Demonstrators at the protest site against India's new citizenship law in Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, India (File image) Image Credit: Reuters

Jagat Prakash Nadda, president of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, has assured us that the Narendra Modi government shall soon issue rules to implement the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019.

Mr Nadda said that issuing of rules has been delayed due to the Covid pandemic. That is strange, because the Covid pandemic didn’t delay myriad other legislative and administrative actions, such as far-reaching laws that will change how the agrarian economy works.

The truth is that the CAA became a political hot potato with nationwide protests that ended not even with a riot but with Covid. Ideally, the government should scrap the law and go back to the drawing board over its poorly thought out law to tinker with Indian citizenship.

No mention of religious persecution

To refresh our memories, the government said that CAA is about giving citizenship to religious minorities from India’s neighbouring countries who fled to India due to religious persecution. Funnily, the text of the law doesn’t even mention religious persecution.

The CAA rules will need to answer these important questions. How does the government determine whether someone claiming to have fled from Pakistan actually fled from Pakistan? Obviously, you would think such a person would need to produce some verifiable identity documents such as a Pakistani passport.

Similarly, how does the government of India know someone claiming to have been a Bangladeshi Hindu is actually a Hindu? What if a Bangladeshi Muslim changes name and claims to be Hindu just to get citizenship?

Thirdly, CAA rules will need to clarify how the government intends to verify claims of religious persecution? Just because someone claims they were facing religious persecution, should the claim be taken on face value? Since the government of India does not have jurisdiction in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh (at least not yet), how do they intend to investigate these claims? What if someone is just an economic refugee claiming to have faced religious persecution?

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Open to misuse

Fourthly, CAA has the cut-off date of 31 December 2014. If you entered India after that, you are not eligible for Indian citizenship under CAA. How or why the government came up with this arbitrary cut-off date, the government hasn’t cared to explain. Even so, how does the government determine whether someone actually came before that date? What if someone illegally enters India in 2020 and claims he’s been here since 2013 and gets citizenship? How do you verify?

This need for verification cannot be stressed enough. What if spies and terrorists enter India, assume false identies and take Indian citizenship?

Now, why do we think the government won’t verify these claims?

Maybe they will, which is why we are eagerly looking forward to rules that haven’t seen light if day in over ten months.

But here’s what we know so far. Home minister Amit Shah said in an interview that these refugees won’t need any documents to get citizenship. This is alarming as it opens the door for misuse.

Before this writer gets a sedition or terrorism case slapped at him for raising this concern, please note that India’s external intelligence agency, the Research & Analysis Wing or R&AW raised this concern before a parliamentary committee in 2016, according to a Hindustan Times report. Why MHA is finding it ‘difficult’ to frame rules to implement citizenship law.

Careful examination

Already, India grants long-term visas to those coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh without any documents whatsoever — they just have to sign an affidavit saying they fled because of religious persecution. A government official will “carefully examine” the claim — meaning It will be to the arbitrary discretion of some overworked lower level bureaucrat willing to sign for a bribe. A sample of the affidavit can be found on the Ministry of Home Affairs website.

If a similar procedure is followed in the context of CAA, it will mean that anyone can become citizen of India by signing an affidavit and with no documents or proof whatsoever. This is why the CAA is not only impractical and unworkable, but inimical to India’s national security.

To give citizenship to refugees fleeing religious (or any other kind) persecution is a good idea. But verification is key to filter out the false claims. There’s an agency willing to do it for you. It’s called the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR. All that India has to do is to sign the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol.

Giving someone citizenship of your country is a sensitive matter. It can’t be done on a mere affidavit. When the CAA rules are published, one hopes the Narendra Modi government puts national security before any other concern.

Shivam Vij
Image Credit: Gulf News 2020