By 11 December, both houses of Parliament had passed the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2019. The CAB excludes members of six communities—Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian—from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh, from being treated as illegal immigrants, if they entered India on or before 31 December 2014. The bill eases the requirements for them to gain Indian citizenship. Notably, illegal Muslim migrants from these countries will not be entitled to the benefits under the bill, and will continue to be considered illegal immigrants.
Observers have commented that the CAB is possibly a precursor to a nationwide implementation of the National Register of Citizens, in order to identify and expel illegal immigrants. Since non-Muslim illegal migrants would be able to avail Indian citizenship through the CAB, it would in effect leave only Muslims vulnerable to expulsion from the country.
On 10 December, after the Lok Sabha passed the bill, the human-rights activist Harsh Mander made an announcement on Twitter. “If CAB is passed, this is my civil disobedience: I will officially register Muslim,” he wrote. “I will then refuse to submit any documents to NRC. I will finally demand the same punishment as any undocumented Muslim- detention centre & withdrawn citizenship. Join this civil disobedience.”
Later that day, Abhimanyu Chandra, a PhD student at the University of Chicago, met Mander in New Delhi. They discussed Mander’s announcement, the possibility of him garnering wider support, and the sexualised nature of the hate messages that he was receiving in response. Mander believed that the CAB was breaking not only “the central values of the freedom struggle or the Constitution,” but also the legacy of the Indian civilisation, a “civilisation that was so comfortable with welcoming people of different faiths and identities,” he said. “I do hope that that older civilisational legacy will assert itself in this moment of crisis.”
Abhimanyu Chandra: On the concept of civil disobedience, how do you see this playing out? Is this a solution to the problem that you are trying to address?
Harsh Mander: I feel that the only thing we can do to resist is to adopt forms of civil disobedience. In my practice of civil disobedience, I have learnt most of all from Mahatma Gandhi. What Mahatma Gandhi taught us was that if there is an unjust law, you should first publicly break it. And then not just accept, but demand the consequences in terms of punishment. So it’s not simply enough to say, “I am ready for consequences,” you have to tell the state, “Now that I have publicly broken your law, either you do away with that law or you punish me. You can’t not punish me and not do away with the law.” That is the frame within which this struggle has to happen.