Asia India's controversial citizenship law a retrograde and regrettable step

India’s controversial citizenship law a retrograde and regrettable step

But in all of Asia, there continues to be differentiation based on race, religion, affiliation

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The BJP-run Indian government’s rather precipitate promulgation of a controversial constitutional amendment that allows non-Muslim refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to acquire Indian citizenship on easier terms has triggered rather strong reactions, including some violent ones, both within and outside India.

The most obnoxious part of this amended law is that it clearly specifies the discriminatory treatment of immigrating Muslims from three countries. As Muslims account for about 15 per cent of India’s own population, this law is insulting to them.

A country that had laudably and laboriously built on the enlightened principles of secularism and diversity seems to have deliberately introduced a superfluous religious element into its revised citizenship provisions. It is a retrograde and regrettable step towards a kind of modish medievalism, peculiar to Mr Narendra Modi’s government. This is undoubtedly an internal matter of India’s and Asia’s astute and ablest leaders have, in the normal course of diplomacy, refrained from commenting on this issue.

Malaysia’s seemingly everlasting Prime Minister has, however, voiced a misinformed view on the subject. To be fair to the nonagenarian, it is essential to recall what he said and the context exactly.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad was approached, as he was standing, on the sidelines of a major summit meeting, by some journalists. One of them raised a question on the amended citizenship provisions.

In his off-the-cuff response, Dr Mahathir said that Malaysia had accepted Indians and Chinese and had given them citizenship even though they did not qualify for citizenship. He also said that the Indian government had deprived some Muslims of their citizenship.
Both the answers, which had not been well thought out, are factually incorrect and inappropriate.

Not all Indians and Chinese in the then Federation of Malaya were granted citizenship in 1957 when the country became independent. There was also never a concession to give citizenship to those who did not qualify. The reality would have been different had that concession been granted. The reality was that as late as the 1980s there were significant numbers of non-indigenous Malaysians who could not become citizens but had permanent resident status.

These permanent residents, most of whom were Malaya-born, were always a step away from full citizenship because of lack of proper documentation, some language disability and, rarely, even suspected disloyalty. As for India, there is no evidence whatsoever that its government had disenfranchised any of its citizen of his or her citizenship on the basis of religion.

As the Prime Minister is of a most advanced age, these inaccuracies of his, in spite of the fact that they made good headlines and denigrated one country’s government and at least two minorities, can be forgiven although it is hard to forget or overlook these things.

Dr Mahathir, in his first term as Prime Minister, fired the imagination of Malaysians with his Vision 2020 which sought to transcend ethnic differentiation.

Its most laudable and principal challenge was the creation of a united Malaysia made up of one Bangsa Malaysia. Challenge Number 5 in his Vision 2020 was that of establishing a matured liberal and tolerant society. With his latest statement on the country’s non-indigenous communities, Dr Mahathir has perhaps provided an unvarnished, true and trite viewpoint of the country’s minorities. The truth is that there is a well-recognised, known unwritten Peninsular Malay-first policy in the country championed by the same leader.

But Malaysia is by no means unique in this regard.

In all of Asia, including the continent’s first First World country, differentiation based on race, religion, affiliation, and other considerations continues to be observed.

In East Asia, North-east Asia, Central, South and South-east Asia, minorities continue to be singled out not only for ethnic, religious and ideological reasons but even because they are noted to be highly successful in business and corporate life, their chosen professions and as taxpayers.

Asia, the cradle of at least two great civilisations, cannot realistically claim this century as theirs if its leaders continue to marginalise, mistrust and mock ( and in extreme cases, mow down) their own minorities in China, India, Japan, the two Koreas, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Myanmar, Russia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Central Asian and West Asian countries. There has been a perceptible decrease in the proportion of minorities in most of these countries. The claim to full, fair and equal citizenship status is an unreachable ideal for minorities in most of these countries.

The truth was that it wasn’t always like this. Transmigration has affected all these Asian countries on account of trade, preaching, calamities affecting some countries, religious affinity and economic reasons. Asia cannot now turn the clock back.

In March and April 1947, the Straits Times of Malaya carried reports of India, then approaching independence, organising with great foresight, the setting up of a permanent Inter-Asian Conference. It would seem that the Indian government had even provided a special aircraft for Sutan Sjahrir, the then Prime Minister of Indonesia, to travel to New Delhi for the conference. The Indonesian delegation included Food Minister Soedarsono and Hadji Agoes Salim, the then Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The intention in 1947 was to set up an “Inter-Asian Council” under the Asian Relations Organisation. It would have included the Philippines, six Soviet Republics, Malaya, Korea, Nepal, Siam, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, China, Burma and Ceylon, as per the Straits Times report of April 3, 1947.

Minorities in all these Asian countries predate this conference and yet such differentiation persists. There is still no sense of a united Asianess.

Nayan Chanda in his eminent book, Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers, and Warriors Shaped Globalisation (Penguin/Viking India, 2007), traces the origin of mankind to a place metaphorically called Duniya (which means “world” in several languages) in Africa and affirms: “The complex process of interconnectedness that has gathered momentum over the course of millennia cannot be halted, nor can its myriad threads be neatly unwound.”

In an increasingly interconnected and globalised world, minorities should not be seen as a disruptive or destructive force but should be viewed as communities that can contribute positively to the world’s rich diversity and development.

M Santhananaban

Dato’ M Santhananaban is a retired Malaysian ambassador with more than 45 years of public sector experience. 

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Independent Singapore. /TISG

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