foundation. The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) passed in the Lok Sabha on 9 December and in the Rajya Sabha on 11 December, has fundamentally transformed what it means to be an Indian.

The Indian Constitution and the subsequent Citizenship Act of 1955, adopted a universal, religion-neutral idea of citizenship. India belonged equally to all. It was home to all who called themselves Indian, irrespective of religion. This was the foundation of India’s secular promise. This is what defined the idea of India. The citizenship amendment, 2019, upends this fundamental promise. It introduces religion as a marker of citizenship and in this process legitimizes through law, the ideological construction that India is a Hindu nation, the natural home of all Hindus in which Muslims will be consigned to second class citizenship – an idea that India had firmly rejected in 1947.

Along with the Citizenship Amendment, the BJP has reiterated in Parliament its commitment to implement a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC). In the run-up to the 2019 general elections, Amit Shah promised the nation that his party would ‘remove every single infiltrator from this country except Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs’. He likened illegal immigrants to ‘termites’ and ‘ghuspethiya’ (intruders). As Home Minister, six months later, armed with the twin instruments of the Citizenship Amendment and the NRC, he is now close to fulfilling this promise. But in the process he has unleashed a state sponsored project of ‘othering’ which strikes at the heart of India’s plural, secular ethos that is the foundation of the Indian republic.

The Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA) seeks to fast track citizenship for persons belonging to specified minority communities, namely Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Christians from a specified list of neighbours – Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The bill stipulates that persons belonging to these specific communities and countries will not be treated as ‘illegal’ and be eligible for naturalization as Indian citizens within six years, rather than the stipulated ‘no less than 11 years’ of residence in India. Responding to concerns (and protests) over the implications of the amendments in the North East, the 2019 amendment exempts certain areas in the North East from this provision. In addition, the amendment introduces an important provision empowering the Indian state to cancel registration of Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) cardholders on grounds of violation of laws in the country.

The full import of the amendment can only be understood when scrutinizing the careful, selective identification of certain ‘minority communities’ and ‘countries’ at the cost of others. The explanation for this selection is provided in the ‘Statement of Objects and Reasons’ appended to the CAA, which states that these three countries have an official state religion. It is for this reason, the argument goes, that persons belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Jain and Christian communities have faced persecution on grounds of religion. Speaking in the Lok Sabha during the debate on the bill, Home Minister Amit Shah reiterated this view. The Nehru-Liaqat Pact of 1950, he argued, was signed to protect minorities in India and Pakistan, but has not been implemented in spirit by our neighbours. The amendment is aimed at redressing this historical wrong.