Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | The subcontinental reality lost on anti-CAA protesters
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Opinion | The subcontinental reality lost on anti-CAA protesters

The Act has broken an Omerta code of silence on the persecution of Hindus in the neighbourhood

Dishonesty and perverse logic have marked the rhetoric and protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA). Any sensible debate ought to have had three basic starting points: the state-sponsored discrimination against minorities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and a mixture of state- and non-state intimidation of minorities in Bangladesh, which has seen its Hindu population reduce from 21-22% in 1951 to around 8% of the total now.

Prof. Abul Barkat of Dhaka University has done a longitudinal study of that country’s Hindu exodus over half a century. He estimates that until 1971, when Bangladesh was East Pakistan, the daily rate of Hindu exodus was 705 people; in the next two decades (1971-81 and 1981-91), it fell to 512 and 438, respectively. But after 1991, daily departures accelerated again: it was 767 in 1991-2001 and 774 during 2001-12. If this continues, no Hindu will be left in Bangladesh by 2050.

Any reasonable individual will conclude that persecution is a fact, even if we disagree on its extent. Instead, what we have been debating is not this reality, but the CAA’s alleged exclusion of non-persecuted non-citizens who may be Muslim.

Fake narratives rule the roost. The CAA’s bid to fast-track citizenship for persecuted Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Christians is now being mislabelled as a deliberate effort to exclude Muslims, when all current avenues for seeking citizenship remain open even to them.

The second fake narrative revolves around conflating two unrelated protests. The anti-CAA protests began in the North-East, especially Assam and Tripura, but their spread to campuses and streets elsewhere is due to fear-mongering among Muslims. In the North-East, the protests are about excluding every illegal immigrant from citizenship; elsewhere, it is about putting Muslims on the same faster track to naturalization as the persecuted.

No matter where you stand on the CAA, the questions to ask are the following: One, does the specific exclusion of Muslims from it warrant such an outcry? Two, is India morally obliged to take in all persecuted communities from all countries? Three, can the exclusion of illegal Muslim migrants from the fast-track be seen as discrimination against them on grounds of religion? And four, is the conflation of the CAA, which applies only to migrants who came in before 31 December 2014, with a future National Register of Citizens (NRC), warranted?

The short answer is no, no, no, no to all four questions.

First, while the CAA excludes Muslims from fast-track citizenship, it does not deny them the right to seek it after 11 years through naturalization. Giving fast-track citizenship only to those who may be persecuted is justified, because asking them to wait longer is tantamount to double persecution. They cannot return to their old homes. If the physically challenged were to run a race against others, isn’t it logical to give them a head-start to make it a fair contest? But the anti-CAA logic is that all must be given the same start and finish lines.

Second, no nation is obliged to follow a uniform policy on immigrants. The US has annual region-wise quotas for the intake of refugees fleeing persecution. There is no reason why India cannot decide which refugee groups it wants to favour in any particular year or period.

Third, the CAA’s exclusion of Muslims is not a violation of Article 14, which promises equal treatment. The article allows reasonable classification for the special treatment of certain groups. There is thus a good chance that offering citizenship faster to persecuted groups from three neighbouring countries would pass court muster. We should wait for that verdict before concluding that it amounts to discrimination against Muslims. In any case, Article 14 did not stop the state from indulging in other forms of religion-based discrimination, such as the takeover of only Hindu temples by the state and exclusion of minority-run institutions from the Right to Education Act. If religion-based inclusions or exclusions are kosher here, why not under the CAA?

Fourth, Opposition parties have begun scare-mongering about CAA by linking it to a future NRC, which will identify illegal migrants and then allegedly discriminate against Muslims alone. Let’s be clear: The CAA and NRC are two different things. But if fears exist of the government’s intent, the Narendra Modi government should address them directly. Following the protests, the Modi government has back-tracked and said that only a National Population Register is on the cards, as of now. To end the fear-psychosis, it should clearly state that no NRC will be launched without a widespread consensus on how it will be conducted, and what will be done with those found without proper documents.

The real problem with the CAA is not that it is unconstitutional, but that it has shone a light on the persecution of Hindus and other minorities in three Muslim-majority countries. There is an unstated consensus in “secular" India that the persecution of Hindus by Muslims will always be underplayed in order to spare the feelings of our own minorities. But can the persecution of Hindus be denied forever? The CAA is being targeted as anti-Muslim because the Omerta code that prevented India from talking about the persecution of Hindus in the neighbourhood has been broken by the Bharatiya Janata Party. That is the bitter truth behind the anti-CAA protests.

R. Jagannathan is editorial director, ‘Swarajya’ magazine

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