CAA Protests: Citizenship Law And Religious Minorities in South Asia

The CAA is discriminatory and links the right to citizenship to one’s religion, which is against the norms of the Indian Constitution. — PTI



AT THE START of January, two disturbing events were reported from Pakistan. One was the attack on Nankana Sahib, the holy shrine where Sant Guru Nanak was born. One report said the place was desecrated, while the other stated it was essentially a fight between two Muslim groups. Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned the incident and the main accused Imran Chishti was arrested. The matter related to abduction and conversion of a Sikh girl Jagjit Kaur, daughter of Pathi — one who reads Holy Guru Granth Sahib in Gurudwara.

In another incident, Sikh youth Ravinder Singh who was out on shopping for his marriage was shot dead in Peshawar. While these condemnable attacks on the Sikh minority took place in Pakistan, the BJP here was quick to jump to conclusion that these events justified the introduction of the new Citizenship law, the CAA.

Fact is, the CAA is discriminatory and links the right to citizenship to one’s religion, which is against the norms of the Indian Constitution. There are debates and propaganda that the population of Hindus has come down drastically in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Home minister Amit Shah stated that, in Pakistan, the population of Hindus has come down from 23 per cent at the time of Partition to 3.7 per cent now; and that, in Bangladesh, it has come down from 22 per cent to present 8 per cent.

While not denying that the religious minorities are getting a rough deal in both these countries, the figures presented are wide of the mark. These figures don’t take into consideration the painful migrations, which took place after Partition and formation of Bangladesh a quarter of a century later. 

Pakistan’s census figures tell a different tale. Its first census was held in 1951. As per this, the overall percentage of non-Muslims in Pakistan (East and West together) was 14.2 per cent. Of this, West Pakistan (now Pakistan) had a share of 3.44 and Eat Pakistan (now Bangladesh) a share of 23.2. In the census held in Pakistan in 1998, non-Muslims were of 3.72 per cent. As far as Bangladesh is concerned, the share of non-Muslims has gone down from 23.2 per cent (1951) to 9.6 per cent in 2011.

The largest minority of Pakistan is Ahmadis, ( who are close to 4 million and are not recognised as Muslims there. The major migrations of Hindus from Bangladesh took place in the backdrop of the Pakistan army’s atrocities in the then East Pakistan.

As per UN data on refugees in India, their number went up by 17 per cent between 2016 and 2019, and the largest numbers were from Tibet and Sri Lanka.  (

The state of minorities is, in a way, the index of the strength of a democracy. Most South Asian countries have not been able to sustain democratic values in a laudable manner. In Pakistan, the Republic began with Jinnah’s classic speech wherein secularism was to be the central credo of the new nation. The August 11 speech was what the state policy should be, as per which people of all faiths are free to practise their religion.

Soon enough, the logic of ‘two-nation theory” sprouted, followed by the formation of Pakistan, a separate state for Muslims. The Army stepped in and its dictatorship was interspersed with rule by elected governments there. Democratic elements were suppressed and the worst came when Zia Ul Haq Islamised the state in collusion with the Maulanas. The army was already a strong presence in Pakistan. The popular formulation for Pakistan was that it is ruled by three A’s — Army, America and Allah (Mullah).

Bangladesh had a different trajectory. Its very formation was like striking a nail on the coffin of the ‘two nation theory’; that, religion can be the basis of a state. Bangladesh did begin as a secular republic but communal forces and secular forces kept struggling for their dominance. In 1988, it also became Islamic republic.

At another level, Myanmar, in the grip of military dictatorship, with democratic elements trying to retain their presence, is also seeing a hard battle. Democracy or not, the army and the Sanghas (Buddhist Sang Has) are strong in Myanmar. The most visible result is persecution of the Rohingya Muslims.

A similar phenomenon is seen in Sri Lanka also where Budhhist Sanghas and the army have strong say in political affairs, irrespective of as to which  government is ruling there. Muslim and Christian minorities are victimised there, while Tamils (Hindus, Christians etc.) suffered the worst damage as ethnic and religious minorities. India had the best prospect of democracy, with pluralism and secularism flourishing here. The secular Constitution, the outcome of India’s freedom struggle, the leadership of Gandhi and Nehru did ensure democracy and secularism took strong roots here in a strong way.

India so far had best democratic credentials among all the south Asian countries. Despite this, though the population of minorities rose here, they are facing the serious problems of poverty and illiteracy. As a result, their overall marginalisation has been the order of the day. The scenario went on worsening with the rise of the communal forces, with these forces resorting to identity politics, and indulging in a propaganda war against sections of the minorities.

While other South Asian countries followed India in the past, to focus more on infrastructure and to promote a political culture of liberalism, today India is following the footsteps of Pakistan. The retrograde march of India is most visible in issues that have dominated political space during the last few years. Issues like Ram Temple, Ghar Wapasi, Love Jihad and Beef-Cow have worked the minds of some sections of the political spectrum, to reach a peak in CAA.

India’s reversal towards a polity with religion as identity dominating the political scene was nicely presented by the late Pakistani poetess Fahmida Riaz in her poem, Tum bhi Hum Jaise Nikle (You also turned out to be like us). While resisting communal forces has been an arduous task, it is becoming more difficult as time passes. This phenomenon has been variously called Fundamentalism, Communalism or Religious Nationalism. Surely, it has nothing to do with the religion as practised by the great Saint and Sufi traditions of India; it resorts mainly to political mobilization by using religion as a tool.


Ram Puniyani is an eminent author, activist and former professor of IIT Mumbai. The views are personal and Caravan Daily does not necessarily share or subscribe to them.


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