Academics oppose bill discriminating against Muslims

More than 1,200 scientists and scholars from India, in joint statements, voiced opposition to the contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill, passed on Wednesday, which seeks to fast-track citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan if they faced religious persecution there.

Scientists and research scholars from institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences in Bengaluru, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Indian Statistical Institute, and different Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, as well as international institutions such as Harvard University, University of Chicago, University of Toronto, Nikhef in Amsterdam and the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics signed a statement opposing the bill.

But the bill was voted into law by MPs.

Speaking before the vote, Union Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah said the bill corrected a historic blunder, referring to the day that “partition was done on religious lines”. He argued that a 1950 bilateral agreement with Pakistan to safeguard the rights of minorities was not being observed.

He said India followed the agreement’s principles. But he questioned if this has happened in the three neighbouring countries. “Hence, the law is needed,” he said.

By contrast, Indian National Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi said the passage of the bill marks the victory of narrow-minded and bigoted forces.

“Today marks a dark day in the constitutional history of India. The bill fundamentally challenges the idea of India that our forefathers fought for and, in its place, creates a disturbed, distorted and divided India where religion will become a determinant of nationhood,” she said in a statement.

The scholars said while they supported the avowed objective of giving refuge to persecuted non-Muslim minorities from neighbouring countries, they found it deeply distressing that the proposed legislation uses religion as a legal determinant of Indian citizenship. They said the bill challenged the basic premise of the constitution that in India people of all faiths should be treated equally.

In their statement, the scientists argued that the “use of religion as a criterion for citizenship” would be a “radical break” with the idea of independent, post-colonial India.

The scholars said India has always treated people of all faiths fairly and the deliberate exclusion of Muslims from the ambit of the proposed legislation is inconsistent with the basic structure of the constitution and will damage the pluralistic foundation of the country.

‘Intended to marginalise Muslims’

Abhishodh Prakash of the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS) in Bengaluru, one of the signatories to the petition, said after the Citizenship Amendment Bill was passed in the lower house that it was clearly intended to further a concerted effort to marginalise and disenfranchise the Muslim community in the country. The danger was clear and present and requires urgent action, he said.

“We did the best we could by putting out the statement opposing the bill,” he said.

He added: “Science thrives in an environment of freedom and openness. This bill significantly threatens that.”

Another signatory, Suvrat Raju, also of the ICTS, said: “We were deeply troubled by the discriminatory aspects of this proposed legislation. Apart from being academics, we are also citizens. So we felt it was our responsibility to speak out and make our disagreement clear.

“Second, we feel that this statement is also important for the message it sends within academia. Members of the academic community come from all faiths and persuasions. So we would like to emphasise to our own colleagues that we value this diversity and disagree with the government’s discriminatory policies.”

A day after nearly 1,200 scholars expressed their dismay over the Citizenship Bill, another group of about 800 academics and intellectuals, including noted historians Ramachandra Guha and Romila Thapar, issued a separate statement opposing the bill.

The statement of appeal by 625 signatories pointed out that the bill would destroy the inclusive, composite character of India that guided the country’s freedom struggle and would fundamentally change the character of the Indian republic.

‘Attempt to exclude Muslims’

For the first time since the founding of our free and secular republic, the bill makes religion the key to citizenship. For the first time, there is an attempt, by statute, to exclude Muslims from the ambit of amnesty and citizenship – for no reason other than their religion, the statement emphasised.

The signatories said that, if religious oppression was the reasoning presented in the bill, then why were refugees such as Rohingyas from Myanmar or Hindu or Muslim Tamils from Sri Lanka or Ahmadis from Pakistan excluded.

The students and faculty of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Bangalore had urged members of parliament (MPs) not to support the bill when it came up for the vote in parliament. They said the bill denies equality before the law without consideration of religious beliefs.

Associate Professor Dr Deepak Malghan, who was one of the signatories, said the legislation is a major departure from the fundamental founding principles of India as it grants citizenship based on one’s religious identity.

World-renowned scientists and scholars have signed a petition opposing the bill, Malghan said. The bill must be opposed by all who believe in the country’s constitution, he added.

A research scholar at IIM Bangalore said the bill violates constitutional values and is illogical and undemocratic.

Soon after the bill was cleared by the Lok Sabha at midnight of December 10, student communities from across the country erupted in protest and condemned the MPs for supporting the bill. Students from New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia hit the streets to show their displeasure with the bill.

The Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) said the bill was communal and unconstitutional. The JNU students had recently organised protests to oppose their fee hike and were allegedly brutally baton-charged by the police. Undeterred, they have now come out in opposition to the bill.

Twelve students from Delhi University’s North East Students’ Association Cell of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, which is the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, quit their group in protest against the bill, saying the bill was against the state of Assam.

The Ambedkar Students’ Association at the University of Hyderabad said the government claims the proposed legislation aims to give shelter to oppressed minorities but in reality it is a vengeful act, further marginalising Muslims.