Citizenship Tangle

Why the Modi government's plan to make religion a basis for citizenship is a bad idea

A proposed amendment to the Citizenship Act would bar Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan from gaining Indian citizenship.

On Wednesday, when he rose up to speak in Parliament on the abuse of human rights in Kashmir, Trinamool Congress member of parliament Derek O’Brien recounted how his Anglo-Indian family had thrived in India while the branch of the O’Briens in Pakistan did not exist anymore. In this country, O’Brien said, “We can eat what we want, we can pray wherever we want to, we can walk the streets freely."

India’s religious tolerance in its neighbourhood is something that every government had been conscious of before this. India’s twin, Pakistan, enshrines religion as a basis for state citizenship. Non-Muslims cannot be head of state in Pakistan and the government even goes so far as to regulate the religion of oppressed groups such as Ahmadis.

Unfortunately, rather than build on this lead, the Modi government seems keen on actually making India more like Pakistan, enshrining faith at the centre of its statehood. An amendment to the Citizenship Act pushed by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh aims to make religion a criteria for Indian citizenship.

Muslims not welcome

The Hindu reported on Friday that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, seeks to change the way an undocumented migrant can obtain Indian citizenship. If the amendment gets passed, members of every major religious community coming into India without legal passports or staying on without valid papers will be entitled to Indian citizenship after six years of residence in India – provided they aren't Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh.

A senior Union minister explained that this was because, “The principle is victimhood. How can a Muslim claim he has been victimised in these countries?”.

As it turns out, Muslims do face a lot of victimisation even in Muslim-majority countries. Shia Muslims, in Pakistan, by any standard, could be said be persecuted. In May 2015, militants blew up a bus containing 43 Ismailis, a sub-sect of Shia Muslim on August 1, Taliban militants gunned down 2 Hazara Shias in Quetta. The killing of Hazaras in Pakistan, an ethnic Shia group, is so gruesome that some commentators have even called it a genocide. Desperate to escape, some Hazara have even looked to Australia for asylum. This when the Hazara have historic links with India, with the British Indian Army even once containing a Hazara regiment.

Ahmadis – a small Muslim sect with roots in the Indian town of Qadian – are even more persecuted and even targeted officially by the Pakistani state. The Pakistani Constitution goes out of its way to officially brand Ahmadis as non-Muslim – even though they think of themselves as followers of Islam – and laws forbid Ahmedis from using Islamic prayers, books and even from using the common Muslim greeting, As-salam alaykum. Pakistan has seen multiple anti-Ahmadi riots since 1947. So widespread is anti-Ahmadi sentiment that appeals to kill them have been made openly on television with no action against the speakers.

Two Nation Theory

The list could go on. But clearly the rationale of “religious persecution” trotted out by the government doesn’t hold: Muslims can also be victims just like Hindus.

It should be noted that this isn’t a one-off event. In September, 2015, the Modi government decided that people from Pakistan and Bangladesh who had sought shelter in India before December 31, 2014, “due to religious persecution or fear of religious persecution” would be allowed to stay – again, unless they were Muslim.

Clearly, the process of introducing religion into citizenship is a well-thought one driven by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s majoritarian ideology, which assumes that faith is a determinant in nationality. The founder of Hindutva, Vinayak Savarkar laid out one of the first versions of the Two Nation Theory when he descibed Hindus and Muslims are two distinct nations. This, of course, goes hand in hand with a suspicion of Muslims – a mirror image of the suspicion of Hindus in Pakistan.

In a 2012 interview with journalist Shahid Siddiqui, Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, accused Indian Muslims of having extra-national sympathies. “You people find your mouth watering because you think by combining India, Pakistan and Bangladesh into Akhand Bharat, the country would have a lot of Muslims,” Modi said, in curious reversal of the official history of Partition in India. “All these Muslims would come together and use Indian Muslims to create tensions within India. This would be your dream too.”

What has ensured a difference with Pakistan is that India has kept its law making from being influenced by some of the more extreme right-wing ideologies. But if prime minister Modi’s views, that Indian Muslims will “come together” with Pakistani or Afghan Muslims, is now enshrined in its citizenship laws, then that difference might be a short lived one.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.