The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is back on the political centre-stage with Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, J P Nadda, Mamata Banerjee, Asaduddin Owaisi, Rahul Gandhi and several other political leaders invoking the Act from various public platforms in the past few weeks.
Separately, incidents of persecution of religious minorities in India’s neighbourhood keep pouring in. The alleged forced marriage of a 13-year-old Christian girl to a 44-year-old Muslim man in Pakistan and the vandalisation of Hindu households in Comilla district in Bangladesh earlier this month led to heated debates on the CAA on social media platforms.
The political outpourings on CAA 2019, expectedly, happened during the election campaign in Bihar and are likely to gather speed as political parties gear up for polls in West Bengal and Assam. The events in Pakistan and Bangladesh, however, were not politically motivated. These incidents came as a reminder that despite being deeply entrenched in politics, the CAA is fundamentally about a bunch of destitute people facing oppression in countries they ended up being citizens of, thanks to the politics that led to the creation of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
It is a pitiful irony that these people are victimised in their countries of origin — with the state often looking the other way – because they are followers of a minority religion. As for their country of refuge, because the voters of the majority faith in India were never a concerted vote bank, these people languished on the periphery of electoral politics for decades. It’s the same politics that has made them appealing now.
Indeed, the BJP is pushing the CAA for electoral gains but its politics is no different from the kind that kept the NRC (National Register of Citizens) hanging fire since 1951.
To understand the tribulations of this group of immigrants, we need to look at the chronology, a la Amit Shah, of events that led to the passage of the CAA in December last year.
The CAA wouldn’t have come into being had it not been for the then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, who pushed for updating Assam NRC in 2013, a year before BJP came to power. The Assam NRC was conducted in 1951 after a large number of people, mainly Hindus and Sikhs, crossed over to India from Pakistan after Partition. The register was supposed to have been updated later, as immigration continued in subsequent years and then escalated manifold in the aftermath of the Bangladesh war in 1971. The scale of the immigration can be gauged from the fact that it was described as the largest movement of people in the world in the second half of the 20th century by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Updating the NRC was also the underlying promise that led to the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, thus, ending the violent Assam movement that started in 1979.
The NRC, however, was never updated.
What is happening in the country today is the fallout of many decades of deliberate callousness and electoral gains resorted to by political parties cutting across ideologies.
It is known that the immediate trigger for the Assam movement was the sudden surge in the number of voters in several Assembly constituencies in 1979. The All Assam Students’ Union, the body leading the protest, was enraged that a large number of illegal immigrants, allegedly Muslims, were included in the electoral rolls, and a large number among them had been clandestinely issued Indian citizenship certificates by the state government with the help of the government at the Centre, both led by the same political party. This, they felt, diminished the significance of local residents besides impinging upon their socio-cultural identity.
No prizes for guessing why any political party would grant voting rights or citizenship status, especially around election time, to disputed immigrants.
It is scandalous that before the Supreme Court-led exercise in 2013, there was no definitive data on immigrants in Assam and other affected states. The final report — though disputed now — submitted in August 2019, for the first time, provided some official data. Tragically, even that data is more confounding than enlightening. For instance, census data reflects that the Muslim population in Assam has grown at a faster rate than the rest of the country over the years. In 1951, Muslims accounted for around 25 per cent of the population in Assam against the national average of 10 per cent. In 2001, 31 per cent of the population in Assam was Muslim against 13 per cent nationally and in 2011, more than 34 per cent in Assam were Muslims against 14 per cent in the country. This is when a large number of Muslim immigrants are known to have moved to West Bengal and other states.
There has been enough debate, without any conclusion, on whether the faster rate of growth in Muslim population in Assam was on account of Muslim immigrants. Against this opaque backdrop, it is puzzling that of the supposed 1.9 million individuals named as illegal immigrants in the “now disputed” final draft of SC-led NRC, a large majority are considered to be Hindus.
Clearly, data and commentary on the issue do not add up. The only thing that is consistent is that the issue of immigrants was never evaluated objectively, keeping politics aside. Sadly, it has been reduced to a Hindu-vs-Muslim debate even by the non-political groups as against an issue of immigration and the reasons behind it.
Since the NRC has been universally politicised, evaluating the CAA without using the prism of politics is pertinent. Because the fate of more than a million individuals who landed at our doorstep for the fear of their lives should count for more than the political leverage their rehabilitation may confer upon a party. They were promised refuge by our founding fathers as well as by most large political parties at different points. These individuals have nowhere to go because they lack economic and religious charm. Hindus among them are the most pitiable. Sheltering Muslims is celebrated as fighting Islamophobia. Concessions to other religious groups is seen as a commitment towards secularism but any allowance to even the most miserable and disenfranchised Hindus is seen as playing majoritarian politics.
Isn’t that bigotry?
The writer is a Delhi-based journalist