Religious tint to citizenship hurts spirit of secular India

There is this gut-wrenching belief that the 70-year-old secularity of this nation has been placed in jeopardy.

By Bikram Vohra

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Published: Wed 11 Dec 2019, 5:00 PM

Last updated: Wed 11 Dec 2019, 10:10 PM

Much as Indian Home Minister Amit Shah might try to dress up the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill (to the 1955 charter) as an act of kindness and solidarity with the persecuted minorities in third countries, the religious colouring will not disappear. It might fade with time but the stain is going to be present for quite a while because of the startling exceptions. 
That the Lok Sabha, India's Lower House of representative, cleared the bill by 311 to 80 in a 391 strong presence is not indicative of any great popularity for the contents of the bill beyond the whip presumably issued to the 282 Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members and 25-odd allies. Many of these MPs will have to answer for their docile acquiescence in their home states. There is this gut-wrenching belief that the 70-year-old secularity of this nation has been placed in jeopardy.
The irony lies in the fact that as the BJP government aspires to give refuge and status to minorities of other countries who have faced the sting of prejudice it has failed to eradicate the suspicion that its largest minority by far has been marginalised in this initiative. The lapse is in the explanation or lack of it that it has no impact directly or indirectly with the rights and privileges of the 200 million Muslims who live in India as bona fide citizens. That certain vested interests will attempt to make that quantum leap to frighten this 14 per cent of the country and sink it into unease is certain to occur and that is dangerous. Perceptions are often more relevant than truths and one would have to be terribly naïve to believe the backlash will not be one of deep hurt.
If Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Jews, and other non-Muslim entities are being given identity and a home what of those Muslims who have also found refuge in India like Sri Lankan Tamils and Moors for example.not just Muslims but even those of other persuasions who came before 2014 during the years of the internal strife on the pearl of the Indian Ocean. These exceptions detract from the wholesome enthusiasm displayed by India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he expressed his satisfaction by saying, "Delighted that the Lok Sabha has passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019, after a rich and extensive debate. I thank the various MPs and parties that supported the bill. This bill is in line with India's centuries-old ethos of assimilation and belief in humanitarian values."
The catchphrase is the 'ethos of assimilation' which goes abegging when you make exceptions and are not able to justify their exclusion, hoping to sidestep this slippery slope or simple hope that the din will die down.
There is also a poignant irony to it all because the furore over the bill is finding echo in the eastern sister states not only because the Muslims have been left out of the legal status list but because there is fear that the legitimisation of the non-Muslim throng will create a wave of newly minted 'Indian' citizens who will engulf these states and upset their fragile and delicate cultural balance and swamp them.
Assam is a case in point and the situation is further exacerbated by the demand for documentation, a luxury many poorer Indians can ill afford to access or maintain. That aspect not only opens up a whole new river of possible corruption and confusion but also questions the consistency or lack of it in the Citizenship Bill. The indictment is also made possible because it presumes that no Muslim from neighbouring nations has become third generation Indian through work, residence, contribution, and effort and is despite all that still disqualified from permanent status.  What of Afghans who came to India to find work after tribal persecution and have contributed to the commonwealth?
The fear then cascades and spills into the potential of hurting those who did not come from abroad as refugees but have no adequate paperwork to prove their bona fides. It is here, in each specific case, that the 'divide' can be exploited and mobilised as a clarion call to religious rightwingers of all colours.
Could the BJP leadership have been more circumspect and encompassing or at least more open and conciliatory in approach to this prickly pear. It is easy to market it as another milestone in the Hindutva juggernaut's course coming as it does so soon after the Ayodhya judgement.
Perhaps what is needed is to create a frame around this development and inform the world exactly what it means with more clarity of thought and how exactly the selection of who is and who isn't is to be made. While the US Commission for International Religious Freedom may have reacted sharply and even be premature in its expression of concern it is more for the mental comfort of 1.2 billion Indians that New Delhi must address and break it down piece by piece. Not by rhetoric but by simple fact.
Few of us have been able to wrap our heads around one major feature: What will India do with those it finds illegal if the nations of their nativity say sorry, don't know who they are.
Indeed, if the state governments create a bulwark against the implementation and opt for the status quo will the Centre find itself painted into a corner. No politician would like to offend any vote bank and certainly not the largest minority in the country.

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