Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi termed as ‘deeply distressing’ the violent protests taking place against his government’s move to lend a sympathetic ear to non-Muslims when evaluating whether to deport illegal immigrants to their Islamic homelands.
The Citizenship Amendment Act passed last week allows non-Muslim illegal migrants from neighboring Islamic countries to remain in the country forever, while Muslim illegal immigrants will continue to be deported.
The government has defended the move by pointing out that Muslims have nothing to fear from returning to their Islamic homeland, but non-Muslims face the risk of religious persecution.
However, the law — which discriminates between illegal migrants on the basis of their religion — has raised the hackles of many political and rights activists who believe that it sits ill at ease with the secular fundamentals of the Indian polity.
They have also expressed the fear that the law, which effectively exempts non-Muslims from being deported, may be the first step towards a nationwide exercise asking people to submit documents to prove that their ancestors belonged to India, or face incarceration.
They fear that such a move, when combined with the new Citizenship Amendment Act giving exemptions to non-Muslims, may result in the imprisonment of Muslim citizens of the country who do not have documentary evidence to prove that their ancestors lived here. Among the documentary proof accepted are copies of land titles and other government records.
Today, Modi tried to reassure citizens that they should not be worried about such a possibility.
“I want to unequivocally assure my fellow Indians that CAA does not affect any citizen of India of any religion. No Indian has anything to worry regarding this Act. This Act is only for those who have faced years of persecution outside and have no other place to go except India,” he said.
He urged people to not pay any heed to speculation that the new laws were meant to target Indian Muslims.
“The need of the hour is for all of us to work together for the development of India and the empowerment of every Indian, especially the poor, the downtrodden and the marginalised. We cannot allow vested interest groups to divide us and create disturbance.”
“This is the time to maintain peace, unity and brotherhood. It is my appeal to everyone to stay away from any sort of rumour mongering and falsehoods,” he added.
He also urged people to stay away from violent protests.
“Violent protests on the Citizenship Amendment Act are unfortunate and deeply distressing. Debate, discussion and dissent are essential parts of democracy but, never has damage to public property and disturbance of normal life been a part of our ethos.”
The move to give exemption to non-Muslims from incarceration has led to criticism from even supporters of the government.
“We are told that #CAB is bill to grant citizenship and not to take it from anyone. But the truth is together with #NRC, it could turn into a lethal combo in the hands of Government to systematically discriminate and even prosecute people based on religion,” said Prashant Kishor, a branding and strategy consultant who is credited with contributing to Modi’s surprising success in the 2014 general elections.
“The idea of nation wide NRC is equivalent to demonetisation of citizenship….invalid till you prove it otherwise,” he added.
Chetan Bhagat, arguably the most successful English pulp fiction writer in independent India and someone who has always defended Modi against his detractors, too sounded a note of caution.
“The CAB required more education, more consensus building, a lot better wording and frankly better intentions,”he said today. “Stirring the social pot constantly is going to hurt us and the already weak economy.”
“Repeated and prolonged Internet shutdowns hurt business and the economy. Sends a message that we are an unpredictable, third-world country where things are not under control,” he added.
Journalist Arnab Goswami, who often defends many of the government’s policies on his shows, was also scathing in his criticism of the latest move to give citizenship to illegal immigrants.
Meanwhile, the new law has led to protests in different parts of the country, but for different reasons.
While people in Assam and the North East are fighting against the decision to allow non-Muslim illegal migrants to stay on, groups in other parts of the country are fighting against what they see as the ‘discriminatory nature’ of a law that gives citizenship to non-Muslim applicants from India’s Muslim neighbors, while denying the same to Muslim applicants from these countries.