DEBATE around a controversial amendment to India’s citizenship law have sparked broader debates about what it is to be Indian.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 would allow migrants who illegally entered India from the Sunni Muslim-majority nations of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to become citizens – a right that would continue to be denied to Muslim sects like Shia or Ahmadiyyah who are also persecuted over the border.
Supporters say the changes to the 1955 Citizenship Act would provide safeguards for Hindu refugees from India’s neighbours, while critics claim it is a ploy by right-wing Hindutva nationalists in New Delhi to turn the home of 1.3 billion into into a Hindu nation or Rastra.
While India was divided in 1947 and a new Islamic nation called Pakistan was born, perhaps nobody thought that partition’s consequences would shape politics for decades to come. Pakistan declared itself an Islamic republic while India remained secular in practice.
In recent years, however, an increasingly prominent urge to turn India into a Hindu nation is has seemingly emerged.
Observers say that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in New Delhi has slowly spread the Hindutva ideology across the country. Today, Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) not only commands national government, but also rules 20 states either directly or as a member of a coalition.
As a registered political party BJP may not publicly subscribe to replacing secular India with a Hindu nation, but its parent organisation Rashtriya Swayang Sewak (RSS) has made it clear in many occasions that it remains concerned about Hinduism and the safeguard of those who practice the Sanatan religion, even if they are not residents of India.
Many RSS leaders continue making public statements that India is a natural home for Hindu people. Indeed, it cannot be denied that Hinduism has lived in India for more than 3000 years – long before the birth of Christianity and Islam.
As such, the Modi government’s proposed changes to the definition of citizenship – allowing Hindus who fled South Asian neighbours due to religious persecution and entered Indian territory prior to 31 Dec 2014 – are seen by many as a facet of pursuing the creation of a Hindu Rastra.
The BJP has introduced the changes to the Citizenship Act 1955 to the lower house, where it enjoys a parliamentary majority. In the upper house, however, it does not control a majority, leading to the creation of a Joint Parliamentary Committee on the amendment to consider the views of those in the affected states.
BJP parliamentarian Rajenda Agrawal has led hearings in New Delhi, Guwahati, Silchar and Shillong, where civil society members and individual citizens provided feedback on the Bill. A majority of community groups from the Barak Valley in the northeast state of Assam, which borders Bangladesh, have opposed it.
Local governments in Meghalaya and Nagaland have openly opposed the Act, while Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley has emerged as a hotbed of protests against the changes.
Some argue that religion-specific provisions in Indian citizenship go against the constitution’s secular spirit. Moreover, they say the world’s largest democracy should support people of different beliefs, not just the Hindu majority. With around 200 million adherents to Islam, India has the second largest Muslim population on the planet after India.
In Assam, opponents are particularly strident because it would mean additional refugees to the state which is around 60 percent Hindu and 35 percent Muslim. Local community organisations and media outlets have openly opposed New Delhi’s push to change citizenship.
Political observers have compared the present situation with the Assam agitation which culminated in 1985 with an accord signed by the agitators and national government led by then-PM Rajib Gandhi.
Millions of participants in the six year-long agitation wanted to deport all illegal migrants from Bangladesh from Assam. It was led by the All Assam Student’s Union, who saw 850 of their members killed in the name of deporting migrants who arrived after 1951.
But the leaders eventually agreed in the accord to allow all the migrants who arrived in Assam before 25 March 1971 to stay. It was never endorsed by the parliament, however.
The Patriotic People’s Front Assam (PPFA) – claiming to represent local intellectuals, editor-journalists and civil society members – has depicted the Bill as being anti-Assam. They claim that asylum seekers eligible for citizenship would not only be Bengali Hindus, but other minorities like the Rajbongsi, Jayantiya, Khasi and Adivasi peoples.
The PPFA has also reiterated its stance of identifying all “illegal” immigrants who arrived after 1951 from then-East Pakistan as applicable to the entire nation. It proposed that if deportation of the primarily-Muslim migrants is too difficult to achieve, the government should offer work permits without voting rights.
Observers anticipate that if New Delhi succeeds in amending India’s citizenship law, the BJP could look to introduce a law allowing every Hindu, Jain, Sikh or Buddhist around the world to enter India, in a similar scheme to which exists for Jews in Israel.
With an existing Hindu majority of around 60 percent and against a backdrop of Islamist terrorism across the globe, most non-Muslims might even support the concept.