With the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) winning easy passage in the Lok Sabha, it will now face a test in the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House, which owes its existence to the need of a parliamentary democracy to subject all Lower House legislation to higher-level scrutiny. On paper, the “elders" of this august house are expected to act as a restraint on impetuosity getting the better of sound judgement. In reality, party politics as usual tends to dominate proceedings. Given how controversial the bill has become, it may be time for the Rajya Sabha to exercise its responsibility and weigh its merits in the broad context of what is good for India, rather than simply let the weight of numbers determine its fate. After the storm stirred up by the bill in one House of Parliament, how it is dealt with by the other is likely to have a nationwide audience.
Broadly speaking, the CAB’s stated purpose is to offer some non-citizens who would rather be Indian a clear path to citizenship, and this goes well with the civilizational values that we have long upheld—of welcoming people from elsewhere. India has a long history as a refuge for the oppressed, and, for all our resource constraints, we should indeed open our doors officially to those who find life unbearable in other parts of the world, especially South Asia. Most of the objections raised have been to the specifics of the bill. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who escaped persecution in their home countries and arrived here before 2015 would be eligible for Indian citizenship. Missing from that list are Muslims, who, the government argues, are not minorities in those places, and thus not vulnerable to oppression. This claim has been contested by many, with secular individuals and members of minority Islamic sects cited for their vulnerability. However, the basic issue that the Rajya Sabha must examine is whether anyone’s exclusion on the basis of faith is compliant with the secular principles of our Constitution, which insists on the equality of all, regardless of identity descriptors. Prima facie, on this yardstick, the CAB’s validity looks iffy.
Beyond that, there is a larger issue to ponder. This concerns the impact that the CAB may have on the country at large once the process to identify Indians for the National Register of Citizens (NRC) gets underway across India. The NRC’s goal of spotting illegal immigrants is laudable. However, if Assam’s example is anything to go by, it is likely to place the burden of citizenship proof on people. Further, if the documentary requirements are kept too stringent in an effort to catch those who have sneaked in, then it is all the more likely that a large fraction of genuine citizens would fail to make the grade in the bargain. Millions might find themselves in a very tight spot. Since the CAB offers non-Muslims a pathway out of it, and those whose names are not on the NRC list face either deportation or detention, an anxiety over how the NRC-CAB combo will pan out could arise among adherents of Islam. Unless credible assurances are made that are legal, and not merely verbal, India may be at risk of a rupture in relations between its majority population and its single largest minority group. Any threat to Indian unity is against the national interest. Our legislators should tread with caution.