Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah this week reiterated a promise he has made several times before. But on this occasion, he was restating it as India’s home minister. “I am assuring you that each and every infiltrator in India will be shown the door,” Shah said in Kolkata. “[But] I today want to assure Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Christian refugees, you will not be forced to leave India by the Centre.”
Missing from that statement, obviously, is the word “Muslim”. By portraying immigration concerns in this way, Shah is depicting every Muslim who enters the country as an “infiltrator” while at the same time welcoming followers of other principal religions as “refugees”.
Shah promised that his government would pass the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which would provide a legal route for refugees of those religions to become Indian citizens. Following this, he said, a National Register of Citizens would be put in place around the country essentially to identify Muslims who are unable to prove their citizenship (a process that is fraught with difficulty even for people whose families have always lived in India).
There is no way to be polite about it. Indian Home Minister Amit Shah’s proposal is both unconstitutional and bigoted.
Unconstitutional because he is saying India will accept some people as citizens based solely on their religion, grounds that the Constitution expressly forbids. Bigoted because it is predicated on demonising an entire group of people because of their religion. Amit Shah wants the state as well as Indian society to look upon Muslims as “intruders” and “termites”, just as other infamously bigoted global leaders have done in the past.
If he was really moved by the plight of persecuted minorities in India’s neighbourhood, Shah would be offering to take in the Rohingyas from Myanmar or Ahmadiyas from Pakistan. If the government was really worried about “intruders” or “infiltration”, then it should not matter whether the undocumented migrants are Muslim, Hindu or Christian. Indeed, data seems to suggest that India does not have an undocumented migrant problem of any significant scale.
The BJP’s larger aim, as it has repeatedly made clear, is not just to sow doubt about Muslims who may have come to India from Bangladesh: it is to reinforce the idea that Muslims all across the country need to bow down to the majority and prove their loyalty to the nation.
Unfortunately, in today’s India, there is no certainty that something as blatantly unconstitutional as the BJP’s Citizenship Amendment Bill will actually be declared illegal by the Indian Supreme Court. The court, unfortunately, seems to be just as willing as any other institution to bend to the majoritarian view. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rule, bigotry has become normalised in public life. Expectations that the civil society will mount a forceful challenge to this prejudice are likely to be met with disappointment.
But simply because these initiatives may be allowed to pass – by the Supreme Court, by the Indian public – does not detract from what they are: weapons that will destroy the non-discriminatory fundamentals of the Indian Constitution.