Even if the objective behind the amended Citizenship Amendment Act was not to polarise Indians on religious and ethnic lines, its immediate impact is seen in sowing afresh the seeds of distrust and division between various groups of Indians.
The widespread protests in the northeast against the amended law have aggravated fears of the entire region being swamped by refugees. Such fears might be vastly exaggerated but in view of the steady influx of ‘foreigners’ in Assam, Tripura and other north-eastern states since the Partition, these are not entirely misplaced.
The new citizenship law in fact nullifies the Assam Accord of 1985 under which illegal residents of the State were to be weeded out. As it is, it was impossible to repatriate illegal Bangladeshis back to their country of origin since Dacca blandly insisted that not one of them was their citizen.
A couple of train-loads of illegal Bangladeshi sought to be deported two decades ago were forced to return from the border following the refusal of Bangladesh to own them up as their citizens.
Decades later, the NRC exercise was undertaken in Assam at the instance of the Supreme Court only for it to be put on the backburner once it became clear that of the 19 lakh undocumented residents nearly half were Bengali Hindus.
While there was no question of sending them back to Bangladesh, the Government did not even know what to do with the million-strong Muslims found to have entered Assam illegally. They cannot be kept in shabby camps indefinitely under squalid conditions. Nor can they be settled in any other part of the country without inviting a backlash.
A plausible solution could be to disenfranchise them so that they do not distort the democratic process. In that case, citizenship to their India-born children would still have to be given. In short, sifting the illegal from the legal among migrants in the border States is not an easy task. Remember the Assam Accord was signed in 1985.
Nothing concrete has been done to implement it. And nothing can be done now to implement the NRC for the same reason. Therefore, the panic reaction of the Muslims in West Bengal, Delhi, UP, etc, against the new citizenship law reflects a growing sense of siege under the Modi Government rather than anything concrete stemming from the amended law.
The new law does not in any way impact those who are already living in India. It aims to grant faster citizenship to minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan on the production of evidence of prosecution. Omitting the Muslims from the six minorities in the new law should not affect the Indian Muslims in real terms.
Therefore, violent protests by the students of the Jamia Millia Islamia, and the minority-dominated schools and universities in Hyderabad, Lucknow, etc, are unwarranted. Acts of arson and vandalism in the capital have only given the protests a communal colour with the Opposition parties jumping in the fray to add fuel to the fire.
Despite repeated assurances by the Prime Minister and the Union Home Minister that the amended law does not in any way harm those already resident in the country, a sense of panic seems to prevail among the Muslims.
This may be a reflection of the accumulated fear and distrust of the Modi Government since it came to power in 2014. However, the Government has a challenge explaining its action in foreign capitals.
The decision of the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to postpone the proposed annual summit meeting with Prime Minister Modi which was scheduled to be held in Guwahati is not the only immediate consequence.
Two ministers of the otherwise friendly Bangladesh Government of Sheikh Hasina have cancelled their planned visits following protests over the amended citizenship law.
The exclusion of Muslims from the persecuted categories has also led human rights groups to express concern about India’s secular constitutional order. The Government seems to have erred in assessing the fall-out of the amended law on national and international opinion.
Even though the amendment might have been aimed at garnering electoral gains for the ruling party in the northeast and eastern parts of the country, it has dented India’s image for pursuing a sectarian approach to the question of citizenship.
Reassuring the world of its true intent in changing the citizenship law is proving to be hard, especially in view of the violent protests in parts of the country.