Who becomes an Indian?
Belonging to a land of rich diversity, identifying oneself as Indian on strict paradigms of religion, colour or custom has been daunting. A premise of this challenge was witnessed in Lok Sabha when Home Minister Rajnath Singh tabled the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, in face of stiff resistance from the Opposition and also at the cost of losing a major ally, Assam's Asom Gana Parishad. The amended bill proposes to grant citizenship to 'non-Muslims' from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who have faced persecution in their country and sought refuge in India. While, earlier, the law required them to spend 12 years in India, the amendment seeks to reduce the requirement to seven years only. The discourse leading to the Bill was a grim reminder of the difficulty in assigning 'Indian-ness' – at once, the Opposition and regional parties appeared anxious about how new citizens will dismantle their essential indigenity (particularly in the North-East, where a drive against illegal immigrants has pervaded time and space); second the Centre appeared quite myopic in its proposition of singling out 'non-Muslims' as minorities, quietly forgetting how a few months back it had turned its back on Rohingyas, another minority, but sadly not 'non-Muslim'. India has a "moral obligation" to shelter refugees from neighbouring countries – reminded Singh, quoting former PMs Jawaharlal Nehru and Manmohan Singh. While true, the statement has been conveniently used and forgotten as per political will. Citizenship is a sensitive issue, particularly for India, owing to its overwhelming population and often uncontainable difference. Nevertheless, despite internal challenges, it owes a duty to the world, to provide a home to those fleeing persecution and living at a loss of citizenship. In this regard, the amendment to the Bill seems acceptable. However, the selective distinction to protect non-Muslims only, strikes a chord of discomfort. While we may argue that Hindus have no place to call their own other than India, we cannot legally reduce India to a Hindu state. Though the Bill does include Sikhs, Jain, Parsis, Buddhists and Christians in its purview, it also selectively alienates Muslims. The Centre may argue that the three countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh – are Muslim-dominated and thereby no question arises of protecting the said community. However, one mustn't forget how Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar faced extreme violence and genocide at home without India doing much to protect them. In fact, India had threatened to send them back in view of national security while neighbouring Bangladesh had opened its doors. As the Opposition staged immense protest in Lok Sabha, questioning Singh on his selective religious discrimination, the North-East has been on fire since the proposal has come to light. India's North-East has not only been sidelined by the mainland for long, but it also hosts indigenity often incomprehensible to us. Over the years, the North-East has witnessed strong protests against infiltrating Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims from neighbouring Bangladesh, claiming that they now outnumber the indigenous tribes of the region. Lending citizenship to 'illegal migrants' further threatens their already dwindling position of authority. Sadly, their concerns are real. Not only in that their relevance is reduced but in a conceptual Aryanization of India where tribes are sidelined in favour of major religions. The North-East, which is already battling illegal infiltration, now finds its ground even more slippery as illegal elements will be emboldened with citizenship. Yet, what is also true is that irrespective of these new elements receiving recognition in the eyes of law, tribes of the North-East will remain only political pawns for New Delhi. Singh also made this proposition evident by assigning a tribal status to six OBC communities from Assam – a consolation prize. The Citizenship Amendment Bill comes in the face of a few challenges experienced by India. First, recognising border infiltration and the arrival of persecuted communities, who continue to live in crowded shanties without appropriate documentation. This is a challenge given India's extreme population, rampant poverty and consequent propensity to crime – more outsiders with more unfulfilled needs will lay the bedrock for more illegality. However, throwing away apparently noxious elements cannot also be the answer. Second, fulfilling the "moral obligation" of giving a home to diverse communities facing persecution at home. Treading on these two onerous duties comes with the complementing challenge of amalgamating more diversity in an already diverse land that is bursting at the seams with its variety in number, caste, colour, language, religion et al. While the Bill awaits the Rajya Sabha nod, the government will now have to tread rather carefully towards its implementation. Communal clashes are likely to follow as people will turn against people while changing governments only battle in the comfort of Parliament chairs.