Views of the author are personal, and not the views of the organizations he is associated with.
A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to meet a group of children from Rohingya families. They were amongst those who were legally allowed to stay in the country as refugees, with proper identity cards. For this, they were very grateful to the Government of India. In an hour-long discussion with them, I wanted to know about their needs and aspirations. What was the most important desire that these children had? Guess? It was not about good education or sanitation nor good playground facilities not even good access to livelihood for their parents. They said, “Apne watan waapas jaana hai.” (I want to go back to my country) They were very grateful for having got a place to live, but they did miss their homeland. They were aware that they are not ‘citizens’ of the country they were living now. They also knew that their choice of religion was a determinant – both in their homeland and in India. “What food did you like eating the most back in Myanmar?” I asked them. Among others they mentioned enthusiastically, they skeptically mentioned ‘beef’, that struck me quite hard… Was there hesitation to mention the word stemming from a sense of fear? Or was it because they had come to respect the local sentiment in their new place of stay?
A few months ago, I also met young people from refugee families from Tibet. There living conditions were not comparable to those of Rohingya families. Having lived in India many years, many in this community were born as refugees in this country. The difference I noticed in this community was that, although they did not have access to all their basic needs like education, they were still able to articulate their needs, without an inherent sentiment of fear. A number of them had never seen their homeland, but their homeland came in their every conversation, and imagination. For them too, their longing to go back home, was primary.
With interactions with both the communities, I was left thinking… Were these people eager to go back to their homeland? Or do they want a Government that represents them? I felt a hesitancy in the way they had to ‘request’ for things, even if requests were actually accepted. It seemed like they would probably be happier if they could be able to ‘demand’, even if those demands get rejected.
The refugee children in particular, spoke in measured words, fearing not just what they were expressing, but also the manner in which they expressed. Their requesting tone almost revealed their compromised dignity… a frailty that appears starkly when expressed by children. This is when I understood the real meaning of ‘citizenship’. It is about one’s human right to negotiate one’s basic entitlements as human beings from the society, with all dignity, confidence and ownership.
Citizenship can best be understood from those who are not yet citizens, and are deprived. There are of course those who are citizens, yet deprived and discriminated. But, they at least could have the voice to demand. Unfortunately, the human rights discourse, especially of non-citizens, is very inadequate. This is despite the fact that the Constitution of India guarantees a number of fundamental rights even to non-citizens. Not many know, that a Bangladeshi migrant in India is entitled to the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by Articles 14, 20, 21, 21A, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27 and 28. A Tibetan or a Rohingya child refugee in India is entitled to the Right to Education, just like any other Indian child. The best part of the constitution of India is that: One, it has envisioned all citizens as equal; and two, by ensuring that some fundamental rights are available irrespective of the national identity that the person hold s- and that being non-sectarian, it has treated all non-citizens as equal; all legal refugees as equal; and all illegal immigrants as equal. And children of all these groups are respectively equal in respective circumstances. For, the Constitution has refused to dehumanize any child of any identity. All children have human rights and similar fundamental rights.
Is the Citizens Amendment Act, 2019 a violation of the social fabric of the Constitution of India? Legally, only the judiciary, and, that too, an independent judiciary, under Article 32 or 226, can decide whether this Act is a violation or not. It is however important to understand how it is going to influence the debates around ‘citizenship’. What does the Act do? The Citizens Amendment Act, 2019, gives eligibility for Indian citizenship to illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and who entered India on or before 31 December 2014. The Act does not grant eligibility irrespective of religion or the neighbouring country where persecution is taking place. The resultant is a debate – whether all non-citizens in India are equal in the eyes of the Constitution of India? Whether all illegal migrants are equal in terms of their entitlements? Whether the law treats all religiously persecuted illegal immigrants equally? After this Act, they are probably not equal anymore. Being an Indian citizen is a Status entitling her all the fundamental rights. Now, a religiously persecuted Hindu child migrant from Bangladesh has more entitlement to become Indian citizen than a religiously persecuted Hindu child migrant from Sri Lanka. Now, an Ahmadiyya Muslim child migrant from Pakistan is less entitled than a Hindu migrant from the same country. The government indicates that it does not affect the current citizenry of the country in anyway. The point is – is it not the beginning of redefining of citizenship from the lens of religious affiliation? Is it not true that ‘religious identity’ of the person is becoming the primary basis for understanding persecution? Importantly, is this not singling out one religion, and becomes one more attempt to breed sectarianism in the citizenship debate? Sectarianism has a potential to ‘rob’ the ‘citizenship’ of the community of that identity. It reaffirms the constant labelling of the identity in regular discussions- so much that a child grows into that discourse – and accepts that as normal. Will it not be disastrous if a Hindu child starts growing up thinking Muslim child is of lesser citizen? Worse, if a Muslim child grows up thinking she herself is a lesser citizen? She will probably grow up similar to a Tibetan or a Rohingya child in India, which itself is unconstitutional.
For us, what should be frightening is not that there were a few who approved the bill wholeheartedly, but there were many of us who remained silent when the Government introduced the bill and get it passed in both Houses of the Parliament in successive days. Does the ‘silence’ not symbolize the existence of fear among citizens that opposing the government would be perceived or projected as opposing the nation? What is worse is that our children are growing up within this politics of silence. Young children in a grip of collective silence should worry many of us – for what goes inside their mind now could dominate their personality when they acquire ‘power’ to negotiate with the Society. They need to fight fear. We need to remember the words of Tagore, “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”