The government insists that the amended new law on citizenship (the Citizenship Amendment Act or CAA) is not anti-Muslim. In fact, it claims that Indian Muslims are not even impacted by the legislation. Its stormtroopers on social media have been deployed to vociferously argue that those criticising the revamped rules — I am among them — are begrudging fast-track protection to persecuted religious minorities from neighbouring countries.
This is sophistry. It is also a convenient and deliberate cherry-picking of facts. To understand why India has just passed a highly discriminatory and blatantly prejudiced law, you must juxtapose the citizenship legislation with the Bharatiya Janata Party's avowal of implementing an all-India National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Home minister Amit Shah has already declared that the NRC will help push out all "infiltrators" from India. In that case, the religion of the "infiltrators" should not matter, should it? An illegal migrant or outsider is an outsider, irrespective of whether she is Christian, Muslim, Sikh or Hindu, right? Well, not according to the BJP's ideological and political calculations.
These calculations first went awry in Assam — the present epicentre of the protests against the CAA — when the court-supervised NRC experiment ended in results that were politically inconvenient for the party.
About 1.9 million people found themselves excluded from the NRC in Assam, but these were not just Muslim migrants from Bangladesh — the suddenly stateless included lakhs of Hindus as well. What may now happen is something like this.
The citizenship law will throw a protective shield over the disenfranchised non-Muslims; the Muslim migrants will then be left to appeal before the foreigners' tribunals. The new law also offers legal immunity to non-Muslims from Pakistan,
Bangladesh and Afghanistan from jail, deportation and other criminal proceedings. In other words, the only people in internment centres will likely be Muslim migrants.
The twin projects of the CAA and NRC will fundamentally change India and the nation we have always prided ourselves on being. The government has presented the CAA as an act of generosity, but when it will be weaponised by the NRC, it will become a merciless instrument of bigotry. For those who say that this does not impact India's 200 million Muslim citizens, let me ask, how can you be untouched by the signalling that there is now a hierarchy of faiths among our people?
If refugees have been living in abject conditions of poverty and statelessness — and I myself have met Hindus from Pakistan living for decades in dismal conditions in Rajasthan — and deserve the magnanimity of the Indian State, that should extend to all of them, irrespective of their religion. It should include Sri Lankan Tamil Hindus and persecuted Rohingyas of Myanmar. And if our national policy is that illegal entrants are infiltrators, overrunning our land and culture, and stretching our already tight resources, then that too should apply to all of those who come into India without papers and documentation and visas. How can the BJP argue this both ways?
It can, because very few outside the fishbowl of politicians and journalists have understood the linkages between the citizenship law and the NRC. The former, without the latter, is politically pointless. And once you join the dots between the two, it's more than clear. Like we saw in Assam, we will all have to prove our Indianness, the poorest among us will be the hardest-hit, and the Muslims among us will be on the very margins.
The eruption in the Northeast, especially in Assam, is a timely reminder to the BJP about how complex a country ours is. The notion of the "outsider" is not just defined by religion alone. In Assam, they want both the Muslims and Bengali Hindus who came in after 1971 to go back. In other parts of the east, there is similar hostility towards the Chakmas. In an area where there are more than 200 indigenous communities, ethnicity, language, and culture are as emotive, and, sometimes more, than religion. For these protesters, the new law overturns the Assam Accord that set the cut off for citizenship at 1971, instead of 2014.
There is also the irony that the BJP, which declared a "One Nation, One Law" principle, while abrogating Kashmir's special status, is unable to apply the citizenship law uniformly to the Northeast and has to create several exemptions. It is a lesson in the governance of India. Saying something in a manifesto is easier than doing it.
And it begs the question. Why do it at all? Why create a crisis from two decades of peace; why fix what isn't broken; why upend the very idea of nationhood that distinguishes India from its neighbours; and why bring religion into who can be Indian or not?
The CAA plus NRC equation will change not just the arithmetic but the very philosophy of India.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author