February 26th 2020 – House of Lords debate on India’s new citizenship laws
A great country should stay true to its foundation principles.
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
My Lords, as India celebrated its Republic Day on 26 January, marking the 70th year since the ratification of the Indian constitution in 1950, my noble friend’s compelling speech and welcome debate are extremely well timed. However, a disturbing counterpoint to those celebrations has been in evidence on the streets of that great country—the world’s largest democracy. India’s founding fathers—Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Subhas Chandra Bose and Vallabhbhai Patel—who steered their new nation in the direction of democracy to ensure that it was not destroyed by sectarianism, casteism and authoritarianism, would surely be aghast to see people all over India protesting against a draconian law that is communal and unconstitutional in its nature: the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 and the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens.
Dr Ambedkar, the father of India’s constitution, warned Indians against
“any competitive loyalty whether that loyalty arises out of our religion, out of our culture or out of our language. I want all people to be Indians first, Indian last, and nothing else but Indians.”
He wisely said that:
“Constitution is not a mere lawyers document, it is a vehicle of Life, and its spirit is always the spirit of Age.”
Tragically, today’s Government are living by different principles and a different spirit, stoking fear among all quarters of society across the country. There have been reports of numerous arrests, excessive use of force by the police, and deaths as a result of these protests.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Act is in itself discriminatory, isolating Muslims, including Rohingya, Ahmadiyya and Shias, and other minorities from participating in nation building. On Sunday 17 February, I was concerned to see a headline in the Sunday Telegraph: “Christians in the Firing Line”. This is an ancient community that dates back to 52 AD. Taken together with the National Register of Citizens, it is abundantly clear that both measures will have far-reaching implications for all sections of the community, right across the nation, in the only place that they can call home.
With the launch of these unreasonable and extreme benchmarks for citizenship, many who do not possess the necessary documents to prove their citizenship risk facing statelessness and immeasurable suffering in detention centres, and an imminent unsettled future. Right across India, this will not only burden millions who are already suffering extreme hardship but will set them aside from the rest of society—as if there are not already too many existing barriers preventing citizens from being
“Indians first, Indian last, and nothing else but Indians.”
The minority population of India comprises approximately 20% of the total, a large percentage of whom are economically poor and socially excluded. With the CAA/NRC policy in place, large swathes of Indian society will become outsiders and more vulnerable than ever.
The preamble to the Constitution of India opens with the words:
“We, the people of India”.
It does not say, in words which could have been crafted by today’s Government, “We, the documented people of India”. Ambedkar’s constitution was never intended to discriminate between Indian citizens on the basis of their religion. This law not only discriminates against Muslims but diminishes a Muslim person’s value in society, inevitably exposing the community to further prejudice.
The promotion of majoritarian communalism, based on anti-minority rhetoric, has been evident since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power. Since 2019, after taking office for a second term, the party’s leadership has thrown caution and wisdom to the wind. This has emboldened others. Attacks have been perpetrated by non-state actors, such as cadres of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The RSS is closely connected to the ruling party, as well as commanding influence over the police in many parts of the country. That endangers public trust in the impartiality, independence and objectivity of the police, which is dangerous for any society. There have been widespread reports of attacks on the freedom of worship, religion or belief; hate speech; mob lynchings; targeted violence against the Dalit and tribal communities; assassinations and attempted assassinations of journalists and human rights defenders; and infringements of freedom of expression against those who raise their voices in dissent against such rank injustice. Anyone who questions the policies of the Government risks being labelled an “anti-national” and being subjected to harassment and brutal attack by nationalistic groups. The unprecedented attack on students at the Nehru University on 5 January by a large mob of unidentified assailants armed with stones and sticks was just one shocking example of the shrinking space for public dissent against such injustice. It gave force to Nehru’s own remark:
“The only alternative to coexistence is codestruction”.
Great Britain’s long-standing relationship with India is hugely significant and does not always reflect well on us, but it is precisely because we must all learn from the past that we should not hold back in our own times when we see human dignity and diversity at risk. Relationships between states must be woven into an explicit understanding that democratic values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, foundational ideals to nation-building, must be preserved, protected and promoted at all costs.
At a time when hate and intolerance are so much in evidence in many parts of the world, often fanned by xenophobic agendas, we must as India’s good friend urge its Government not to abandon the high ideals of its constitution.