When US President Donald Trump visits India, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) may well crop up in discussions with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, given the outcry against the legislation in the West and particularly in Europe. Internationally, the CAA is being seen as discriminatory, but prima facie, its intent is to regulate the status of illegal immigrants.
Immigration is a contentious issue the world over and has polarised public opinion in both the US and India. Trump, like his Indian counterpart, has opposed the influx of illegal migrants, the bulk of whom are economic refugees. However, immigrants are viewed and treated differently in various countries. The US, built by European migrants (albeit on the blood of Native Americans and the sweat of African slaves) has always valorised their pioneering spirit. This perception has been carried over to migrants from Latin America, the Middle-East and elsewhere.
In popular culture, the immigrant is a noble figure, who has left his home in search of the American Dream and the American Way of Life. Having sacrificed the comfort of home and hearth, he is entitled to a warm reception in his host country, regardless of whether he was invited in or not. 'Illegals' are routinely portrayed as martyrs, subject to the cruelty of deportation. US immigration officers and the Department of Homeland Security are invariably pilloried for their insensitivity.
US Republicans are believed to be harsher vis-à-vis illegals than the Democrats. However, it was during the tenure of Democrat president Bill Clinton that the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRAIRA) was passed, to facilitate deportation of illegals.
The law has since attracted growing criticism from Democrats, while Republicans would like even tighter controls at the borders.
The Indian perspective on immigrants is shaped by its own and very different history. To begin with, outsiders presented themselves in the guise of invaders rather than pioneers. Then came Partition, which reduced millions of people to the status of political refugees because of their religious identity. The CAA, which grants citizenship to persecuted religious minorities from neighbouring Islamic countries, reflects the Partition hangover.
Economic refugees, most of whom are from Bangladesh, do not attract the same sympathy. Indeed, the experience of unchecked influx has been a bitter one. In the north-east, it has led to insurgency, political unrest, cultural dilution, marginalisation of indigenous communities and economic hardship. This, too, has been reflected in the CAA, which does not extend the benefit of citizenship to economic refugees.
Protestors in the north-east have raised a valid issue: how can the state distinguish between political refugees – those persecuted on account of their religious identity – and economic refugees, who have migrated illegally in search of better opportunities? Making this distinction is difficult because of the lack of hard information. The 50,000 or so Hindus and Sikhs who fled Afghanistan during the Taliban years may be an open-and-shut case, but what about those from Pakistan and Bangladesh?
The recent instances of religious persecution vis-à-vis Sikhs in Pakistan support the claims of the 5,800-odd Sikh beneficiaries of the CAA. Human rights activists maintain that the number of Sikhs in Pakistan has dwindled sharply, but there is no verifiable data, because the community was unaccountably excluded from the 2017 population census. But the overall number of non-Muslims in Pakistan is believed to have remained stable since 1971.
As for Bangladesh, the population of minorities has dwindled since 1971 and communal clashes have, in the past, led Hindus to flee the country. But establishing whether they fled because of persecution or poverty can only be done, if at all, on a case-by-case basis. Indian lawmakers obviously decided it was far simpler to take at face value the claims of the returning non-Muslim diaspora, who fled countries where Islam is the state religion (notwithstanding constitutional guarantees of religious freedom).
From this perspective, the CAA regularises illegal immigration, a sovereign right of any country.
Its opponents around the world see the statute as inherently unjust to Muslims and therefore, an insidious attempt to violate human rights. Thus, the Act is being viewed through a variety of different lenses, but in a democracy, the only lens that matters is that of the Constitution. It is for the Supreme Court – and the Supreme Court alone – to put an end to the controversy.
For the European Union to entertain a resolution against the CAA is hypocrisy. Every country has its own law on illegal immigrants. In Singapore, an illegal will find himself in jail and at the receiving end of three strokes of the cane. In Canada, his fate will most likely be deportation but could include fine and a jail term, depending on the circumstances. France last year introduced a one-year jail term for illegal entry. Hungary has gone so far as to criminalise efforts to help illegal immigrants to gain asylum. Denmark, known for its progressive politics and humanitarian aid, has adopted highly restrictive immigration policies.
The CAA is outside the purview of the EU, just as Hungary's 'Stop Soros' immigration laws and Donald Trump's 'Wall' are outside India's. As Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla observed in his letter to the European Parliament, “It is inappropriate for one legislature to pass judgement on another”.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.