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His apparent offense? Participating in the right of dissent that is the holy grail of any constitutional democracy. Guha and others have rightfully taken a stand against the Citizenship Amendment Act, passed by the upper and lower houses of India’s Parliament, which is vague and unconstitutional because it makes fast-tracked citizenship dependent on one’s religion.

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Watching Ramachandra Guha being taken away reminded me of his riveting exposition on why India is the most fascinating country in the world. The central thesis being how India had emerged as a religiously pluralistic society when most nations have defined themselves through a monotheist lens.

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Indeed, India can be said to be a utopia that defines itself by the phrase “unity in diversity.” I wrote in an earlier op-ed that “out of a bloodstained Partition there emerged two ideas of nationhood — a progressive, pluralistic and inclusive impulse that became the idea of the Republic of India and a theocratic template that became the idea of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.” Sadly the events playing out through the actions of the government depict a trajectory that is distinct from the vision of a pluralistic society.

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India has been the birthplace of religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, which add to its cultural smorgasbord. Even the Abrahamic religions have a unique history in India. Syriac Christians in India emerged shortly after Christ died and 600 years before Islam came into being. History records that Thomas the first, one of Jesus’ 12 apostles, landed in Kerala to spread Christianity and today, he is buried in Tamil Nadu. The country today is host to a significant population of the Christian faith.

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Islam came peacefully to the south and has a slightly more complicated history up north. Today, India has the second largest Muslim population in the world, despite not being an Islamic country. India is one of the few countries which houses members of the Jewish diaspora who have never faced any form of state-led persecution.

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More interesting is the story of the Parsi community and their arrival in India. While fleeing religious persecution in Persia, they docked on Indian shores, in modern day Gujarat. Apocryphal tales have it that the King Jadhav Rana sent a bowl of milk filled to the brim, implying that he would not be able to accommodate them. The Parsis returned the same bowl of milk with sugar in it to convey that, just as the sugar had seamlessly mixed with the milk, they too would integrate effortlessly.

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For centuries, India has assimilated, internalized, accommodated and embraced waves of immigrants, invaders, traders and preachers among others. The Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019 (CAB), coupled with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) — a register of all Indian citizens whose creation is mandated by the citizenship act of 1955, subsequently amended in 2003 — is an assault on India’s pluralistic ethos. It is an affront to the first principles of constitutionalism. It violates Articles 14, 15, 16, 21, 25 and 26 and the basic structure doctrine now cast in stone in the 1973 Indian Supreme Court case of Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala, which, by a slender majority, mandated that certain articles that form the core of the Constitution are beyond even the amending powers of Parliament.

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In a secular nation like India, religion cannot be the basis of citizenship, whether territorial or extra-territorial. It also militates against the first principle of reasonable classification under Article 14 — equals cannot be treated as unequals. You cannot make religion the determinant for granting refuge, asylum or citizenship.

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The act seems to be testing the waters for a pan-India NRC that would make the citizenship of billions subject to the whimsical biases and ideological predilections of those in government today in New Delhi. Moreover, the Citizenship Amendment Act adopts different benchmarks for Bangladesh and Bhutan. The government’s defense is that it is meant to protect persecuted minorities in its pan-Islamic neighborhood, specifically, non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

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However, Maldives too is Islamic as per Article 10 of its Constitution. Yet, the bill does not extend the same privileges to minorities in the island nation as it does to those of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country, where the Tamil minority (largely Hindu) have long faced persecution at the hands of pro-Sinhalese nationalists. Why does the act exclude them then? What about Ahmadis, Shias, and Baloch in Pakistan? Yes, they’re Muslim, but they have been under the shoe of Sunni hardliners, and hardships have been further exacerbated by the military establishment and the constitution in Pakistan that refuses to recognize Ahmadis as Muslims. There is also the case of persecuted Christians in Bhutan.

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What would have been more magnanimous on the part of the government would have been comprehensive legislation that is holistic and welcomes all individuals fleeing persecution and not drawing arbitrary lines to gauge persecution based on religious denominations.

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There are many shades of grey here and hence we need nuances separating illegal migrants from refugees and granting citizenship on a case-by-case basis in a non-discriminatory manner.

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India is in uproar, in protest, in ennui, in disenfranchisement, in pain, in anger, in suffering. If this government cares about its image globally, then it knows that at this rate, it is in trouble. Good governments listen to the pulse of the nation and can diagnose pain points expeditiously. It’s one thing for this government to have won an election decisively but today it’s ability to govern is seriously in question.

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India has stood the test of democracy, when all others around it became tin pot dictatorships run by the military. When imperialism and colonialism retreated across the world, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America, India was one nation that did not go under either totalitarian or one party rule, and never, ever under a military jackboot. Our glorious pluralistic and democratic credentials should make us a shining beacon for the global South.

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The NDA/BJP government is taking India down the slippery slope of religious majoritarianism, and when you sow the wind you only reap the whirlwind. Let us hope that the Supreme Court of India where the act currently is under challenge upholds the first principles of Constitutionalism enshrined in the preamble of the Indian Constitution, which promises all of our citizens an India that is a sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic republic.

Mittie B Brack News

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