One of the chief arguments that the Bharatiya Janata Party has rolled out as part of its pro-Citizenship Act amendments campaign has been an attempt to remind people of how badly Pakistan treats its minorities.

  • “Those who are agitating against the Parliament of India today... if you have to agitate, raise your voice against Pakistan’s actions of last 70 years,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Congress and its allies don’t speak against Pakistan, instead they are taking out rallies against these refugees.”
  • “You Congress leaders, listen carefully...” said Home Minister Amit Shah. “Oppose it as much as you can, but we will rest only after giving citizenship to all these people,” he said, referring to religious minorities from Pakistan.
  • The Opposition’s resolution against the Citizenship Act amendments, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population register “will make Pakistan happy”, said Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.

The thrust of this argument is to make it seem as if those opposed to the Citizenship Act amendments, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register are defending Pakistan, insisting that it does not oppress its minorities and want to prevent citizenship from being granted to refugees.

This is not true.

Among the hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets over the last month to protest, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who has argued that Pakistan’s treatment of its minorities is actually wonderful and so there is no need for such a law.

Modi, Shah and the BJP’s attempt to use this line is a straw man – a tactic that makes it seem as if they are making an intelligent point against the other side, when in fact they are attacking an argument that was not even made by their opponents.

Almost everybody opposed to the Citizenship Act amendments is concerned about what it means for Indians, not Pakistan. While there may be a few exceptions, as may be expected in mass movements, the vast majority of those who are out agitating have made it clear that their concerns are limited to India.

A protestor holds an image of BR Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, at a demonstration outside the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad on December 17.

In the North East, most of the protests have brought up concerns about demographic change and the challenge that will pose to the local culture. Across the rest of the country, the pushback has been based on fears that the CAA, when combined with the NRC, will be used as a tool to harass Indian Muslims.

Neither of these broad groupings are arguing that Pakistan does not oppress its minorities. In fact, if there is any reference to Pakistan, it is about preventing India from becoming more like its Islamic neighbour.

The Citizenship Act protests are about India, not Pakistan

Since the protests across India are not being led by any one grouping or political party, there is no central list of demands to point to. The India Forum has conveniently compiled a number of statements issued by various institutions since December 2019 expressing concern about the Citizenship Act.

Here are the only instances in which Pakistan turns up:

  • A grouping of scientists and scholars say the aim of giving citizenship to persecuted minorities from neighbouring countries including Pakistan is laudable, “[but] we find it deeply troubling that the Bill uses religion as a legal criterion for determining Indian citizenship”.
  • A “Tech against Fascism” statement says, “The Act is political and electoral towards building a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, while excluding persecuted Tamil Muslims from Sri Lanka, Ahmadiyya and Hazara Muslims from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.”
  • Students, alumni and faculty from MIT say, “While Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Christians from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh would be protected by being granted citizenship under the CAA, an overwhelming number of Muslims, who have lived within the territory of India for generations as well as more recent migrants, could be rendered stateless.”

It is useful to take a closer look at the concerns of the protesters, outside of the North East.

The Citizenship Act amendments make India more like Pakistan

They do this by adding a religious criterion to India’s Citizenship laws. This violates the fundamentally secular nature of India’s Constitution. Even if a technicality in the law might allow it (a question that will be settled by the Supreme Court when it hears the 60 or petitions against the CAA), this law pushes the idea that India is a natural home for some religions and not for others. That is the very idea of Pakistan – as a homeland for people from a specific religion, Islam – and it is an idea that India’s constituent assembly clearly rejected.

The Citizenship Act amendments are not really concerned about religiously persecuted refugees

As many have pointed out, if the Indian government was really concerned about communities that are religiously persecuted in the neighbourhood, the amended law would look very different. It might have laid down guidelines to determine whether a community has been religiously persecuted before they are considered for expedited citizenship. This might include Tamil Hindus and Muslims from Sri Lanka, Rohingyas from Myanmar and Shias and Ahmadiyyas from Pakistan, and even Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghurs from China. Instead, the Act – with no explanation – only names non-Muslims, and only looks at three countries, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, all of which happen to be Muslim.

The Citizenship Act amendments are actually targeted at Indian Muslims, when combined with the NRC

The real fear of those protesting the Citizenship Act is that it will be used in a combination with the promised National Register of Citizens to target Indian Muslims.

How? To simplify, the idea is that the NRC will force every resident to prove that they are Indian citizens. As the process in Assam demonstrated, this is an extremely complex procedure in which millions – especially if they are poor or marginalised – may be kept off the list simply because they don’t have documents. Non-Muslims can then rely on the Citizenship Act as a way to regain their citizenship status, while Muslims will be declared stateless.

Is this how it will actually work out? We don’t really know, since the rules for the Citizenship Act have not been notified yet and the government has claimed that it has no plans for an NRC right now and has denied these links.

But this is not some conspiracy theory. It comes after months and months of Home Minister Amit Shah promising very clearly that the government will implement a National Register of Citizens, but will only do so after it has passed a Citizenship Act.

Read this: Who is linking Citizenship Act to NRC? Here are five times Amit Shah did so

Since the protests against the Act grew larger, Modi dishonestly claimed that the word NRC had not come up after he came to power. Yet BJP documents, such as a booklet in West Bengal, continue to promise that an NRC is being planned. The government has not categorically denied that it will implement an NRC, just that one is not on the cards right now. And the government is going ahead with the National Population Register – which the official Census website clearly mentions is the first step on the way to an NRC.

All of this is good reason for any observer to conclude that, despite wishy washy denials, the government does indeed want to carry out an NRC exercise that targets Indian Muslims.

BJP wants to focus on CAA – and so is pointing to Pakistan

Do any of those arguments above involve defending Pakistan, or claiming that it does not oppress its minorities? Actually those opposed to the Act are generally arguing for an India that does not discriminate on religious grounds, which Pakistan – as an Islamic state – de facto does.

The BJP would prefer if the conversation around the Citizenship Act amendments is limited to talking about non-Muslims from Pakistan, and even avoiding discussing Afghanistan and Bangladesh if possible. As always, the classic attack from Modi and Shah involves saying that anyone opposed to them is speaking in the voice of Pakistan. Yet it was the BJP itself, taking Amit Shah’s lead, which broadened out the conversation by linking the CAA to promises of an NRC. Now it wants people to forget those claims.

The protesters meanwhile are focused on what the CAA-NRC combination means for Indians, not Pakistan.