By now, all of us have an idea of what the CAA and NRC are all about and what they intend to do. Most of us by now, have also decided which side of the debate we are on. The gravity of reaction and counter-reaction stemming from people on both sides also conveys that it is almost impossible to budge them from their respective stance. But I will still try to reason that there is some scope of conciliation between the two groups. For that we first need to deal with the CAA as it has been solidified with an Act while NRC is still suspended in the air (besides the Home Minister’s statement in the parliament, little has happened on that front.)
The CAA is a humanitarian piece of legislation. It seeks to provide a onetime relief to illegal minorities fleeing from three of our neighbours – Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan – who have entered the country before the end of 2014. These minorities are Jains, Buddhist, Christians, Parsis, Hindus and Sikhs. The Act has a notable exception in that it excludes Muslims. Before we move ahead, it is pertinent to mention that there are two equally important classifications under the Act which are applicable on the illegal migrants in order for them to qualify for citizenship. First, the individual has to be from the three abovementioned countries, thus basing the initial classification on nationality. Thereafter, he has to belong to any of the above mentioned minorities, basing the subsequent classification on religion. The third qualification is that the migration should have occurred any time before 2014. Thus, regardless of the religious background or the nationality of the migrant, if the migration is post-2014, he will not be protected under the Act.
The case in favour of the Act is quite simple. There are minorities that are facing persecution in our neighbouring countries by virtue of them being proclaimed Islamic states, and India with its sizeable population of Hindu and other affiliate religions, is an obvious shelter. Now, let us consider the arguments made against the Act. The first is based on nationality: why do we not have Tibetans from China or Tamilians from Sri Lanka covered under the Act? In my opinion, here we constrained by foreign policy and geopolitical considerations that are likely to arise in attempting to grant citizenship to communities of both these states. If there is such a thing as national interest, and I argue that there is one, it would be better for us not to rub-off China in a wrong manner, especially at the time when the USA is undergoing a political turmoil of its own and can’t offer any political and logistical support to us. Same is the case with Sri Lanka, which is drifting close to China slowly and surely. It would be not in our best interest to antagonise them by re-agitating the delicate balance that has prevailed since the 2009 army action against LTTE. Here, I believe the side favouring the CAA in its present form has a stronger case.
This brings us to the second argument against the CAA, which is that it excludes certain Muslim sects that have also faced persecution in their respective countries such as Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan and Rohingyas in Myanmar. The answer here becomes slightly complex. So far as Rohingyas are concerned, their migration is a recent phenomenon and results from an inner disagreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar regarding their status. It lacks the long-drawn wait justifying the grant of citizenship which the dribbling migrants of the other three countries have faced. There is also an absence of the historical backdrop of Partition in their favour, which was based on religious lines combined with our neighbouring countries not upholding their end of the bargain of protecting their minorities. This constitutes an important emotional connection which moves India to favour the minorities of these particular neighbouring countries. But more importantly, the opposition to the grant of citizenship to Rohingyas is also based on fears of possible religious radicalisation of the group. It has engaged in violence in the past in Myanmar with the formation of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, rumoured to have international terror links. The third reason is the conservative belief in the old dictum that ‘demography is destiny’, and changing the demographic set-up of countries leads to unbalance. This also explains the dropping of Ahmadiyyas from the scheme. So far as this belief is concerned, I argue that this belief can’t be rejected simply on the basis of an appeal to the liberal ethos, which rejects any attempts at acknowledging the appreciable differences between cultures and fundamental tenets of various religions. Such rejections have thrown up difficult challenges in old and established democracies like France and Britain where attempts to accommodate pluralism have resulted either in violence or anti-migration mobilisation.
Our republic still being in its formative years of democracy, it is sensible to reject this blind consensus of progressive liberalism and acknowledge the possible challenges of unqualified migration. In summation, I understand that though the case here for exclusion of other religions from the CAA is weak, the Act itself is still based on pragmatism and makes much sense. Overall I would argue that though the CAA spars with certain liberal traditions, its effect and impetus is based on rational and pragmatic considerations which can be criticised, but do not constitute a negation of democratic principles.
Coming to NRC, it is an exercise that stems from the Assam Accord and sets the benchmark date of entering the country on or before 24th March, 1971 in order to prove citizenship. An individual has to submit any of the 14 admissible documents to show his or her presence in Assam before the benchmark date. It has been a Supreme Court monitored exercise and has produced sloppy results. So far there has been little movement towards a nation-wide NRC. However, a statement has been made by the Home Minister in parliament on November, 20th, 2019 that the NRC would be extended to the entire country. Thus, the argument here is that the cumulative effect of CAA and NRC would give the entire exercise a clear communal bent. This is so because all Jains, Buddhist, Christians, Parsis, Hindus and Sikhs who are not able to produce any documents under the NRC to prove their presence in the country before the cut-off date would automatically be granted citizenship under the CAA, whereas any Muslim undergoing a similar ordeal would still be left out of the loop. This is a fair criticism of the cumulative exercise. However, it is based on certain presumptions. The first is that the nation-wide NRC would have the same cut-off date as the one in Assam. The reason for picking 1971 as the base year in the case of Assam was the 1971 war, which happened in December of that year and led to large scale inward migration in the preceding months. There is no such reasoning for a nation-wide NRC and we don’t really know what the base year will be; for all we know it could be 2014, the same as the CAA. This would mean all groups who can show their presence in India before 2014 will be similarly placed. The only disadvantaged group would be Muslims who don’t have any of the 14 documents mentioned in the Assam NRC even till 2014. This brings us to the second assumption, which is, the 14 documents laid down in the Assam NRC will be the only ones that would be taken up by the nation-wide NRC. The absence of clarity by the government has fuelled the protest due to people assuming the worst. A proper clarification by the government can go a long way in quelling protests. Here lies the scope for reconciliation I had earlier mentioned. The government needs to take lessons from the Assam experiment. It should find effective solutions to minimize the collateral damage of denying rightful citizenship in pursuit of ensuring national security. This can be done by expanding the number of admissible documents by localizing their nature and extending the cut-off date to a suitable time limit. One can only hope that the government extends the hand and doesn’t lose the plot on this, as it has in the way it has dealt with the protests.
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