One of the more interesting features of modern society —at least since the advent of instant, global communications — is the fleeting collective attention span of people. The tendency to jump from subject to subject or, rather, controversy to controversy, has distorted public discourse immeasurably and made it extremely difficult for policy makers to get a fix on public opinion.
At one time, it was imagined that social media would constitute a great democratic input by providing a visible and public platform to those whose voices were suppressed in the past. It is not that this project has been completely derailed. However, increasingly, social media appears to have been taken over by precisely those individuals and groups whose voices dominated the old media. This is particularly so as far as Twitter is concerned and less so in Facebook. But the dilution of the original aims of democratic opinion-building is painfully obvious.
Ideally, the coming week should have been dominated by a detailed dissection of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that is due to be presented to Parliament this week. If all goes according to plan, the Bill will be passed in both Houses and will trigger profound changes in determining who is regarded as an Indian and who is not.
The codification of India’s citizenship norms have become overdue for a number of reasons. First, unlike the past when only a handful of Indians bothered to acquire passports for themselves, overseas travel has become routine. The biggest entrant has been the Indian middle classes that travel overseas quite frequently for both work and leisure. Secondly, the past decade has witnessed the increasing attempts by State and Central Governments to roll out effective welfare programmes. Though there is nothing unique about this, technology has ensured that benefits are actually being received by those who have been targeted. India’s slow but discernible entry into the welfare state zone has made it necessary to be clear that the recipients of Government schemes are actually citizens and not those who have no right to be in India.
Citizenship guidelines have existed in this country since the 1950s. However, the whole process of acquiring documentation was lax and lacked rigour. Today, particularly in the context of an unsettled neighbourhood and organised migration, the need to have codified citizenship has assumed major importance. Yet, the question is more than just that of law. India is not a ‘treaty State’ born out of international negotiations. Although the borders were broadly defined in 1947, following Partition, India has also been a civilisational construct. There was an idea of India that predated the Constitution of 1950 and needs to be somehow incorporated into modern legislation. The present CAB is a modest endeavour in that direction.
The horrific incidents in Hyderabad and Unnao have, unfortunately, diverted some attention from CAB. The Bill will be presented, debated and probably passed in Parliament. However, consideration of the CAB needs much more than the articulation of views by MPs who, in any case, will follow their party lines. The wider discussion in civil society will probably happen to some extent in eastern India — notably in West Bengal, Assam and the North-eastern States. However, the other discussion will be dominated by a small handful of people who seem determined to paint India in wholly unappetising colours.
I think the biggest casualty of the controlled discussion on the CAB is rigour. Thanks to the Government proffering the Bill to the public at a very late stage, there have been wilful distortions that have crept in. The report on the website of the Financial Times is indicative: “India’s Cabinet has approved a draft law to make non-Muslims who have fled religious persecution in neighbouring countries automatically eligible for Indian citizenship. It is a big step in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s vision of transforming India from a secular democracy into an explicitly Hindu State.”
The misreading arises on a number of counts. The most important of these is the failure to recognise that one of the main purposes of the CAB is to address some of the issues that have followed the Partition of India in 1947. India may have declared itself a non-denominational, secular republic, but the others did not. The nature of the refugees who crossed over into India after 1947 fleeing Islamic oppression was determined by the type of societies created in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The overwhelming number of the refugees were Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. A very small number were Christians. They were turfed out not on account of their politics but on account of their faith. They were also turfed out permanently and the chances of them returning are zero. To them India is the default home. Should the nature of this exodus not be acknowledged? Should it be concealed in a wave of political correctness and called a secular exodus when it was quite categorically a religious exodus? Should they not be given Indian citizenship, especially after their departure is permanent? And most important, should these refugees not be distinguished from those who were not pushed out but came to India for economic reasons, albeit illegally?
It is because the CAB tries to answer these questions forthrightly, without taking recourse to intellectual subterfuge, that it is being painted as regressive. The critics seem to be suggesting two things. First, that Partition was a function of secular politics. It clearly wasn’t. And second that those who fled religious persecution must be put on par with those whose entry into India were dictated by other considerations. One lot was pushed out; the other lot walked out.