History Repeats Itself, And Rhymes

Excerpted from a talk at The Jewish Centre, Kean University, New Jersey.


The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019, now an Act, changes the definition of citizenship that the Indian constitution of 1947 laid out. The Citizenship Act seeks to amend the definition of illegal immigrant for Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist, Jain, and Christian immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, who have lived in India without documentation. They will be granted fast-track Indian citizenship in six years. So far 12 years of residence had been the standard eligibility requirement for naturalization. An earlier version of the bill had also declared 11 years as the minimum time for naturalization.

Read the original version of the Bill here:
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 
If the above link doesn’t work: Citizenship (A) Bill, 2019 as passed by LS.pdf

The Government’s Position

The legislation applies to those who were “forced or compelled to seek shelter in India due to persecution on the ground of religion”. It aims to protect such people from proceedings of illegal migration. The cut-off date for citizenship is December 31, 2014 which means the applicant should have entered India on or before that date. Indian citizenship, under present law, is given either to those born in India or if they have resided in the country for a minimum of 11 years. This now comes down to six years. Those seeking shelter against religious persecution must be granted citizenship and now they can become naturalized citizens in six years.
The Government is also insisting that the CAA 2019 not be combined with the NRC.

Points to Ponder

  1. Those who are being politically persecuted, Tibetans in Tibet, for example, do not come within the purview of the Act.
  2. The Act covers religious persecution only.
  3. Those who are victims of religious persecution in Sri Lanka or Myanmar do not fall under this act although the horrors they are suffering are as monstrous.
  4. If the idea is to protect people from persecution, why include some people and leave out others. The justification for this is difficult to understand.

Why else is the CAA discriminatory:
This is the first time that religion has been made a condition of citizenship in India.
Government oriented policy makers are saying that this is allowed by the constitution because it is not prohibited. Harish Salve’s YouTube video makes this claim.
The conversations and written documents through 1950 when the Indian constitution was formally adopted clearly proves one thing: religion was not to be the basis on which Indian citizenship was to be granted. The founding fathers and mothers of the constitution clearly moved away from that position through debate and discussion.

Why the CAA is problematic for the northeast Indian States:
People in the northeast states of India like Assam are protesting because the new clause of giving refuge to non-Muslims can mean that the north east is flooded with more people.
The CAA 2019 also goes against the spirit of NRC.
Protesters say CAB will make NRC redundant and bestow citizenship on illegal immigrants.
The NRC had come about as a response to Assam Accord of 1985 and the date of entry for legal citizens was March 1971.
Now the CAA has changed it to 2014. While AGP claims that Clause VI of Assam Accord will protect them, the other states of the North east remain at risk.


What is the NRC?
The National Register of Citizens is more directly connected with Indian citizenship. It came into prominence in 1985 in Assam. Assam’s porous borders with Bangladesh has been a source of migrant laborers and Illegal immigrants and as part of the Assam accord, the NRC was signed to identify legal citizens of India.
The NRC has already started in Assam.

Recently, the government has also announced that very soon they will bring National Register of Citizenship (NRC) all over India.

This means that every citizen of India will have to PROVE that they are citizens and not illegal immigrants using documentary evidence.

How will the people prove citizenship?
You cannot use Aadhar cards (a recent identification document on which a lot of national and local energy was spent), voter ids or tax documents but the emphasis is on birth certificates, school leaving certificates and property documents are more important. Tracing your ancestry is of paramount importance.
The government will set up a cut off year and we will have to prove that our ancestors lived/owned property or were born in India before that cut off year. That’s what happened in Assam.
This stage will be most difficult because documents in India are not kept safely and it is almost impossible to get 60-year-old documents – some burnt in fires, some lost in floods, some just not traceable.
For the largely illiterate population and semi-literate population of India, coming up with so many documents and then archiving them over time is an onerous task.

What CAB and NRC in combination means:
If you are Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and cannot access or find the documents, you become illegal immigrant under NRC but because of CAA you will get citizenship anyway. Well you will, after jumping through a few more and different hoops. There is a complexity here which we will discuss in a bit.
But, if you are Muslim, you lose land rights and voting rights immediately. Now you are property-less, vote-less and country-less. Where do you live? Well, the govt will be constructing detention camps. Also, they cannot get jobs or move to other countries because they are now passport-less.
The widespread student protest across India is happening to raise voices against this notion of India where the idea of giving shelter is being legalized through categories and communities.

Take the NRC Test

This test is difficult to pass even for people like me who have had Indian passports for several years.
So, the citizenship rules clearly targets low income groups who cannot own property so easily.
Eventually, it is the vulnerable population and the marginalized who will be affected.
Women will be affected more than men because is this marginalized sectors, women will have less access to paperwork and identificatory mechanisms.

Points to Ponder:

  1. Let it be noted here that the National Register of Citizenship changes the basic understanding of citizenship. Whereas, citizenship in a democracy is seen as a contract between the state and its residents, it is now being converted into a privilege. All residents are supplicants who have to apply for their citizenship, migrancy or not. Citizenship and ownership of property have greater links than before.
  2. More importantly, citizenship is to be proved on the basis of documents. That these citizenship documents are excessive and unrepresentative was clearly proved by the NRC exercise in Assam. Asking for birth certificates rather than aadhar cards, pan cards, and voter id cards is like deliberately setting up an examination where your students will fail.
  3. A staggering number: nineteen lakh people were left out of the NRC, not because they were not citizens but because they did not have the documents required to prove their legal status. The finance minister of Assam had declared that he does not accept the NRC. This happened in 2018.
  4. Could the CAA be seen as another attempt on the part of the Central Government to appease the state government of Assam? The appeasement is clear: if you are Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Jain, or Buddhist you can now use other documents and pleas to become a naturalized citizen and you can do so on a fast track.


Claim/Myth: The bill will save people from religious persecution

Discussions leading up to the passage of the Bill will clarify the stance of the Government. A constitutional expert in the joint parliamentary committee which examined the bill and submitted a report earlier in 2019 had suggested that the government should “omit reference to religions like Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis etc” and use the general term “persecuted minorities” – which would be “more useful from the legal and constitutional point of view”. However, the government stuck to arbitrarily listing communities from just three neighboring countries rather than framing a consistent policy. This has much to do with its ideological work and the monolithic vision of a “Hindu rashtra” which must exclude Muslim minorities.

Claim/Myth: The bill offers protectionism to disenfranchised migrants

The protectionism does not include other neighbors of India like Sri Lanka and Myanmar. The Tamils of Sri Lanka as well as the Rohingya of Myanmar have suffered genocide in the past decade. This omission has raised the most urgent questions. The ideological net closes in.

Claim/Myth: A large number of Hindus will be helped

Precisely. But only those Hindus who do not have the difficult documents to pass the NRC test. The NRC debacle of 2018 saw a large number of Hindus were left out of the register. Amongst members of the same family, some were excluded, and others were included. Except and this is the complexity I had alluded to earlier, earlier the residents had to prove themselves Indian; now, for CAA they have to prove religious persecution.
How will this loophole be plugged?

Over the next few days, there will be more legal interpretations of this Act and what it means for the Indian constitution. I am not a legal expert and I cannot give you detailed legal interpretations.

Form your own critique.

What I can do with my background in literature and cultural studies and a professor of literature and politics is analyze two things:
(1) interpret who is speaking, when, and why
(2) examine the ideological moment which is being recreated around the nation, constitution, and democracy

The only thing I want to refer in the first case is the juncture at which we are speaking.
India is undergoing a deep economic crisis; there is a huge upsurge in rape cases against women. The current government has come in with a large majority and if they wanted to overhaul the economic system and make some impactful changes, this would be the time. Instead, they decide to save the persecuted people of certain nations around India. Pakistan has 1500 Buddhists, the number of Parsis and Jains will be even less in Bangladesh. Persecuted Christians in Afghanistan will find other more heavyweight rescuers.

Why now? Why this?
The BJP, the party in power, showed tremendous enthusiasm for the NRC in Assam.
Assam is particularly plagued by the problem of illegal immigrants as are the many states of the north east.
When the BJP ran the NRC in Assam with a clear view to winnow out Muslims, they were shocked to find out that over half the people who didn’t have the paperwork to prove their citizenship turned out to be Hindus.
The BJP finance minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, has rejected the NRC, along with the Home Minister, Amit Shah, he has demanded a new nationwide NRC under which Assam would be surveyed again.
The CAA can be interpreted as a circuitous route to give shelter to those residents who did not make it through the NRC regulations.
(The complexity remains; those who had to prove themselves Indian citizens, would now have to prove that they have been persecuted on religious grounds in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Bangladesh.)

This brings me to my second point—the ideological work performed by the CAA and NRC together has striking similarities with the German state of 1930s. While the legal mechanisms being used is different, Hitler’s plan of invading the neighboring countries was also justified through the narrative of protecting German minorities in neighboring countries. Laws, policies, justifications were lined up to explain invasion in Austria and Sudetenland and acquisition of “trustee rights” in their Danubian client states.

Hitler travelling to Sudetenland amidst hope and fear. 


The historical moment I want to focus on:

On September 15, 1935, at a party rally in Nuremberg, the Nazis had announced two new laws related to German citizenship which required that all citizens have German “blood”. As a result, Jews and others lost their rights to citizenship, which not only stripped them of the right to vote but also made them stateless. This meant that they could not get a valid passport for travel between countries or acquire a visa to leave Germany.

The second law had to do with German blood as well as honor: “Moved by the understanding that purity of German blood is the essential condition for the continued existence of the German people, and inspired by the inflexible determination to ensure the existence of the German nation for all time, the Reichstag has unanimously adopted the following law, which is promulgated herewith.”(Evans) You can also find direct representation of the law in the German government documents.

The similarity of the present juncture with the Nuremberg laws is unmistakable. These laws deprived the Jewish of their German citizenship, converting them into mere subjects of the nation.

It has been argued by WW2 historians that the reason that the German citizenry was quiet was because Hitler had reduced unemployment; the Indian economy has not even that to show for itself.

Violence was a crucial tool of the Nazi government, but its leaders were also eager to show that they were acting within the framework of the law. Can it be safely concluded then that authoritarian leaders across decades use the framework of the law to hang their oppressive policies and discriminatory intentions?

Prime Minister Modi has described the passage of the legislation as a “landmark day for India and our nation’s ethos of compassion and brotherhood.”
The brotherhood of Modi’s India clearly does not extend to persecuted Muslims.
These exclusions tell us that the suffering of the Rohingyas, Sri Lankan Tamils, Shiyas, or Ahmediyas does not matter to the Indian state.

Akin to German policies in the 1930s, the objects of moral concern for the national community help articulate a racialized conception of the nation – the Hindu Rashtra. This is the kind of reshaping of the national imagination that is happening in India today and with the manufactured consent among a large number of people.

What is a nation and who is Indian?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi champions a hardline brand of Hindu nationalism known as Hindutva, which aims to define Indian culture in terms of Hindu history and values, and which promotes an exclusionary attitude toward Muslims.

The history of Hindutva is tied up with the extremist organization RSS whose notion of “Hindu rashtra” (nation) is being backed by the Prime Minister and his close associates including the Home Minister Amit Shah.

The RSS were banned an organization after their members were guilty of killing Mahatma Gandhi; they wheedled their way back in because of huge majoritarian support and this is the most political power that they have ever had in the history of independent India. Their grassroot organization through shakhas is very well knit and their aim is to have a nation based on Hindutva.

If, a solution has to come, it is this group (set up around the same time Nazi party and derives most of its ideologies from Germany and Italy of the 1920s and 1930s) which has to be abolished and their ideals that have to be exposed for what they are: xenophobic and extremist, and fueling only hatred.


The Indian Constitution is a fantastic legal-juridical document which in the right hands has given the nation 70 years of independent sovereignty.

You cannot name another country in Asia or Africa that has been colonized for as long and had come out of it as unscathed. Economically, too, we could have done much better but with the British draining the resources on a daily basis, the recovery would have taken time. In all other ways, remaining a non aligned state, India has been able to fulfill its democratic obligations in more ways than most other countries in the region with the same imperial history. What is to be credited for this is the Constitution.

It is with some pride that I must say, that the legal machinations and manipulations are required today at this critical juncture because the Indian Constitution is a substantial document. These and many more Constitutional revisions will be required before the country succumbs to right wing xenophobia.

It is that Constitution that is under threat.

I am here to speak to you in order to raise awareness and request you to spread awareness amongst the international community.

The point is not to judge protest movements and issue travel advisories against the North east; even Jersey city is not safe to walk through any more.

The help required is to ensure that the 1930s Germany are not echoed anywhere in the world.

The American Olympic team had visited Germany before the 1936 Olympic Games and did not find anything unusual about Jewish athletes not being allowed in German clubs.

Avery Brundage of the AOC had commented on similar laws being prevalent in his home town Chicago.

The mass scale torture of the Jewish people would not have been possible without widespread racism against the Jews.

This is the kind of ideological convergence that we do not want in contemporary global contexts.

Right wing, conservative thought is dominating UK, US, India, Brazil, China, Turkey—almost half the globe—the point is to see ways in which we are complicit and challenge it.


Excerpted from a talk at The Jewish Centre, Kean University, New Jersey.

Author Bio
Debjani Banerjee teaches at New Jersey Institute of Technology. She works in the area of South Asian literature and nationalism and has written on South Asian women writers and film makers including Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee and Mira Nair. She holds a PhD from State University of New York at Stony Brook. She has taught English literature, writing and creative writing at various places including Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore, Rutgers University, New Jersey, and IISC, Bangalore. She is a life long BWWer. She has also translated several books including The Nectar of Life, Quotations from the Prose Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, The Penguin Guide to Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Redefining Nationhood
For Indian writers writing in English, this is a tumultuous time to be alive. Politically and culturally speaking, a lot is happening in our nation today. And these posts are our attempt to decipher, understand, and explore the concept of nationhood. Our writing is a celebration of what it means to belong to a nation that is as diverse and pluralistic as India is. And in this attempt, if we persuade people away from propaganda, we might have just created literature.
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