India has recently amended its Citizenship Act of 1955 to include clauses whereby Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who entered India illegally on or before the 31st of December, 2014, will not be treated as illegal immigrants; and they will be entitled to be citizens of India.
This act also shortens the residency requirement for future Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to 5 years, as compared to the normal 11 years for all other foreigners, to be eligible for Indian citizenship.
Why such a law? There is really no one sentence answer to this question, however long the sentence may be. So, let us try in a few paragraphs.
In 1947, the Indian subcontinent was divided into two countries, India and Pakistan, due primarily to the demand from most of the Muslim leaders to have a separate country for the Muslims. That country for the Muslims was Pakistan. That partition of the sub-continent, as the British colonial rulers left, was clearly a horrible disgrace in the history of mankind. Everywhere in the total subcontinental land lived Hindus, Muslims and a number of other religious communities. In order to make a country for the Muslims, non-Muslims had to leave what would be Pakistan, and Muslims had to move to what would be Pakistan from what would remain as India. Obviously most people did not want to move from their homes, and most who moved did it with a lot of resentments. The result was a lot of violence by otherwise ordinary people on their ordinary neighbors belonging in different religious communities. Heart-wrenching stories abound from that mayhem in 1947. The partition of India caused the largest sudden migration of humans in the history of the world.
While Pakistan was proclaimed to be for the Muslims, India as a nation remained home to all religious communities. Thus, while about two thirds of the Muslims of the subcontinent became citizens of Pakistan, the other third became citizens of India.
What followed over the decades to date was continued Islamization of the state of Pakistan, while India remained a religion-neutral state. The Indian subcontinent has an interesting and wrong definition of “secularism”. When they say “secular”, they do not really mean what the Cambridge English Dictionary definition of the term is, viz., “not having any connection with religion”; they mean “neutral to all religions”, which to them is equal respect for all religions.
How did the state mottos and behaviors of the two nations affect the populations? Due to neutrality to all religions in India, practically no migration of Muslims from India to Pakistan happened after the turbulent partition time of 1947, and the percentage of Muslims continued to rise in India. On the other hand, the state motto of Islam translated into discrimination, injustice, hatred and atrocities on non-Muslims in Pakistan, resulting into continued migration of non-Muslims from Pakistan to India, and continued decline in the percentage of non-Muslims in Pakistan.
Pakistan was an absurd creation. It had two wings. The western and eastern wings were separated by more than a thousand miles of India. While Islam was the common ground for the majority populations of the two wings, in terms of languages and cultures the two wings were very different. The differences transformed into a ruler-ruled kind of relationship, which ultimately resulted into the break-up of Pakistan, with the eastern wing becoming Bangladesh in 1971.
As both Hindus and Muslims of the eastern wing of Pakistan were discriminated against by the rulers from the western wing, there was a good deal of common ground for these two major communities of the eastern wing before the emergence of Bangladesh. Thus, the constitution of Bangladesh had secularism as a pillar in 1972, in spite of the Muslim population being seriously religious. India also played a vital role in the idea of secularism in Bangladesh. While the sovereign country of Bangladesh was pretty much forced onto East Pakistan by the Pakistani military brutality on the population, India played the vital role of actually liberating Bangladesh. Thus, secularism in Bangladesh constitution in 1972 clearly had a lot to do with trying to emulate that in India out of gratitude for India’s help in the very emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign nation.
However, secularism was dropped from the constitution of Bangladesh in 1975 when the founding leaders of Bangladesh were assassinated by a group of Islamic zealot military personnel. Ever since, Islam has been the principal political force of Bangladesh. Thus, discrimination, injustice, hatred and atrocities against non-Muslims have been going on more officially and frequently in that country since 1975. The current government claims respecting all religions while it operates under a constitution that begins with ‘in the name of Allah’ and proclaims Islam as the state religion! And, the criminal acts of illegal grabbing of non-Muslim properties, vandalizing non-Muslim places of worship and abducting non-Muslim girls and women continue to happen in Bangladesh with impunity, including by members and leaders of the governing political party.
The independence of Bangladesh made the non-Muslims of the land hopeful in 1972; however, it brought a curse on them as well. India adopted a policy of not granting persecuted Bangladeshi non-Muslim immigrants Indian citizenship because Bangladesh was supposed to be a friendly country where non-Muslims were supposed to be respected and from where non-Muslims would not be expected to migrate to India.
However, illegal migration of non-Muslims from Bangladesh to India never stopped for the reasons described above; and currently India has hundreds of thousands of such people. They have been living there for decades as stateless people without a legal status. What is Pakistan today (erstwhile West Pakistan) expelled most of the non-Muslims there in around 1947. The remaining non-Muslims there have been suffering worse than their Bangladeshi co-religionists. Afghanistan had even fewer non-Muslims in 1947. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are well-known hubs of Islamic fanaticism, injustice, hatred and terrorism. Migration of non-Muslims from these two countries to India have also been going on all along. However, by far the largest number of stateless people currently living in India are from Bangladesh.
Thus, a law that grants citizenship to persecuted and brutalized non-Muslim migrants to India from the neighboring countries was a humanitarian imperative for India.
As a post-script, it may be noted that currently India has a Hindutva-tainted government. However, people who care about humanity need to look at the message more than at the messenger. Keeping hundreds of thousands of victims of religious hatred as stateless people in India over decades has been a failure of secular humanism in the hands of Indian intellectuals and politicians that claimed to be secular. Such intellectuals and politicians as well as the humanists of the world at large now need to embrace this humane law, and not oppose it.