It is an occupational hazard of democracies to be subjected to charges of betrayal and authoritarianism - even fascism - by citizens dissatisfied with government policies. In an age when social media often determines perceptions, these shrill charges have often found international reflection.
Israel is no stranger to this experience, and in the past few weeks India has also got a taste of it.
The concerns - which have also found reflection in Israel’s media - center on an Act of Parliament which modified the pre-existing Citizenship Act. The legislation, approved by both Houses of Parliament with a clear majority after spirited debates, fast-tracked citizenship applications for persecuted minorities - namely Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis (Zoroastrians) - from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who entered India until 2014.
This was a response to the reality of a very large number of refugees who entered India both legally and illegally, primarily to escape religious persecution at the hands of Islamists. The numbers are difficult, if not impossible to estimate, particularly in relation to the influx from Bangladesh. But the reality of stateless people living a pitiable existence is inescapable.
These people had crossed over into India in the belief that it was their only refuge and had no desire to return to their original homes. In that sense they were very unlike the 80,000 or so Tibetan refugees who fled to India with the Dalai Lama after 1959. The Tibetans still see a future for themselves in Tibet and view India as a place of sanctuary. This isn’t the case with the religious minorities from the three neighboring Islamic countries.
In a larger historical context, the minorities from Pakistan and Bangladesh may even be seen as the remaining victims of the creation of the Muslim homeland of Pakistan (including Bangladesh) in 1947.
The legislation has been opposed by a section in India, including opposition parties, on two broad counts.
- India under Modi is becoming a brutal authoritarian state
- Modi's malignant anti-Muslim vision for India is becoming reality
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First, they object to the fact that the victims of religious persecution have been specifically identified by faith. It has been suggested that this has been done to exclude Muslim migrants from Bangladesh who moved to India for economic and other reasons. The exclusion of the victims of religious persecution from Myanmar, mainly Muslim Rohingyas, has also been criticized for being arbitrary. Critics have argued that the new law is tantamount to a backdoor introduction of Israel’s "right of return" for Jews.
Second, it has been suggested that the priority accorded to certain faiths runs contrary to the secular principles of the Indian Constitution and sets a precedent that could result in Muslims being regarded as either second-class citizens or aliens. Parallels have been drawn to the Nuremberg laws that excluded Jews from citizenship in Nazi Germany.
The debate in India has become very shrill, with some opposition parties claiming that the Modi government is setting the stage for the transformation of India into a Hindu state, a mirror image of Islamic Pakistan. The claim is unfounded.
The new citizenship laws are special provisions for the inclusion of somerefugees. In earlier decades, the Citizenship Act was tweaked to facilitate citizenship for refugees from Sri Lanka and peoples of Indian origin who were thrown out of Uganda by Idi Amin. The main body of the Citizenship Act that covers nationality by birth, descent and naturalization remain unaffected and untouched by any religious considerations. There is nothing in the new law to exclude any Indian from citizenship.
There have been protests - some violent - in many Indian cities, ostensibly against the new citizenship law and any future proposal for a National Register of Citizens that could end up identifying illegal migrants. The protests have been accompanied by alarmist propaganda aimed at creating panic of disenfranchisement and statelessness among Muslims. To this has been added the fear of liberals that India is losing its multi-faith character and that the Modi government is becoming increasingly authoritarian.
As India’s welfare system becomes increasingly targeted and aimed at actual beneficiaries, there is an obvious need to distinguish citizens from illegal migrants. This is a complex process, particularly in a country where documentation is still patchy. The Supreme Court attempted a National Register of Citizens under its own supervision in the province of Assam. The exercise was flawed and revealed the pitfalls of proceeding without rigorous norms.
As of now, no all-India National Register of Citizens has either been designed or notified. The protestors who seek to link an inclusionary citizenship law with any exercise that distinguishes citizens and non-citizens are needlessly creating panic. They are also attempting to use civil disturbances to subvert a resounding mandate for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the general election held barely seven months ago.
India’s democracy is robust, enlightened and caters to the nation’s enormous diversity. It will never be narrowed in scope. At the same time, national security and the welfare of Indians necessitate border controls and defined, documented citizenship. India has to move beyond being a "functioning anarchy" into a regime governed by effective systems.
Swapan Dasgupta is a Delhi-based political writer and a Member of India’s Parliament. He is a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Twitter: @swapan55