The name is innocuous, even the purpose at first sight unexceptionable. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 is supposed to provide an easier path to citizenship for oppressed minorities who enter the country from neighbouring Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. These “minorities” are defined by religion. Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis and Buddhists will find it easier if they can prove persecution but not Muslims, even if they are clearly being persecuted by their government. So a Pakistani Ahmadiya or political dissident does not qualify though he is more likely to be persecuted.

Sri Lankan Tamils, too, are excluded though a clear minority—ethnic and religious—and their persecution is a matter of historical record. Tens of thousands of them languish in camps across Tamil Nadu, stateless despite decades of residence in India. The children born in these camps know no other home. Yet in its rationale for the bill, the Narendra Modi government provided no reason for this omission or, for that matter, Myanmar whose ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya minority is one of the most vicious state-driven pogroms since the Cambodia purges of the 1970s. By a coincidence both are Buddhist-majority societies. Perhaps the government actually believes that only Muslim-majority nations persecute their minorities.

As for the numbers, the 2011 census found some 55 lakh people reported their last residence as being outside India. Some 23 lakh were from Bangladesh (76 per cent arrived before 1991), 7 lakh Pakistanis (79 per cent before 1991) and 6,596 Afghans. Thus, the decade after 1991 saw 5.5 lakh Bangladeshis and 1.5 lakh Pakistanis enter India. In 2011 some 22,000 Bangladeshis and 6,500 Pakistanis entered India.

This bill could be called an exercise in cosmetic hypocrisy. The cover is a concern for oppressed religious minorities . The real intent is a clumsy bid to extricate itself from the mess it has made in Assam.

These are aggregate data and include religious minorities, who comprise a smaller number. But the major problem with census data is that it is available only at 10-year intervals. Indeed, last July, Union minister of state for home affairs, Nityanand Rai told the Lok Sabha they had no reliable data on illegal immigrants. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ mid-year report 2018 estimates the number of Pakistani refugees at 1-4 and has no number for Bangladeshis or Afghans. Of course, these are only applications pending with UNHCR so the actual number would be much greater. Most Bangladeshis would not qualify under UNHCR rules as they are economic migrants. Still, this seems to be a tale of falling numbers rather than a flood of oppressed minorities into India. Existing rules could surely have taken care of the situation. The government’s concern for minorities seems highly selective.

The real danger of this law, however, is not that it denies asylum to Muslims from these three countries. Applied in tandem with the National Register of Citizens—which Union home minister Amit Shah, undeterred by the ₹1,600-crore disaster of the Assam exercise, has promised to extend more than once—its nature becomes apparent. The Assam register identified some 19 lakh “illegal aliens”. The majority, about 12 lakh, were Hindus. The new Act gives them a path to citizenship, but Muslims are cut adrift. If the NRC exercise is extended to the entire country in the same ramshackle manner, there is no saying how many Muslims who have never lived elsewhere will become “illegal aliens”. The irony is plainly unintended but the excluded would qualify as “oppressed minorities”.  It is hard to imagine the horrors such an exercise might spawn but prison camps cannot be ruled out.

The nature and extent of protests against the Act indicate that the public senses something is not right but this government is not backing down. On the contrary, the Prime Minister himself is fanning the flames with his misleading rhetoric. His equation of the Congress with Pakistan is a cynical attempt at communal polarisation. Restraint from the nation’s leader in this charged environment might soothe frayed tempers, but fact-free belligerence is what we have got. Maybe this was not on the original agenda but apparently neither Modi nor Shah can resist an opportunity to cast everything in Hindu-Hostile Other terms. They may see the rioting in Delhi as a chance for an electoral dividend in the assembly election. 

Viewed in this light, this bill could be called an exercise in cosmetic hypocrisy. The cover is a concern for oppressed religious minorities in neighbouring Muslim-majority countries. The real intent is a clumsy bid to extricate itself from the mess it has made in Assam.