By Ram Puniyani

Currently, India is facing the worst effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Over 300,000 people have died so far. The death and devastation, caused due to lack of adequate facilities, shortage of hospital beds and oxygen is frightening.

But even as the pandemic rages on, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs has begun the process of implementing the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), much contested in the Parliament. It has sought applications from non Muslim refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangla Desh.

Recently, the Home ministry has issued a circular, asking the persecuted minorities from those countries – residing in 13 districts of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Haryana and Punjab – to apply for Indian citizenship. However, interestingly, the circular does not mention refugees in West Bengal and Assam. These were the states where the CAA was continually brought up during recent assembly elections. In response to this, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), Congress party’s ally in Kerala, has moved the Supreme Court, challenging the controversial decision planned by the ruling Government. The IUML plea states that Section 5 (1)(a)-(g), read together with Section 6 of the Citizenship Act, do not permit such a classification of applicants on religious grounds; the order, they contend, violates the provision itself. The terms for persons eligible in Section 5 (1)(a)-(g) lay down which persons are eligible to apply for citizenship by registration, whereas section 6 permits any person (not being an illegal migrant) to apply for citizenship by naturalisation.

It further pleads that, if this order is implemented and citizenship is given to persons based on their religion, and if the court strikes down CAA and the order, it will be very difficult to reverse the process through which citizenship is granted.

It is not very hard to understand the intentions of the government in hurrying up the process, despite the matter being pending in the Supreme Court. The Government, it seems, is determined to create hassles for the Muslim minority under the garb of the CAA.

Firstly, the Constitution of India does not permit discrimination on grounds of religion in granting citizenship. Granting citizenship to persecuted persons in neighbouring countries is a global norm. It is a wellknow fact that many Muslim minorities in Pakistan, like Ahmadis, are persecuted. It is also surprising as to why the Hindu Tamils persecuted in Sri Lanka are kept out of the gambit of the CAA. Additionally, it is surprising that the Rohingyas of Myanmar, who face the worst persecution, will be out of this process.

There has been much debate about it internationally. The United Nations has been very critical of the CAA. The UN High Commissioner, Michele Bachelet, filed an intervention in the Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of the Citizenship Amendment Act. In response, India’s Foreign Minister Dr S. Jaishankar rebutted her criticism, saying that the body (UNHCR) is wrong, and blind to the problem of cross border terrorism. Also, he argued that criticism of the CAA, India’s internal matter, constitutes impinging on India’s sovereignty.

As far as sovereignty is concerned, we should be clear that any sovereign power has to uphold citizenship on the principle of non-discrimination, stipulated in Art. 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political (ICCPR) rights.

India has witnessed strong agitation against the CAA and the NPR. The initial protest in Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Milia Islamia and other places was met with strong reaction from the state. Police entered the campuses and beat the students. This was followed by one of the biggest, most democratic and peaceful agitation by Muslim women. The Shaheenbagh movement, as it was called, shook the conscience of the people and spread to all parts of the country. But the agitation was repressed by unruly mobs during the Delhi riots. Later, the movement dissipated due to Corona.

This landmark movement was also a result of the accumulated frustration of the Muslim community, who have been pushed to the margins of society. In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the incidence of violence against Muslims; thousand of Muslim men and women have been lynched under the pretext of eating beef, or carrying on love jihad or accused of ‘Corona Jihad.’

The quest for equal citizenship for all religious minorities got strong expression through the Shaheenbagh movement; it was the most articulate democratic voice against CAA-NRC.

As such, CAA cannot be seen in isolation. India’s Home Minster Mr. Amit Shah had tweeted “First we will pass the Citizenship Amendment bill and ensure that all the refugees from the neighboring nations get the Indian citizenship. After that NRC will be made and we will detect and deport every infiltrator from our motherland.” His intentions are clear.

The NRC experience in Assam should have been a clarion call to drop such an exercise for good. In the painful process of NRC, the people of Assam, at all levels, faced a lot of hardship. It is a process which legitimises bureaucratic excesses.

It is well known that a large majority of India’s population, particularly adivasis and tribals who have lived in forests for decades, have no paper documentation. For instance, in Assam, nearly 19.5 lakh people were found to be without proper papers for citizenship; interestingly, nearly 12 lakh people were Hindus. The claims made by the BJP and company were that close to 50 lakh people have infiltrated from Bangla Desh, and what turned out was totally different picture.

Migration from Bangla Desh was primarily due to Pakistan’s military atrocities prior to the Bangla Desh war. There were some economic migrations as well. But there is no clarity on the migration from these two countries. If the government has these numbers, they should be made public.

Refugees and persecuted communities must be given refuge, guided by the values and norms of humanism. A country which claims to live by the principle of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, can not persecute its own minorities and make them second class citizens in their own land. I sincerely hope that the Supreme Court of India, the apex court of the land, will play an active role in protecting vulnerable minorities from government overreach.

The CAA, an unfair, unjust legislation, must be withdrawn.

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