Doc­u­ment or hu­man be­ing

Why the In­dian сi­ti­zen­ship leg­is­la­tion re­newed wide­spread protests

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Mridula Ghosh

Why the In­dian сi­ti­zen­ship leg­is­la­tion re­newed wide­spread protests

Doc­u­ments are some­times more im­por­tant than the hu­man be­ing it­self. A per­son with­out a doc­u­ment has al­most no ac­cess to any­thing and is branded as “il­le­gal” by all states. But one of the best quotes of Eli Wiesel, noted Holo­caust sur­vivor, award win­ning nov­el­ist, jour­nal­ist, hu­man rights ac­tivist and win­ner of the No­bel Peace Prize in 1986, reads: “No hu­man be­ing is il­le­gal. That is a con­tra­dic­tion in terms. Hu­man be­ings can be beau­ti­ful or more beau­ti­ful, they can be fat or skinny, and they can be right or wrong, but il­le­gal? How can a hu­man be­ing be il­le­gal?” For a long time, th­ese words were rel­e­vant to In­dia, be­cause, one could roam around freely for sev­eral decades. And the term il­le­gal mi­grant, which was lib­er­ally used in Eu­rope was never used in In­dia. But no more.

Un­prece­dented de­ci­sions adopted by the stag­ger­ing mono­ma­jor­ity led by the Bharatiya Janata Party in both houses of the In­dian par­lia­ment led to amend­ment of the law on cit­i­zen­ship. Its im­pact and con­nec­tion with the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Na­tional Register of Cit­i­zens might lead to mass state­less­ness and dis­crim­i­na­tion. Union Home Min­is­ter and head of BJP Amit Shah said at a mass rally on 22 De­cem­ber 2019, that the NRC will be im­ple­mented na­tion­ally all over In­dia and “be­fore the coun­try goes to polls in 2024 all il­le­gal im­mi­grants will be thrown out.”

Th­ese steps and state­ments have led to mass protests in In­dia and abroad. While the words more used to­day are “ir­reg­u­lar mi­grants” or “unau­tho­rized mi­grants” by in­ter­na­tional

Hu­man Rights bod­ies, top In­dian pol­icy mak­ers are still talk­ing about “cleans­ing” the coun­try of “in­fil­tra­tors” and “il­le­gal mi­grants.”

Post-in­de­pen­dence In­dia was a state not based on doc­u­ments. The process evolved slowly and grad­u­ally, im­ple­mented with prac­ti­cal­ity, may be not al­ways with the best lev­els of ef­fi­ciency. Doc­u­ments such as ra­tion cards, school grad­u­a­tion cer­tifi­cates, or cer­tifi­cates of higher ed­u­ca­tion, pub­lic util­ity bills were used as proofs of iden­tity within the coun­try. In­dian cit­i­zens ob­tained pass­ports only to travel abroad. Later, voter’s cards and PAN cards (tax­a­tion payee num­bers) were in­tro­duced, and even later, the “aad­har” card with an elec­tron­i­cally read­able bar code came up.

Like­wise, In­dia’s Cit­i­zen­ship Act of 1955 was also amended in 1986, 1992, 2003, 2005 and 2015, to cater to emerg­ing needs. Cit­i­zen­ship in In­dia is based on the prin­ci­ple of “jus san­gui­nis” (by blood or de­scent) and not by “jus soli”. There­fore, ac­quir­ing In­dian cit­i­zen­ship for for­eign­ers of non-In­dian ori­gin through nat­u­ral­iza­tion is im­por­tant.

Un­der the Cit­i­zen­ship law, ir­reg­u­lar mi­grants can­not ap­ply for In­dian cit­i­zen­ship. Thus, those mi­grants from Bangladesh, who have en­tered In­dia with­out papers can­not be­come cit­i­zens. It also ex­cludes any­one who has en­tered us­ing a le­gal doc­u­ment but has over­stayed their visa. The Amend­ment bill seeks to change the Cit­i­zen­ship Act of 1955 and deals with the rules for ob­tain­ing In­dian cit­i­zen­ship through nat­u­ral­iza­tion; it states that Hin­dus, Sikhs, Bud­dhists, Jains, Par­sis and Chris­tians from Afghanista­n, Bangladesh and Pak­istan shall “not be treated as il­le­gal mi­grants” even if they had en­tered In­dia ir­reg­u­larly on or be­fore 31 De­cem­ber 2014. This makes a fun­da­men­tal change to In­dia’s process of cit­i­zen­ship by nat­u­ral­iza­tion which al­lows for­eign­ers to be­come In­di­ans. Af­ter the Cit­i­zen­ship Amend­ment Bill was passed on 11 De­cem­ber 2019, the com­mu­ni­ties iden­ti­fied above, will be able to ap­ply for In­dian cit­i­zen­ship even if they had crossed the bor­der with­out papers or over­stayed their visa. The Cit­i­zen­ship Amend­ment Bill also short­ens the wait­ing time for nat­u­ral­iza­tion for th­ese se­lect com­mu­ni­ties. Rather than hav­ing to re­side in In­dia for 11 out of the past 14 years, a six-year res­i­dence will now suf­fice. More­over, any le­gal pro­ceed­ings against them in re­spect of ir­reg­u­lar migration shall cease if that per­son is able to be­come an In­dian cit­i­zen.

On the sur­face, this amend­ment seems to open ways for cit­i­zen­ship for un­doc­u­mented mi­grants, re­duce state­less­ness and em­power peo­ple. How­ever, the main prob­lem is, most no­tably, that Mus­lims are miss­ing from the list of com­mu­ni­ties iden­ti­fied. Par­lia­men­tar­i­ans from BJP said that th­ese pro­vi­sions will help vic­tims of re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion from the neigh­bor­ing coun­tries ac­cess In­dian cit­i­zen­ship. How­ever, other omis­sions in the bill raise ques­tions as to the sound­ness of this ar­gu­ment. For ex­am­ple, Myan­mar – ac­cused of per­se­cut­ing its Mus­lim Ro­hingya mi­nor­ity – is miss­ing from the list of coun­tries in the bill, as well as China – noted for its per­se­cu­tion of the Uighurs, is also miss­ing, both coun­tries have a long bor­der with In­dia. Afghanista­n is in the list, even though its slim bor­der

with In­dia lies in Pak­istan-Oc­cu­pied Kash­mir. More­over, Sri Lanka is miss­ing from the list even though its Tamils – most of them Hindu – have suf­fered a geno­cide at the hands of the Sri Lankan state.

There­fore, ob­servers as­so­ciate th­ese ar­gu­ments with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s pol­i­tics, which pri­or­i­tizes a nar­ra­tive of per­se­cuted Hindu mi­grants from Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries, and they stress on how the dy­namic will be uti­lized within In­dia’s elec­toral pol­i­tics. More­over, it un­der­scores the BJP’s ide­ol­ogy of see­ing In­dia as a Hindu rash­tra or na­tion. The op­po­si­tion says the Bill vi­o­lates Ar­ti­cle 14 of the Con­sti­tu­tion – Right to Equal­ity (en­tire ethos of our democ­racy) and claims that cit­i­zen­ship can­not be given on the ba­sis of re­li­gion.

To jus­tify the ve­rac­ity or like­li­hood of the above, we need to know how is the Cit­i­zen­ship Amend­ment bill con­nected to the Na­tional Register of Cit­i­zens and what is the NRC? The NRC is a register of all In­dian cit­i­zens whose cre­ation was ap­proved by an amend­ment of The Cit­i­zen­ship Act 1955 in 2003. It has been im­ple­mented for the state of As­sam dur­ing 2015–2019.

As­sam, be­ing a bor­der state with unique prob­lems of ir­reg­u­lar im­mi­gra­tion, had an NRC cre­ated in 1951, based on the 1951 cen­sus data. But it was not main­tained af­ter­wards. In 1983, the Ir­reg­u­lar Mi­grants (De­ter­mi­na­tion by Tri­bunal) Act was passed by the Par­lia­ment cre­at­ing a sep­a­rate tri­bunal process for iden­ti­fy­ing un­doc­u­mented mi­grants in As­sam. The Supreme Court of In­dia struck it down as un­con­sti­tu­tional in 2005, af­ter which the Gov­ern­ment of In­dia agreed to up­date the As­sam NRC. Fol­low­ing un­sat­is­fac­tory progress on the up­date process over a decade, the Supreme Court started di­rect­ing and mon­i­tor­ing the process in 2013. The fi­nal up­dated NRC for As­sam, an ex­er­cise con­ducted from 2015 till 2019, was pub­lished on 31 Au­gust 2019, con­tain­ing 31 mil­lion names out of 33 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion, leav­ing out about 1.9 mil­lion ap­pli­cants, who are char­ac­ter­ized as “un­doc­u­mented mi­grants”. Many of them, sur­pris­ingly, are Hin­dus.

Thus, As­sam’s NRC even­tu­ally back­fired for the BJP’s pol­i­tics. In re­sponse, the BJP has pushed the Cit­i­zen­ship Amend­ment Bill as a so­lu­tion. Its lead­ers claim Hin­dus ex­cluded from the NRC in As­sam would be able to gain cit­i­zen­ship un­der the amended law, though it is not ex­actly clear how.

With the gov­ern­ment threat­en­ing to con­duct a na­tion­wide NRC, there are fears that Mus­lims would be the only ones who stand to lose their cit­i­zen­ship in such an ex­er­cise, if the Cit­i­zen­ship Amend­ment Bill ac­tu­ally cre­ates a mechanism for non-Mus­lims ex­cluded from the NRC to gain cit­i­zen­ship. Amit Shah, along with a num­ber of top BJP lead­ers, have ex­plic­itly com­mu­ni­cated that Hin­dus need not worry about the NRC.

The op­po­si­tion to the bill is di­vided into three broad streams. Most par­ties are against the in­tro­duc­tion of re­li­gious cri­te­ria for In­dian cit­i­zen­ship, ar­gu­ing that it would gravely dam­age one of In­dia’s foun­da­tional prin­ci­ples: sec­u­lar­ism.

In the North East, ad­di­tion­ally, the bill brings the fear of de­mo­graphic change, with lo­cal politi­cians an­tic­i­pat­ing a large in­flux of peo­ple from Bangladesh. Also, pur­pose of help­ing Hindu mi­grants will not be served, be­cause prov­ing re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion would be very dif­fi­cult. Ad­di­tion­ally, how Hindu Ben­galis left out of the As­sam NRC can now be given re­lief by the present Amend­ment – a key BJP claim – given that both ex­er­cises con­tra­dict each other. Every­one ap­ply­ing for the NRC has claimed they were In­dian cit­i­zens but the Amend­ment of Cit­i­zen­ship Act in 2019 re­quires one to ex­plic­itly claim that they crossed over from Bangladesh.

So the Cit­i­zen­ship Amend­ment Bill, which had been tabled in Par­lia­ment at the start of the year but with­drawn in the face of protests, should have been sim­pler and more in­clu­sive to in­cor­po­rate Mus­lims, when it was rein­tro­duced in De­cem­ber 2019.

So, af­ter its adop­tion, protests gath­ered steam first in the North East, where there are al­ready 5 ca­su­al­ties, and then across In­dia, in­clud­ing vi­o­lent po­lice ac­tion at uni­ver­si­ties in Delhi and Ali­garh. Na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally, stu­dents took to the streets to ex­press their dis­ap­proval of the bru­tal­ity un­leashed against their col­leagues.

Re­vok­ing of ar­ti­cle 370 and tak­ing off the spe­cial sta­tus of Kash­mir was a sud­den move, while the amend­ment to Cit­i­zen­ship Act was a planned and ex­pected move. But in the first case op­po­si­tion was min­i­mal within In­dia while the lat­ter has faced na­tion­wide protests. The Kash­mir changes hap­pened very fast, few were able to mo­bi­lize and the gov­ern­ment was able to set the nar­ra­tive. Kash­mir is a Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity re­gion, and sits next to Pak­istan and decades of ac­tive cam­paign to de­mean and de­hu­man­ize its peo­ple and dis­miss their con­cerns as ei­ther be­ing “Is­lamic” or “spon­sored” by Pak­istan could work. As a re­sult, there was lit­tle sup­port among the pub­lic – mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for Op­po­si­tion politi­cians to even ap­peal to hu­man­ity, plu­ral­ism and sec­u­lar­ism.

In the North East, and also to some ex­tent in neigh­bor­ing West Ben­gal, pol­i­tics do not quite run along re­li­gious lines, but rather along lo­cals vs. out­siders. Hence the rul­ing party BJP tries to fo­cus on elim­i­na­tion of “in­fil­tra­tors” from the NRC and the Cit­i­zen­ship Act, with vague ref­er­ences to Ben­gali-speak­ing Mus­lims, whether or not they are ac­tu­ally im­mi­grants from Bangladesh. The big­gest blow came from me­dia re­ports of the tragic death of in­di­vid­u­als who were Hin­dus and did not qual­ify for the NRC and were in the de­ten­tion cen­ter. Even though In­dia sim­ply does not take well to Mus­lim po­lit­i­cal as­ser­tion, some Mus­lim or­ga­ni­za­tions were able to mo­bi­lize and take to the streets and they were joined by oth­ers. Gov­ern­ment spend­ing huge amount on the first de­ten­tion cen­ter in As­sam, equiv­a­lent of seven foot­ball grounds, also sent shock­waves in a democ­racy, used to chronic poverty and strug­gle of its peo­ple, but un­used to such treat­ment of hu­man be­ings. It is not just na­tivism and ‘Mus­lim con­cern’ now, it has be­come “Peo­ple’s con­cern”. Lo­cal po­lit­i­cal al­liances with BJP and fall­ing apart.

On 19 De­cem­ber, 2019, Mamta Ban­er­jee, the Chief Min­is­ter of West Ben­gal said, “If the BJP has guts, it will hold a UN mon­i­tored ref­er­en­dum on the Cit­i­zen­ship Amend­ment Bill.” This was a bold and flip­pant state­ment, invit­ing ex­ter­nal as­sis­tance for re­solv­ing an in­ter­nal po­lit­i­cal is­sue. In­ter­na­tional neg­a­tive con­se­quences of the fur­ther im­ple­men­ta­tion of NRC, fol­lowed by state­less­ness and de­ten­tion of non-cit­i­zens can­not be fore­seen now. To re­call, In­dia gen­er­ates a big share of world migration and In­dian di­as­pora will bear the im­pact of such poli­cies.

There are sev­eral fac­tors also to be borne in mind that run above party pol­i­tics. First, In­dia is home to the sec­ond largest Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion in the world and by 2050, it will be home to the largest Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion in the world. Sec­ond, In­dia is one of the most di­verse coun­try in the world in terms of lan­guages and cul­tures and eth­nic groups liv­ing in it. Third, the syn­cretic na­ture of its cul­ture has al­ways wel­comed all and it was the home for all per­se­cuted. Hu­man­ism runs high in the an­cient In­dian tra­di­tion. Last but not the least, the Con­sti­tu­tion of In­dia of­fers the foun­da­tion for unity and the demo­cratic frame­work, which has lasted un­in­ter­rupt­edly for the past sev­eral decades and will reach its 70th an­niver­sary in 2020. Th­ese are suf­fi­cient grounds for any po­lit­i­cal party, no mat­ter how pow­er­ful, not to harp on its nar­row agenda and jeop­ar­dize the in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion of the na­tion as a whole, as well as en­large the role of doc­u­ments than the dig­nity of the hu­man be­ing.

An­i­mal farm. Changes in In­dian law are ac­tu­ally in­tro­duc­ing the con­cepts of “right” and “wrong” cit­i­zens, which has caused out­rage in so­ci­ety

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