Opinion: With CAA-NRC, the fate of the Indian secular state hangs in balance

The CAA is another ammunition in the arsenal of the BJP that creates a one-religion-one nation discourse, moving away from secular values towards a theocracy.
From an anti CAA, NPR, NRC protest
From an anti CAA, NPR, NRC protest

The BJP government recently notified the Rules for the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019, a little over four years after the law had been originally passed. The CAA was passed before the 2019 elections, amending the Citizenship Act, of 1955. It made certain persecuted minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh eligible for fast-tracked Indian citizenship, but excluded Muslims, triggering large-scale protests. The rules have been notified now in 2024, just before the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. While the immediate objective of the timing is probably electoral, the Act will have long-term, overarching impacts. 

Simply defined, the CAA provides a fast track for Indian citizenship to migrants (except Muslims) from neighbouring nations. Irregular migrants who came into India from the three countries stated above and belong to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, or Christian religious communities can be given citizenship if they entered India on or before December 31, 2014. This exclusion of Muslims from the purview of the new Act introduces religious identity into the concept of citizenship. 

The notification of the CAA rules was expected, it was only a matter of time and one has to mention that the BJP is a master of timing. Especially in the context of the boiling controversy over Electoral Bonds, the CAA rules enable the Union government to use them as a distraction tactic. But the fact remains that the CAA will change the way we look at the concept of citizenship, and when analysed from a broader perspective, it is evident that the new rules have Hindutva ideology at their core.

Affinity between CAA and NRC

The CAA ought to be understood in a spectrum and not in isolation. Part of that understanding would be to see it like a problem solver or a seal to plug a leaking hole in the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a unified register of all Indian citizens mandated by the CAA.

First prepared in 1951 under a directive of the Ministry of Home Affairs, the NRC exercise was sanctioned by the Supreme Court in 2014 based on the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules of 2003. The process already began in Assam, aimed to identify “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh who entered Assam on or after midnight of 24 March 1971. The NRC demands documentary evidence called “legacy data” to prove oneself as an Indian citizen. On 31 August 2019, it published a draft that excluded over 19 lakh persons from the citizenship register.

The NRC process asks all people living in Assam to prove their citizenship status. So, technically speaking, if you are included in the NRC, it certifies that you are a citizen of India and anyone, Hindu or Muslim, can be potentially left out of the citizenship register. Additionally, if you are from Assam, you would have applied for the NRC, which means that you have taken an oath under the NRC declaring that you belong to Assam. CAA, on the other hand, offers citizenship by naturalisation, where you are assumed to be persecuted in Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Afghanistan. 

The Citizenship Amendment Rules 2024 doesn't require you to prove that you were persecuted, it plainly assumes that you were, provided you migrated from the said neighbouring countries. 

In a recent interview, Assam’s CM Himanta Biswa Sarma informed that he expects a maximum of six lakh people who will apply for citizenship under the CAA from Assam. Now, if any non-Muslims from Assam, who were left out of the NRC, apply for citizenship, they are inadvertently declaring that they are not Indians. In this sense, the two laws contradict each other–one asks you to prove your Indianness and the other your foreignness.

It is also to be kept in mind that CAA Rules 2024 allows you to apply for citizenship under the CAA, even if you have been rejected by the NRC, without any legal consequence. 

The CAA pushes for a religion-based citizenship model, while the NRC, already implemented in Assam, seeks to identify ‘illegal immigrants’ and either put them into detention camps or turn them into non-citizens. With increased religion-based nationalism, calls for the NRC have been made in other states like Manipur and Mizoram. The Kukis have been turned into “illegal beings” by Meiteis in the state of Manipur. One of the unfounded charges of the Meiteis in Manipur is that most of the Kukis in the state are illegal migrants from Myanmar. In other words, what Bengalis are in Assam for Assamese nationalists, the Kukis are being framed to be by the Meiteis in Manipur.  

We also saw promises of the NRC by the BJP if voted to power in various other states, including Karnataka, last year. The BJP, in its 2019 manifesto, highlighted the implementation of the NRC as a means to curb “illegal immigration” and a way to protect cultural and linguistic identity in certain areas. It had also identified that it would implement the NRC in a phased manner in other parts of the country. 

The manifesto stated the following: “There has been a huge change in the cultural and linguistic identity of some areas due to illegal immigration, resulting in an adverse impact on local people's livelihood and employment. We will expeditiously complete the National Register of Citizens process in these areas on priority. In the future, we will implement the NRC in a phased manner in other parts of the country.”

The BJP, in making a case for the CAA, states that only Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Christians would face religious persecution in the neighbouring Islamic countries, thereby making them eligible to avail of Indian citizenship. Meanwhile, Muslims continue to have to wait and prove their stay for 11 years in India to get citizenship through naturalisation. The criteria for excluding Muslims here is arbitrary and based on the assumption that Muslims cannot be prosecuted in these countries. Also, why only those three neighbouring countries? Why not Sri Lanka or Myanmar? 

Equally arbitrary are the rules of inclusion – what about the Buddhist Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram? The exception to the CAA is that it “shall not be applicable to Tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, or Tripura as included in the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution and the area covered under ‘The Inner line’ notified under The Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873. This automatically excludes close to a lakh population of the Chakmas. 

Under the CAA, the persecuted Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar are limited to their religion and cannot get asylum in India. Similarly, Afghan refugees escaping the Taliban and staying in refugee camps cannot access expedited citizenship just due to their religion. If a Hindu and a Muslim escape the Taliban regime of Afghanistan, the Hindu will be treated differently than a Muslim. Additionally, Muslims in themselves are not a homogenous category, as Shias and Ahmadiyya Muslims also receive varying levels of persecution in the aforesaid countries.

The CAA, therefore, foregrounds religious identity as a criterion to be given citizenship. In doing so, it moves away from the liberal idea of citizenship and secularism as envisioned by the Indian Constitution. Furthermore, can persecution be limited to a religious basis? 

With the CAA, the BJP seeks to build a discourse of India (Bharat) being the natural home for all Hindus and establish a Hindu Rashtra in contravention to the ideals of equality before the law as laid down by our Constitution. The illegal migrant tag now is solely of a Muslim. 

It also begs the question: Can the Indian state and the Hindu exist only in the absence of the Muslim? How will that absence of the Muslim be achieved? In other words, what comes after the CAA? 

Religion and the state

Religions have often played a very strong role in the formation of nation-states. Political theorist Hannah Arendt highlights the central problem with the idea of a nation-state as the desire to be homogenous when in actuality, it is multi-ethnic/religious. Such puritanism has often resulted in ethnic cleansing and catastrophe, examples of which are plenty in our neighbouring countries like Afghanistan and Myanmar. 

In Myanmar, the ultranationalist Buddhist monks collaborated with the military to ensure control, leading to the disenfranchisement of millions of Rohingyas who find their basic religious and human rights trampled upon regularly. 

A Pew Research Centre analysis from 2017 gives us some global data on how different countries view religion from a state’s point of view. The report analysed 199 countries from around the globe and found that about 80 countries favoured a specific religion. Twenty-seven states in the Middle East-North African region and 13 countries (nine from Europe) officially have declared Islam and Christianity, respectively, as official religions. The remaining 40 countries unofficially favour one religion, of which 28 preferred Christianity. The report added that most governments around the world are neutral towards religion, however, in 10 countries, it was found that they were either hostile to religion in general or it was highly regulated. 

One of the important findings of the research is that countries that favoured or preferred religion often call for religious freedom but do not treat all religions equally. The report added, “These countries may or may not mention the favoured religion in their constitution or laws; if they do, it is often as the country’s “traditional” or “historical” religion.” India certainly fits this category. 

The report is dated and India has since seen multiple forms of violence against its minority Muslims, against whom various techniques of material and symbolic violence have been used– beef ban, closure of Madrassas, bulldozer justice, restricting access to housing, and Muslims becoming soft targets of institutional violence. Constant profiling of the entire community as “jihadi” and “overpopulating agents,” who are a danger to the Hindu culture, is also rampant, and detention and denial of trial, let alone a fair one, have become commonplace. These steps are also a clear indication of Hindutva values becoming the political norm of the state. 

The CAA is another ammunition in the arsenal of the BJP in creating a one-religion-one nation discourse, moving away from secular values, and becoming a theocracy. There is a “fantasy of separation” of the Muslims from the body of the Indian state, and the CAA feeds into this fantasy of a homogenous society by making discrimination respectable.  

This change is also perhaps what generates the defence of the Muslims as equal citizens of India in that “positive narrative” document that was uploaded by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which now has been deleted. In the wake of the declaration of the CAA Rules, the MHA published a document titled “positive narrative on CAA 2019,” which attempted to address how the CAA spells out for Muslims in India. The document tried to project India as a saviour of Islam and Muslims. A section of the document stated: “Due to the persecution of Minorities in those three Muslim countries, the name of Islam was badly tarnished all around the world…the Act shows compassion and compensation for the persecution, protects Islam from being tarnished in the name of persecution.” 

Despite Muslims being categorically left out of the CAA, not to mention the waves of anti-Muslim backlash and violence we are regularly witnessing under the current BJP government, this is what the document said. This exposes the real face of the Indian state, which protects its own face more than anyone else. 

Further, India is not just a signatory but also took an active part in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). One of the cornerstones of the UDHR is ensuring the right to ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’. Soon after India attained independence, special provisions were made to protect the minorities, not just in a religious sense but also in terms of marginalisation and disadvantageous positions. 

For long, India has boasted of its position as the largest secular democracy in the world, and the secularism discourse has many run-ins with religious freedom. In India, secularism had adopted the route of separation of State and religion and special provisions were laid down to protect the interests and freedoms of religious minorities and marginalised populations. However, the CAA changes that basic premise. The secular Indian state hangs in balance. It needs serious resuscitation. 

India’s “exit from democracy”

The NRC-CAA is an avowal of the anti-Muslim citizenship regime in India. It is not singular, but an additional means of attack of the state in this direction, and if today seems worse, tomorrow is bound to be unbearable. 

Our birth, nationality, and citizenship are all accidents, much like how Achile Mbembe reminded us that becoming human is not a question of “birth or origin or race.” But with the CAA, the Indian state has forced us into its obsession with birth, origin, and race. Things that are accidental to us are made into criteria of legitimacy. But what is worse is that they are used only to exclude one kind of people—the Muslims. This is the inhumanity of the CAA. 

Those of us who have the luxury of being non-Muslims in India have a minimum moral responsibility. Mbembe speaks of such a responsibility by referring to the ethics of the passerby. As a passerby, we at least ought not to be indifferent to the CAA and NRC. Meaning, as citizens of this country, we ought to defend the rights and ideas of the figure of minority and secularism, particularly now, when the state has abandoned both the minority citizen and the values of democracy. 

Suraj Gogoi teaches Sociology at RV University, Bangalore. 

Manoranjan Pegu writes on issues of labour and tribes. 

Views expressed here are the authors’ own.

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