The Narendra Modi government may be facing a plethora of problems over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) but the move has its ripple effect on the three neighbouring countries whose nationals are living in India as illegal immigrants, some of whom can now own a nationality once again.
While domestically, the Citizenship Amendment Act suits the ruling BJP’s nationalist Hindutva constituency, internationally, the law brings focus on religious persecution of non-Muslims in India’s neighbourhood, particularly in Pakistan.
Of the three countries, whose nationals are targeted beneficiaries of the Citizenship Amendment Act, Pakistan has been most vocal in its opposition to the new law. Incidentally, it is Pakistan that has received maximum flak from international agencies and human rights groups over persecution of minorities in that country.
Earlier this year, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi found himself cornered in Brussels over charges of systemic persecution of minorities in Pakistan in the wake of Asiya Bibi’s acquittal after spending eight years in jail on death row and flight to Canada.
Reports say more than 15,000 people belonging to minority communities in Pakistan have been charged under blasphemy law in past 30 years. Journalist and former parliamentarian of Pakistan Farahnaz Ispahani has talked about cleansing Pakistan of minorities on several platforms. According to Minority Rights Group International, Pakistan is ninth worst performer in 2019 on protection of minorities. India is 54th.
The Citizenship Amendment Act, in international arena, brings focus back on the way Pakistan has treated and continues to treat its minorities. It was evident recently when India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar held a press conference with his US counterpart Michael Pompeo.
On the question about using faith as a criterion for granting citizenship, Jaishankar pointed out the needs of persecuted religious minorities from certain countries. The focus was on persecution of religious minorities in these countries.
Pompeo in his response had underlined robust debate in India on the issue virtually accepting the argument that religious persecution is a problem in India’s neighbourhood. Inclusion of Christian illegal immigrants in the scope of the Citizenship Amendment Act gives India a diplomatic leverage.
Pompeo’s comment came days after Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan raised this issue at the Global Forum on Refugees in Geneva, where he said the Citizenship Amendment Act could lead to a refugee crisis as Muslims might flee India and Pakistan would not accommodate them.
Earlier, Pakistan’s parliament passed a resolution demanding India to revoke the Citizenship Amendment Act reminding India of its commitment to secularism and pluralistic nature of society. But the resolution lost its value for having been passed by the National Assembly of an Islamic Republic with chequered record in the use of blasphemy law.
With regard to Bangladesh and Afghanistan, India argued that the current dispensation has taken steps to ensure protection of minorities in their countries. But in the past, India argued, religious minorities were persecuted. This narrative suits both Bangladesh and Afghanistan’s governments.
Initial reaction from Bangladesh to the statements made by Union Home Minister Amit Shah on new citizenship law was of denial following up with putting off two bilateral visits.
Sheikh Hasina government was under international lens recently in the wake of a spate of attacks on bloggers in Bangladesh. The Citizenship Amendment Act appeared to validate that minorities were not safe in Bangladesh.
But as India reached out to it absolving the Awami League of Prime Minister Shekh Hasina of religious persecution in Bangladesh, things seem to have fallen in place. Bangladesh government issued a statement saying if Bangladeshi nationals were found to be living in India illegally, it will take back its citizens.
Afghanistan too reacted denying persecution of minorities particularly Sikhs. But it also aligned with India’s position that religious persecution happened in Afghanistan under Taliban regime. It further announced it is ready to welcome back Sikhs who fled Afghanistan due to religious persecution.
This leaves Pakistan primarily to fend for itself as the Citizenship Amendment Act brings international focus on two things: there are people living in India illegally, and secondly, religious persecution in India’s neighbourhood is a fact as these people have fled their own countries to escape the wrath of majority population or the systemic persecution for professing a different faith than that of the state.
Shifting of focus on Pakistan on the issue of religious perseuction of minority is interesting in the wake of the CAA as majority of illegal immigrants living in India are estimated to have come from Bangladesh.The Modi government’s bigger challenge, however, is to allay fears among the Indian Muslims, the biggest minority of the country. They continue to fear that their future may be uncertain with the talks of a nationwide NRC (National Register of Citizenship) mixing up with the disturbing call for making India a Hindu Rashtra.