“The combination of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is designed to deprive Muslims of equal rights under Indian law and in Indian society. It uses seemingly legitimate tools of law/policy to sanction discrimination...one thing is clear. The CAA's objective is to deny citizenship to Muslim refugees because they are Muslims. For this reason alone the law cannot be defended on moral grounds.” These were the words of Justice Ajit Prakash Shah, former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, as he delivered a talk on the CAA-NRC in Chennai on Monday.
On the occasion of the country's 71st Republic Day, Justice Shah along with Chairman of The Hindu Publishing Group N Ram, Legal scholar Usha Ramanathan and journalist Rohini Mohan held a public discussion on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) at the Madras Music Academy in Chennai.
Speaking about the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act, Justice Shah added that not only was the CAA ‘morally reprehensible,’ it also violated the fundamental right of equality before law enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution.
He also argued against the act, questioning the arbitrary choice of countries.
"If this law wants to be based on what was originally British India, then Afghanistan has no place as it was not a part of undivided India. Also, why have they chosen only three countries? This compels the question - are Muslim majority countries in South Asia the only ones to have indulged in religious persecution? Are Muslims always the persecutors and never the persecuted?" he asked. Justice Shah also highlighted that Sri Lanka, a Buddhist country, is also responsible for state discrimination of Tamils who are not included in the CAA.
Justice Shah also pointed out that the Act's logic on Muslims not being persecuted in Islamic countries was flawed as communities such as 'Ahmeddiyas, Shias and Hazaras all remain persecuted.' He further added that Article 14 permitted state classification of persons on reasonable grounds. “Any such classification must have a rational and just object. But the CAA introduced classification without any reasonable basis,” he argued.
‘Court unmindful of situation in the country’
Justice Shah added that he was concerned by the court's prioritisation of issues.
"The petitions (against CAA-NRC) were filed long back. Ordinarily in urgent interim reliefs the court gives early dates. The court is unmindful of what is happening in this country. It is really troubling that the court has no time for very important issues which are affecting lives of millions of people," he added.
Condemning the government’s clampdown on dissent, Justice Shah said, “They are in search of a new enemy everyday’ by using the tool of ‘othering’ and labelling dissenters as anti-national, anti-Hindu or anti-democratic.
Adding to these arguments, legal scholar and human rights activist Usha Ramanathan detailed how the citizenship laws in the country when they came about in 1955 were inclusive in nature. A reading of the Constituent Assembly debates, she said, shows that “one thing we were clear about was that India was not going to have citizenship based on religion.” What’s more when the Citizenship Act was brought in in 1955, anyone born in India would have citizenship. “They debated this quite a bit. Anyone born would be entitled to citizenship. It was an inclusive way of looking at this.”
On the National Register of Citizens, an exercise the BJP government proposes to implement across India, Usha noted that the idea of NRC came about after the Kargil war due to militancy.
“There was a committee that was set up that was looking at intelligence failure. And in the context of that failure, they said that if you can give an ID card that is given to people especially in coastal areas, and then it can be extended to border areas and other parts of India, that may make it possible to quickly identify if a person belongs here or not.That first idea of an ID card came in because for quick recognition because of militancy,” said Usha, adding however, “By 2003, that shifted. Somewhere the idea of militancy went away and our parliamentarians were talking about Bangladeshi immigrants being our great threat.”
Usha further noted that the government had claimed that there was no connection between the NPR and the NRC.
“If that is true, then the NPR is an illegal exercise as there is no other law other than the Citizenship Act that allows for an NPR or collection of this data,” she stated.
Usha also spoke of a link between UID (Aadhaar project) and the National Population Register.
“The UID is right at the centre of this,” she said, adding, “The NPR was a project that was going to be done simultaneously with the UID. When UIADAI was set up, they said what they are going to do is standardise all databases.And the exercise with which they would be doing it in conjunction with is the NPR.”
CAA provision allows govt to cancel OCI
Usha Ramanathan also pointed out that the latest CAA also made one change - allowing the executive power to cancel the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) status. The new clause according to reports, have no legislative guidelines on the laws, which if violated could lead to cancellation of a person's OCI card.
"This provision establishes that the government has power and control over your sense of belonging to a country and your freedom to move to come and go," she added.
NRC in Assam
The panel also highlighted the issues in Assam where the NRC exercise declared 1.9 million Assamese people illegal. Journalist Rohini Mohan spoke extensively on the NRC exercise in Assam where she had reported on the process for months together.
Speaking about the exercise, Rohini explained that those who headed foreigners tribunals and decided on people's citizenship had no judicial experience and were hence called members. Based on RTI filings, she displayed a performance appraisal of these members where a pattern indicated that those who declared fewer number of people as illegal were terminated.
"Out of verdicts from five courts, 82 percent of the orders that I analysed were declared foreigners. 89 percent of the cases I look at were against Muslims. 9 out of 10 Muslims and 4 out of 10 Hindus who faced trial were declared foreigners. Many people were declared foreigners due to clerical errors such as spelling mistakes in their documents," Rohini stated.
Speaking about the mass upsurge against the CAA-NRC witnessed in the country, the Chairman of the Hindu Publishing Group, N Ram added, "Although we have not quite put a finger on what prompted the people (protesting against the CAA-NRC) to move, for the first time, there is a direct challenge to the government which is not only communal but also authoritarian.