India is known all over the world for its centuries-old ethos of assimilation; a culture of compassion, humanitarian values and providing shelter to refugees from far-off lands without any discrimination. It is this core value that is under threat now with the NDA government adopting an exclusionist approach towards refugees fleeing their homelands due to persecution. The key objection to the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), passed by the Lok Sabha after a long, acrimonious debate, is that it excludes from the purview of citizenship those who suffered persecution in countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka and fled to India. The legislation is flawed in its intent because neither the Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar nor Tamils from Sri Lanka will get the benefits. Further, Shias, Ahmadiyyas and Balochs also face severe persecution in Pakistan but cannot apply for Indian citizenship. The CAB seeks to amend the six-decade-old law to grant citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Through this legislation, citizenship will be provided to members of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities, who have come from the three countries to India till December 31, 2014. And, the residential requirement for this category for naturalisation is reduced from 11 years to five. The opposition parties have rightly questioned the rationale behind excluding Muslims from the purview of the Bill as it militates against the core secular values of the Constitution. The legislation could have been formulated in such a way that all persecuted communities, irrespective of their religious identity, are provided a window of opportunity to seek Indian citizenship.
Unlike the other countries in the neighbourhood, India’s constitution does not allow for discrimination on the basis of religion, region or caste. But implicit in the religious filter being applied in the Bill is the assumption that in the South Asian neighbourhood only Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Jains or Buddhists are at the receiving end of oppressive Islamist regimes. It must be pointed out that certain sects among Muslims too have become targets of the worst form of persecution in Pakistan while Rohingya Muslims have been the victims of systematic ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. They all represent the persecuted communities. By implementing a law that treats one religion as a disqualifier for citizenship, India runs the risk of sending a wrong signal not only to the world at large but also to the Muslim community within the country. It is only because of political expediency that the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura and the States of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland have been exempted from the legislation. There are genuine fears that the legislation might repeat the bitterness of the partition era as it violates the basic idea of India.