Citizen Amendment Act. An Indian tradition of welcoming persecuted people

Nita Chicooree-Mercier

The BJP-led government of India was given a second mandate in 2019 to implement the resolutions which were clearly laid out in its 2014 electoral manifesto. The Indian government has been serious on the issues it presented to the electorate: abrogation of Article 370 concerning Kashmir and a bill to grant Indian citizenship to oppressed people are two key issues on the list. Minority refugees had been at the receiving end of unmitigated hardships in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan on account of their religious identity. The bill clearly states that the refugees are from Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist and Jain communities in the three countries. The bill does not specify that the refugees should hold the hands of their persecutors and tormentors and bring them along to queue up for Indian citizenship.

Mainstream world press agencies, Reuters and AFP maliciously chose to distort the resolution of the Indian government and presented it as a bill which grants citizenship to oppressed minorities except Muslims. They did not even bother to mention the other religious groups. New York Times repeated verbatim the news penned by BBC’s journalists of Pakistani origin. French daily Le Monde peddled the same interpretation of the bill rather than the content of the bill itself, and it was taken up in French-language press in North Africa, Africa and in French overseas departments, the DOM-TOM. It was not an honest reporting of news. It was a vicious misinterpretation of a bill to create sensation and start a polemic over the victimhood status of other religious groups in total disregard of the relevance of a major decision taken by the government of a sovereign country where the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) was given due electoral sanction.

The beginnings of CAA

Opposition parties were fully aware of the citizenship resolution of the BJP during the 2014 electoral campaign. The UPA government led by Congress did bring up the plight of oppressed minorities and considered extending citizenship to them, but failed to take any action on the issue. Its failure was perceived as being in line with its minority appeasement policy of targeting its vote bank for electoral purposes. Mainly Hindus, Sikhs and Christians from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan were kept waiting for India to open its arms to save them from unending persecution.

CAA is the fruit of a process that was initiated way back in 2014. Statistics in June 15, 2015 reveal that around 4300 Hindu and Sikh refugees ran away to India during the course of one year from the three countries. The Modi-led government took their plight into consideration and tabled a citizen amendment bill in the Lok Sabah on July 19, 2016. A joint parliamentary committee was set up for further deliberations on the provisions of the bill for the next two and a half years before the submission of its report to the government in January 2019. The bill was passed in Lok Sabha in January 2019. Before it could make it to the Rajya Sabha, the country went to the polls and the Lok Sabha was dissolved. So it had to be taken up afresh and was passed by both Houses of Parliament.

 Origin and Causes of the CAA

The need for India to protect the minorities from the neighbouring countries which formed part of its territory before Partition and where Indian-born religions – Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Jain – are present was felt immediately after Partition. On September 26, 1947, a month after Independence Day, at a prayer meeting, Mahatma Gandhi had categorically stated that all Hindus and Sikhs living in Pakistan were free to come over to India if they did not wish to live there. It would be the primary duty of the Indian government to provide them with jobs and help them settle down. On February 27, 1950 Congress president Pattabhi Sitaramayya declared that “the struggle and pain continue unabated and it creates a crisis every now and then. At present, the mandatory task is to protect the minorities from East and West Bengal.” 

From times immemorial it has been a region of Hindu civilization whose influence spread to Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia. Other religions flourished under the umbrella of Hinduism and the silent gaze of the Buddha. In India itself, descendants of diverse ethnic groups and religions from the hordes of invaders from the Arab-Muslim world – Mughal, Turks, Persians and Arabs – were assimilated into a common Indian culture over centuries. This gave them a sense of belonging to the same land and civilization, sharing linguistic similarities, customs, food tradition, history and love for the country, thus fostering brotherly bonds between various religious and ethnic communities.

In the early context of the pan-Arab movement in the Middle East and North Africa, big chunks of the Muslim population in India were made to believe that they should not live under Hindu political power in what is a Hindu region. It was a tragedy for India to have to carve out large swathes of its beautiful north-western lands full of gorgeous landscapes, green valleys, mountains, hills, rivers, lakes and sprawling coastlines to create a separate country, a so-called Land of the Pure, Pakistan. Archaeological remains of the ancient civilization of Harappa are now covered with railways in Pakistan, which should be embarrassing to Pakistanis to present as their own ancient past.

Partition was a tragedy with widespread violence and bloodshed on both sides of the border. The artificial creation of such a political entity on the basis of religion was bound to lead to persecution and oppression of other groups. Mohamed Ali Jinnah in the National Assembly of Pakistan declared that “Pakistan would become a secular, democratic and modern nation”. Unfortunately, his successors did the exact opposite. It was no better elsewhere.

Afghanistan. Under Taliban rule in the late 1990s, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians were required to wear a yellow tag on their clothes to mark them out from the predominant majority population, a sordid reminder of the treatment of Jews under Nazi rule. To the great dismay of Afghans themselves, Buddhist countries and the world, the archaeological site of the Buddha of Bamiyan was attacked and razed to ashes. No intellectuals or western media from the leftist fold deemed it necessary to coin the term ‘buddhistophobia’. Minorities were harassed and made to understand that their presence was not desirable in Afghanistan. Jews vanished altogether. Others migrated to the West while a big number of those left behind turned to India.

Bangladesh. Since its separation from West Pakistan in 1971, mainly Hindus, Christians and Sikhs were marginalized. Hindu temples were regularly destroyed by fanatics. Ethnic conflicts in India spelled trouble for Hindus in Bangladesh. Hindus men were attacked, and women raped. These crimes were denounced by Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen in her book, Lajja (Shame). In recent years, Hindu priests were murdered in temples, and others harassed and killed by mobs for random irrational motives.

It should be clear to the world that such situations cannot be allowed to perpetuate and bring sufferings and misery to religious minorities.

An Indian tradition

In keeping with its commitment to universal welfare, the Indian government took the decision to welcome the refugees, grant citizenship and provide them with a conducive atmosphere to get a shelter and live with dignity and respect. CAA nurtures and conforms to the fundamental spirit of the Indian Constitution.

The land of Bharat is imbibed with a philosophy that makes its people open their hearts and arms to persecuted people. Jews were welcomed to settle in India during the attacks carried out in Jerusalem by Christian Crusaders from Europe in the early centuries of Chistianism. A significant Jewish community settled in Kerala, and later had to move up when they were chased away by invaders from Oman. Parsis, followers of Zoroastrian religion in former Persia fled from there and took refuge in India. During Rajiv Gandhi term of office, Tamilians fleeing the civil war in Sri Lanka were allowed to settle down in India.

Embracing persecuted minorities within its fold is nothing new for this magnanimous civilisation that India is the birth place of, and CAA is yet another proof of that.


* Published in print edition on 10 January 2020

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