Wolf in Shepherd’s Clothing: Religious identity, not persecution, is the defining criterion for faster access to citizenship

December 12, 2019, 11:26 pm IST Economic Times in ET Commentary | India | ET

By Gilles Verniers

Critics of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) have argued that it fails the test of constitutionality by introducing for the first time a religious criterion for acquiring citizenship.
This, they argue correctly, contradicts a basic tenet of secularism in India, which is that the State shall not discriminate against citizens on the basis of their religious affiliation.
While CAB does not affect the status of those who already are citizens, it breaches the principle of secularism by precisely establishing a selection criteria based on religion for those who apply for citizenship, under certain circumstances.

CAB Takes You for a Ride

Another critique of CAB is that its intent is disingenuous. It is less about extending a generous hand to members of endangered religious minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh than about providing a lifeline to non-Muslim citizens who will find themselves excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC). In October this year, home minister Amit Shah clearly stated that CAB shall be put in place before the extension of NRC from Assam to the rest of the country.

It is generally better to evaluate policies on the basis of their implications and consequences rather than by their declared intent. From this perspective, CAB is marred by fundamental misconceptions, contradictions, and by discrepancy between beliefs, intentions and consequences.

On the declared intent of the amendment, the majority in power can line up arguments about India’s age-old tradition of protecting persecuted minorities beyond its borders. But the fact remains that religion is not the best criterion to determine who is persecuted by a State. To begin with, minorities targeted by a State or a majority group in power vary in time.

Second, Pakistan’s most persecuted or endangered minorities belong to various groups within Islam — Shias, Ahmadis — who are de facto and de jure excluded from India’s generosity. Individuals who belong to majority religious groups may also be persecuted if they go against norms or conventions sanctioned by their religious authorities, or by the State agents who seek to enforce such norms and conventions.

Third, the exclusion of Sri Lanka and Myanmar from the ambit of the amendment only confirms the fact that the policy aims to exclude Muslim minorities from India’s neighbours, who do face discrimination and persecution, as is the case of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, or Tamil Muslims in Sri Lanka, under pressure from the Sinhala majority.

And, fourth, there are other forms of persecution than religion-based. India’s neighbours have a rich past of going against their ethnic minorities, who cannot always be distinguished through different religious affiliations. Clearly, therefore, it is religious identity that is set as the defining criterion for faster access to Indian citizenship, and not the fact of persecution per se.

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(The writer is assistant professor of political science, Ashoka University, Sonipat, Haryana)

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