Ram Madhav
March 16, 2024

Act of Inclusion, Not Exclusion

(The article was originally published in Indian Express on March 16, 2024 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)

As the rules for the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed by Parliament on December 10, 2019, are being gazetted by the government, the specious argument that it is anti-secular and makes religion the basis for determining refugee status has resurfaced. Globally, religion is considered one of the key factors for persecution and is an important criterion for refugee status. The US Code book defines a refugee as any person of special humanitarian concern to the US with “a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

The criticism that the CAA is anti-Muslim because it excludes Muslims from the list of persecuted minorities doesn’t hold any water. The Act doesn’t say anything against Muslims. It talks about the victims of religious persecution from the minority communities in three neighbouring countries — Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan — which declared themselves as Islamic nations long ago. Muslims are the majority there. If they face any other kind of persecution and thereby seek refuge in India, they have access to other laws. In fact, many Afghan refugees live in India. Political volatility and regular incidents of violence against minorities are common in these countries, resulting in India experiencing the migration of those persecuted minorities — largely Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians — into its border states.

While this influx has been continuous, it has taken on enormous proportions at times: The 1971 Bangladesh War saw over 10 million refugees from East Pakistan pour into Bengal, Bihar and Assam. The 1990s saw another such influx when communal riots erupted in parts of Bangladesh. The radical Islamist takeover of Afghanistan in the 1990s triggered the influx of Hindus and Sikhs, especially from Kabul and Kandahar. In Pakistan’s case, this minority influx has been a constant phenomenon.

The CAA’s limited mandate is to address the challenge of this influx. It is an amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955. The Act is a non-discriminatory piece of legislation that stipulates five categories of citizenship — by birth, descent, registration, naturalisation or incorporation of territory. While the first two categories are for Indians by birth or descent, the last three categories are available to non-Indians under specific conditions like marriage to an Indian citizen or legal migration to India. Its non-discriminatory nature can be appreciated from the citizenship acquired by senior Congress leader Sonia Gandhi in 1983 and Pakistan-born singer Adnan Sami in 2016. In the last eight to nine years, the government has given citizenship to hundreds of such applicants, including more than 550 Muslims.

The CAA doesn’t change this character of the Citizenship Act. It only seeks to fast-track this process for the persecuted minorities as a one-time special measure. Instead of waiting for 12 years under the normal rules, this amendment offers them citizenship in five years. The propaganda that Muslims of India will be removed from citizenship is baseless. There is no provision in the Act for the termination or deprivation of citizenship of any Indian citizen, except that they can voluntarily renounce the same.

This amendment is also not an open-ended invitation to the minorities in the neighbourhood. Only those refugees who moved to India before 2014 can avail this opportunity. It essentially helps those who were victims of violent communal politics in these countries in the last century. Rise in awareness about minority rights and improved political situation in countries like Bangladesh did reduce this phenomenon although it did not eliminate it.

It is not unusual for countries to offer special provisions to select groups occasionally. For example, the Vietnam War had left a large number of Vietnamese as refugees. Gerald Ford was the US President at that time. Several airlifts were organised to bring Vietnamese refugees and asylum-seekers to the US. About 120,000 were relocated. “To ignore the refugees in their hour of need would be to repudiate the values we cherish as a nation of immigrants, and I was not about to let Congress do that”, Ford had declared. Similarly, the crisis in Laos after the Vietnam War had left thousands of Hmar tribes as refugees in Thailand. Thousands of such stateless Vietnamese and Hmar refugees were granted a one-time citizenship offer by the US administration in 2004.

For various reasons, the framing of rules for the implementation of the historic CAA amendment took more than four years. The eruption of a movement, followed by the disruption caused by the Covid pandemic must have caused this delay. Initially, the challenge of determining persecution for refugee status became a subject of discussion. It was proposed that the refugees must be asked to provide proof of their persecution, an obvious impossibility for a majority of them, who happen to be from marginalised and depressed classes. The final gazette notification relaxed this significantly by not insisting on the proof of persecution but seeking evidence of citizenship of one of these countries. Similarly, rules have been eased with respect to the proof of stay in India for more than five years. Over 20 different types of documents have been allowed as evidence of stay.

With the promulgation of the CAA rules, the government has fulfilled a promise it made decades ago. Yet, there is a process involved in submitting applications online together with a few valid documents. The endorsement of one Indian citizen is also required in support of each application. The success of this effort will require NGOs and concerned citizens to come forward to help the refugees navigate this process.

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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