Atithi Devo Bhava. This tagline is proudly displayed on the official website of India’s Ministry of Tourism. Taken from the Upanishads, this phrase translates to “the guest is god”. Clearly, the people behind this almost ten-year old tagline did not foresee a future in which the country would ram headlong into something as discriminatory and contrary to Indian hospitality as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), brought about by a hardline and unscrupulous Hindutva government.
The CAA seeks to provide citizenship to what the government describes as “persecuted minorities” coming from three countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. The problem with the CAA is that it discriminates on the basis of religion, providing citizenship to every “Hindu, Parsi, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain and Christians” but leaves out Muslims.
The Indian government reasons that Muslims have several countries to their name, but Hindus have only India. The Minister for Road Transport, Nitin Gadkari, said: “There is no country in the world for the Hindus. Earlier, Nepal was one Hindu nation but now there is not a single nation. So where will the Hindus and Sikhs go?” Unfortunately for the minister, his knowledge of the Indian constitution appears embarrassingly shoddy, as India happens to be a secular democratic republic, not a Hindu country.
While the CAA discriminates on the basis of religion, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) discriminates on the basis of religion and income. As its name suggests, the NRC aims to be a national register of all Indian citizens. As of now, the NRC is implemented only in the state of Assam, where there has historically been an influx of immigrants entering India illegally from Bangladesh. However, the Minister of Home Affairs, Amit Shah, promised in parliament to implement the NRC all over the country. Shah dehumanised illegal migrants by referring to them as “termites”, much like how the Jews were referred to as “rats” by the Nazis.
Given that poverty and illiteracy are rampant in India, many Indian citizens live without any official documentation for their names. According to data by the Registrar General of India, 25% of Indian births were not registered as of 2007. Although these numbers are improving, nearly 15% of Indian births are still not registered. How will the 15-25% of Indians prove their citizenship without a birth certificate or other documents? The irony is that while the Indian government will ask its own citizens to prove their citizenship to remain in India as per the NRC, the CAA will allow the same Indian government to afford citizenship to people coming from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh!
The most affected
As Arundathi Roy has pointed out, all Indians will have to queue up to prove their citizenship, just like they did after the 2016 banknote demonetisation to replace their hard-earned yet invalid notes. While non-Muslims without proper documents can apply for citizenship under the CAA, Muslims in the same category will be herded into detention camps, some of which have already popped up in Assam. Such is the irony: the workers who built these detention camps may very well end up there due to a lack of documents to prove their citizenship. Muslims and other people belonging to the weakest sections of society have the most to fear.
Brute majority in parliament allowed the government the ability to pass the CAA despite the protests from the vociferous opposition. However, many issues remain unresolved, requiring much-needed answers from the government and getting it from the government is but a fool’s errand. For example, the government says that “persecuted minorities” will be given citizenship, but how will the government judge between those fleeing persecution and those wishing to migrate for economic reasons?
Given that many immigrants can lie about their identity, how will the government judge who is a Hindu and who isn’t? When the newspaper India Today interviewed Amit Shah and put this question forward, his response was far from reassuring:
“Let us worry about how we will find out who is lying and not lying about being Hindu and being persecuted among the migrants.“
It appears that the people of India just have to trust Amit Shah’s rare and extraordinary x-ray vision that can look through people and establish their true identities. The Minister of Home Affairs is a hard man to trust. His history is dark, dangerous, and diabolical. Even the Supreme Court ordered him to leave his state of Gujarat for fear he may influence witnesses in cases where he was among those who were accused.
The impact of the CAA on national security is anybody’s guess. What if terrorists enter into India with Hindu names? Will they be given citizenship, or will Amit Shah deploy himself armed with his extraordinary vision at the border?
During the debate on the CAA, Amit Shah claimed in parliament that the percentage of non-Muslims in Pakistan has declined from 23% in 1947 to 3.7% in 2011. The Hindu right-wing social media ecosystem, known colloquially as “WhatsApp University”, routinely makes such exaggerated and unverifiable claims. It is unclear from where Amit Shah brought out these numbers, as no source was cited for his claims. This may very well be the second time a minister has fallen prey to WhatsApp forwards, after the ridiculous claim by the Minister of Finance that the slump in the automotive industry was driven by millennials’ love for Uber!
In reality, the Hindu population in Pakistan and Bangladesh (or East and West Pakistan, as it was known before 1971) has shown no dramatic decrease as claimed by the minister. Firstly, the statistic of 23% is not true even if East and West Pakistan were counted together. The non-Muslim population was always around 15%. As for the number of non-Muslims currently in Pakistan, this statistic stands at approximately 3.5% and has shown some growth – even if not a lot – but it most certainly is not a decrease. The decrease from 15% to 3% is due to the partition of India.
The Muslim population in undivided Punjab before partition was at 32.3%. After partition, this declined sharply to 0.8%, which is even worse than the Hindu figures projected by the BJP. Yet nobody says this is because of forced conversions or persecution, because the reason for the decline is well known as being due to partition. However, the Indian government plays fast and loose with these numbers, knowing full well that the vast majority will not care to analyse the truth of these numbers or check if their inferences are correct.
While there is no doubt that minorities all over are adversely affected, physically harmed, and some even killed, there is hardly any evidence to show that Hindus in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan are being systematically persecuted. So where is the need for such a controversial law defended by the Minister of Home Affairs himself in Parliament with data from sources he has not revealed?
Protests against the CAA first erupted in Assam, followed by other states in the North East. This was due to the fear of a dangerous tilt in the demographic balance of these states. The people of the North East fear the death of their culture, heritage, and identity due to the vast immigration of Bengali refugees into their states.
The head of the Tripura royal family, Pradyot Deb Barman, appeared on NDTV’s The Big Fight programme and outlined the reasons for the protests in the North East:
“There is a general misconception in the country that we are opposing the Hindus. I’m a Hindu myself … the tribes of Tripura are largely Hindus themselves. But if you look at the state and what we have gone through … we opened up our boundaries so that the persecuted Hindus who suffered in the Noakhali riots [could come in] … it happened in 1948, 1956, 1965, 1971, and today the persecuted minorities which are Hindus outnumber us three to one. They hold all the constitutional posts, hold the bureaucracy, administration is in their hands. And we, the indigenous people of Tripura, who actually allowed people to come, feel completely marginalised … what wrong did we do? When we merged with India in 1949, we merged with certain constitutional, cultural, ethnic, and identity guarantees. Today we feel completely isolated.”
On the other hand, protests in the rest of India began due to the discriminatory nature of the law, in that it guarantees citizenship based on religion and excludes Muslims. The epicenter of these protests was the Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) university in Delhi. These protests captured the attention of the entire country and fanned several protests across the country in support of the students of JMI. Students across the country came out in support of JMI students, after it appeared that the Delhi Police had used disproportionate force against the protesters.
Several videos surfaced on social media and were further confirmed by several journalists and news agencies, which appeared to show the Delhi Police had entered the library of JMI and shot tear gas at the students while they were preparing for their exams. The police had also entered both the male and female hostel of the university without any official permission from the Vice-Chancellor of the university. Videos also showed students being paraded out of the university with their hands raised. Some students also claimed the police had fired live rounds at the protestors. This was initially denied by the police, but an investigation by the media tracked down students with bullet injuries in hospitals close to the JMI campus.
For their part, Delhi Police claimed that the students were violent and had torched buses as part of their protests, and so they had to enter the university campus. But no evidence for this claim was presented by the police. The police arrested 10 people in connection with violence that happened during the protests by JMI, none of whom were students of the university.
Protests continue until today with no signs of abating. Many prominent activists, academics, writers, and other professionals joined the students in various protest rallies across the country. While the protests were largely peaceful, there was no need for the state to unleash the heavy hand of the law on its people. But the Government decided to do just that: they have imposed Section 144 in various parts of the country, shut down the Internet in locations where protests were to be held, and have detained many of the protestors.
Ram Guha, a noted historian and a biographer of Mahatma Gandhi, was one of those detained by the police while giving a live interview on TV. The visuals of Ram Guha being dragged away from the streets by policemen was the second major faux-pas by the Government, coming just days after the incidents at JMI.
As the protests continue, so do the cases of police brutality. Many videos have surfaced of cops beating protestors, entering homes, breaking car windows, and smashing bikes. The police repeatedly claims that it is not using live bullets against the protestors, but evidence leaks out to the contrary. The death toll from the CAA protests has risen to 17, and may well continue to rise.
While the police continue to blame the protestors for the violence, many opposition MPs have pointed out that most protests have been peaceful, barring those protests held in BJP-ruled states. Opposition MP Shashi Tharoor tweeted:
“Tragic that 2 died in Mangalore & 1 in Lucknow. So on a day filled with protests across India, the violence & chaos occurred mostly in BJP-ruled states (or in Delhi, BJP-controlled cops.) Police elsewhere didn’t incite violence or agitate the protesters. Even policing is political.”
How will it end?
The most unlikely scenario is the protestors may eventually force the Government to repeal the law. The next best scenario is that the Supreme Court repeals it if it finds it unconstitutional. If neither of these two scenarios play out, the Government would walk away victorious.
It’s anybody’s guess as to how this will all end. However, it has become very clear that India is at a very critical juncture and is witnessing a revival of its secular credentials. Until recently, this appeared to be nearly extinct, led largely by students and civil society rather than politicians, which is perhaps the only silver lining.
While the guest maybe a god as per the Upanishads, the Government may very well change that too along with the constitution.
 Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) of 1973 empowers an executive magistrate to prohibit an assembly of more than four people in an area.