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Last Updated : Dec 13, 2019 06:14 PM IST | Source: Moneycontrol.com

Citizenship Amendment Bill | Why India must not alienate its close neighbours

Telling a friendly neighbour that you have persecuted your minorities is both bad diplomacy and cocking a snook at those who stood by you in protecting your national security interests — the CAB conveys that to Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Moneycontrol Contributor @moneycontrolcom
Representative Image
Representative Image

Jayanth Jacob

Just when we thought that the 70-plus years of Independence had matured India as a nation nurturing the ideals of its founding fathers, the very foundation of the Republic has been shaken. The Citizenship Amendment Bill, passed by the upper house of Parliament on December 11, is both ill-conceived and a display of brute majoritarianism. The next day, on December 12, it became a law with the President signing it.

It has the potential to leave in its wake a million mutinies across India, besides alienating two of its closest neighbours — Afghanistan and Bangladesh. On December 12 India Today reported the Afghan envoy rejecting the claims that religious minorities were being persecuted in Afghanistan. Ties with Bangladesh need to be examined after its foreign minister AK Abdul Momen suggested that Home Minister Amit Shah visit the country to see the “exemplary communal harmony” there.

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Proving Jinnah Right

Making religion the basis of citizenship, even if the intent is faulty couched in driving out illegal immigrants, is proving Pakistan’s Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who believed religion is the basis for nationhood, right. What is even more dangerous is the historical distortions that are being spread for justifying the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) move, which appears to be based on political calculations.

India’s biggest diplomatic victory — which was the creation of Bangladesh by splitting Pakistan — is proof that religion as the basis of nationhood is not an enduring idea. A yearning for cultural identity and bruised passion to preserve one's language could be stronger than the allegiance to a religion. Pakistan had failed to understand this, which led to the creation of Bangladesh. One of the most compelling reasons for droves of Bengali Hindus to flee Bangladesh was the fear of tyranny from the Urdu-speaking community — that they were also Muslims was only incidental.

Dormant Fissures

Religion as the basis of citizenship is devious as well as dangerous. The ongoing protest against the citizenship Bill in Assam makes it clear. At the core of the agitation is the fear of Bangla-speaking Hindus dominating the local Assamese. It rings a bell from the past: the way Bangla was imposed in Assam by the British and the disastrous consequences it had wreaked.

Considering that Assamese is now spoken by only 48 per cent of state’s population would bring to the fore the assertion of other identities that are more powerful than the faith on one’s religion. How over the years Tripura has seen the dominance of Bengali Hindus would further add to the awakening of this assertive, at times dangerous, non-religious identities. A county of continental size and diversity such as India cannot afford to open up dormant fissures that remain far from eruption at the slightest of provocations.

Upsetting Neighbours

The CAB apparently aims at helping the persecuted communities, barring Muslims, in India’s contiguous neighbours. However, Sri Lanka, which is less than half-an-hour by flight from India’s southern-most state, is left out. That Colombo must protect the Tamil minorities has remained a constant refrain of Indian governments, including the Narendra Modi administration. Surprisingly, Sri Lankan Tamil Hindus don't come in the purview of the Bill, and the only explanation for this could that they are not Hindi-speaking. Considering India has long hosted the Tamil minorities who fled persecution, this omission defies logic and common sense.

Telling a friendly neighbour that you have persecuted your minorities is both bad diplomacy and cocking a snook at those who stood by you in protecting your national security interests over the years. That's what the Bill intends to convey to Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Barring the Taliban regime, Afghanistan, by and large, has remained multi-cultural. At the same time Hazaras, one of the most-prosecuted minorities in Afghanistan, don't come under the purview of the CAB.

On December 12, a day prior to the Delhi Dialogue, an event hosted by India’s ministry of external affairs, Momen cancelled his visit to India. Though the art of diplomacy is all about saying anything forthright that the development comes a day after Parliament passed the CAB is significant enough to covey Dhaka’s displeasure.

Peaceful Periphery

New Delhi must not forget that the aspirations of being a leading power has many objective requirements. A peaceful periphery is one of them. In one of the most complex geographical regions in the world where India is located this is more of an imperative than a diplomatic truism. Placed against an aggressive China with deep pockets to woo India’s neighbours, alienating two key neighbours is surely not the way to go about it.

In modern history no country became a world power without first becoming a global economic power. Great Britain and the United States first became economic powers before their military might helped their transition into world powers. India could be at the cusp of an opportunity to define itself as a countervailing power against China. However, a weakened economy and a far from adequate military infrastructure ensure that India has many nautical miles to sail before seeing the shores that she can anchor herself as a leading power. The grandeur of a leading power is not a substitute for actually being one.

The notion that religious identity can be so overwhelming that it would subsume other facets of one’s identity has not yet won the day in India. In all likelihood, it will never.

While the CAB certainly scuppers the visions of the founding fathers of the Republic and the very ideals enshrined in the Constitution, it also opens up avenues for a million mutinies that the country can ill afford.

Jayanth Jacob is a foreign policy commentator who covered the ministry of external affairs for more than two decades. Twitter: @jayanthjacob. Views are personal.

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First Published on Dec 13, 2019 01:01 pm
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