Passage of CAB will mark end of India’s secular, democratic Constitution: Harsh Mander

At the very core of our nationhood and our freedom struggle was the idea that this nation belonged equally to people of every faith, says Harsh Mander,former IAS officer and human rights activist

Human rights activist Harsh Mander
Human rights activist Harsh Mander

Ashlin Mathew

With the Citizenship Amendment Bill being passed in the Rajya Sabha, former IAS officer and human rights activist Harsh Mander said that the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party’s plan is to strip Muslims of all rights as citizenship is ultimately the right to have rights.

“While everyone is saying that BJP is making us a Hindu Pakistan, but truly they are making us into a Hindu Israel. Is that the role model of what we want to become?” asks Mander.

Edited excerpts of an interview with Ashlin Mathew:

Both NRC and CAB go hand-in-hand. How will both be damaging for the country?

If the Citizenship Amendment Act is passed by India’s Parliament, it will mark the end of India’s secular,democratic Constitution. It’s a strong comment to make, but what this government has done in the recent years and what earlier governments have done from time to time have damaged and eroded many of our Constitutional guarantees.

At the very core of our nationhood and our freedom struggle was the idea that this nation belonged equally to people of every faith. This idea was, of course, opposed from the start by the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which both believed that this should be a Hindu nation in which particularly Muslims and Christians must live as second-class citizens as they saw them as being part of ‘foreign religions’. The Muslim League in 1940s expanded its demand also claiming that India was not one but two nations – Hindus in India and for Muslims, Pakistan.

But, we must remember that VD Savarkar was the source of the two-nation theory and if the CAB is passed, it will be an endorsement of the two-nation theory as it will place Muslims in a completely different category in terms of their entitlement to be Indian citizens. This is why it poses such a grave danger.

At a time when India won her freedom with all of the bloodshed of partition where a million people had died,40 million people had got displaced in the Hindu-Muslim violence and Pakistan had been constituted on the basis of religion, there was a great deal of pressure to declare India as a Hindu nation.

But, the leaders of our freedom struggle were completely clear that India would remain a humane nation where religion would be irrelevant to one’s rights in the country. It is that idea which is going to be destroyed when the Citizenship Amendment Bill will be passed.

Do you think that CAB will help Hindus from neighbouring countries become Indians or is this simply to appease their vote bank?

Let’s look at what has happened in Assam. We found that the Supreme Court in the Sarbananda Sonowal vs Union of India judgement passed a dangerous ruling which reversed the burden of proof. It was now up to the citizens to prove that they were Indian citizens and not the state, which had to prove that they were foreigners. The basis of proving this was a range of documents, which most of us, including urban Indians, would find it hard to find, let alone rural Indians, who are most often poorly lettered and often landless. Their ability to muster these documents is more fraught and unlikely.

People don’t know their date of birth, they have not gone to school, so they do not have school certificates and they don’t own land, so they do not have land records. They not only have to produce these documents, but also produce the entire family tree, which is legacy document and then you have to get the linkage documents to show your connection with the legacy documents.

You can imagine the amount of suffering the people in Assam have had to undergo in order to produce these documents with the kind of poverty and lack of education and resources that people have. For years this has dominated their lives.

Then there is the BJP government in the Centre and state, which is appointing people who have no experience to foreign tribunals. They are under pressure to declare more and more citizens as foreigners. In this environment, when 2 million people were excluded, the ruling party faced a political conundrum because according to sources around 15 lakhs of those excluded were Hindus. There can be no doubt that the much larger number of those left out of NRC are non-Muslims.

If the BJP had to continue to head the government in which all of them are declared foreigners, then it would be political suicide for them. That is why they are now rejecting their own NRC. They implemented the process and our complaint has been the extreme bias the minorities face. Now, because the findings are not suiting their political purpose, they are declaring the same process as unfair and biased. For them, to walk out of this conundrum the only solution is to give citizenship rights to Hindus who were excluded from the NRC.

For this purpose, they have created this Act, which states that they will be treated as refugees escaping religious persecution from neighbouring countries and will be given citizenship. The irony is that every person who has been excluded from NRC are people who are claiming that they are Indians, and now in order to become Indian, they will have to claim they are Bangladeshi and that they were persecuted.

So, either yesterday they were lying or tomorrow they will be lying in order to get citizenship. This pathway is going to be barred only to those people with Muslim identity.

The Rohingyas in Myanmar and the Uighurs in China are the most persecuted people in the world. But, there is no question of them being accepted because of they are Muslims.

How will people who have no documents to prove that they are Indians, have documents to prove that they have come from a neighbouring country?

These people are not from neighbouring countries and therefore there is no question that they will be able to prove it anyway. So, I suspect that the government will either give citizenship on the basis of self-declaration or will go into a format of presumption. It might be that if you are a Hindu, the state authorities will presume that you are a refugee because without these options, there will be a requirement of proof. There is no question that they will be able to provide documents of them being Bangladeshis and being persecuted.

Some states have already said that they will not implement the National Register of Citizens. Won’t this add to the chaos in the country?

We can’t have a National Register of Citizens if some states do not participate and so it is going to create a complete constitutional crisis. To push to through the country is animagination of oppression by the ruling establishment.

I think the BJP was hoping that the political opposition would be bullied or intimidated by the threat of the “Hindu backlash” to support the Citizenship Amendment Bill. It is heartening to see the Opposition has not let us down when the country most needed them and that is something to take heart from.

Even if we did an exercise amongst urban Indians about the full names of all their grandparents, their dates of birth and documents to prove it, most of us will not know. It is quite worrying as it is because of misspelt names, people have been sent to detention centres.

You have an Arabic name,rendered into Bengali and written in English and that itself can give rise to many errors. Mohammed itself can be spelt in many ways. People don’t know their ages, and all of this is enough to be sent to the detention centres.

Will only Muslims be targeted with the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill?

Mr Amit Shah is asking state government across the country to build detention centres and now only Muslims are going to be declared foreigners. It brings back memories of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and what happened to the Jews. There is no question of Bangladesh accepting them as we are not even talking to Bangladesh about this.

Amit Shah is saying in Parliament that he will send all the infiltrators back to Bangladesh, but the Prime Minister is assuring Bangladesh that this is an internal matter and that people will not be sent to Bangladesh. So, then what are we going to do with the people. How many people are they going to put in detention centres and for how long?

I would think that their planis to keep them in India but stripped of citizenship rights. They won’t have voting rights; they won’t have the right to own land. Citizenship is ultimately the right to have rights. The project is to ultimately strip Muslim minorities of the right to have rights in this country.

While everyone is saying that BJP is making us a Hindu Pakistan, but truly they are making us into a Hindu Israel. Is that the role model of what we want to become?

How will the Citizenship Amendment Bill affect the fraternity and social relations among citizens?

This is a very important question. This Bill has created such an intense fear among Muslim sisters and brothers across the country. I have been getting frantic requests from Muslims homeless people asking about what would happen to them as they have no documents at all. They have also understood. Muslims from rural Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are frantically trying to collect documents which are impossible to gather.

Then you have the home minister Amit Shah and RSS chief Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat repeatedly saying that Hindus have nothing to worry, so this means that panic is related to only people of a certain community.

One of the terrible things that happened in Assam when they found that the numbers were not to their liking, they gave the right to any person to express doubt about the citizenship of any person. This is also so much like what happened in Nazi Germany. You are setting people against people, neighbours will spy on neighbours and this also happened there. This is a process to create intense fear amongst 20 million Muslims of this country.

The fraternity, which is at the heart of the Indian constitution can be torn to shreds.

Will you be going to court to fight the Citizenship Amendment Bill?

I am sure many of us in the civil society will be going to court to fight it. We have to go to both the courts and the people in this case.

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