The BJP finally managed to fulfill their 2014 campaign promise of giving citizenship status to some Hindus and other minority refugees fleeing religious persecution from Pakistan and Bangladesh, along with Afghanistan, but violent protests in many states in India this week, suggest the battle to get the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAB) implemented, is far from over. The issue is likely to end up being settled legally in the Supreme Court.
The measure was approved by India’s Parliament in a final vote on Wednesday. President Ram Nath Kovind gave his seal of approval on Thursday. Its passage marks the latest political victory for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Act, amending the Citizenship Act of 1955, intends to give a path to Indian citizenship to illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who entered India on or before 31 December 2014.
The Act also seeks to relax the requirement of residence in India for citizenship by naturalization from 11 years to 5 years for these migrants. Reports said that immediate beneficiaries of the bill will be just over 30,000 people.
Critics say the Act will be detrimental to many states, especially in the Northeast, where the demography will change with the influx of migrants from Bangladesh, and India’s goal of deporting illegal immigrants from neighboring countries would be hard to follow through.
After the National Register of Citizens was updated in Assam earlier this year, it left out 1.9 million residents, a majority of whom were Hindus, without citizenship. The CAB would give relief to these residents, a move that the ethnic Assamese say would destroy their heritage and culture in the years to come, said media reports.
Some Muslims also protested against the law as it does not give the same rights to citizenship as members of other faiths, a move critics say undermines the secular constitution of India.
Opposition parties who vehemently oppose CAB say the law is discriminatory as it singles out Muslims, who make up nearly 15 percent of population. The government says that Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are Muslim-majority countries, so Muslims cannot be treated as persecuted minorities.
The law, critics say, also does not clarify why minority migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan are favored over those fleeing Sri Lanka, China and Myanmar from where minority Muslims have sought refuge in India.
The law has been challenged in India’s Supreme Court by a Muslim political party, lawyers and rights groups on the grounds that it violates the secular constitution.
The citizenship bill is “the first legal articulation that India is, you might say, a homeland for Hindus,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of India’s most prominent political scientists. Mehta believes the measure violates the Indian constitution, which guarantees equal rights before the law to all people within the country.
To name specific religious communities in the law is “nothing else but sending a signal,” said Mehta. “The signal is that Muslims are not on the same footing” as others in India.
Modi and his second-in-command, Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah, have said the measure is necessary to offer refuge to persecuted religious minorities. Proponents say India owes a moral responsibility to such communities who have faced severe hardship and even violence.
After the measure passed on Wednesday, Modi wrote that it was a “landmark day for India and our nation’s ethos of compassion and brotherhood.” He said the bill would “alleviate the suffering of many who faced persecution for years.”
The heated debate in Parliament over the citizenship measure repeatedly raked up India’s original trauma, the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. While Pakistan was founded as a home for the region’s Muslims, India defined itself in opposition to the idea that religion was the basis of nationhood.
The bill runs counter to India’s “foundational values,” Anand Sharma, a leader of the opposition Congress party, said in Parliament on Wednesday. “It hurts the soul of India.”
One of the effects of Modi’s new citizenship measure would be to help those left off the list of citizens in Assam – provided they are not Muslims. In September, Mohan Bhagwat, the leader of RSS, the ideological parent of the ruling party BJP, reportedly assured politicians that “no Hindu” would be expelled from the country.
“We have to distinguish between the infiltrators and genuine persecuted refugees,” said Sudhanshu Trivedi, a spokesman for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. “This is the right time for India to assert its security concerns, because we are living with neighbors which are the biggest security threats in the entire world.” He said the three countries mentioned in the legislation – Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan – were “theocratic states.”
As the citizenship legislation moved closer to a final vote, the furor around it grew. Hundreds of prominent scientists and scholars issued public letters to express their opposition.
In India’s northeast, violent protests broke out against the measure. In some areas, local authorities requested help from the Indian army, shut down mobile internet access and imposed curfews. States such as Assam have long witnessed tensions surrounding the arrival of Bengali-speaking migrants from neighboring Bangladesh, who locals fear will alter their culture and take away jobs.
“There is a lot of anger since we have already absorbed so many people,” said Madhurjya Baruah, 32, a lawyer in Guhawati, the capital of Assam. “After making everyone in the state prove their citizenship, you are saying you will accept recent immigrants. Whatever religion they may be, we are not going to accept it.”
Opponents of the new citizenship law have vowed to challenge its constitutionality. But India’s Supreme Court has demonstrated that it is reluctant to rule in an expeditious manner on such challenges, particularly when they involve the policy priorities of the government.
India is also facing criticism from a federal commission in the US, which has condemned the CAB and Shah.
“If the CAB passes in both houses of parliament, the United States government should consider sanctions against the Home Minister and other principal leadership,” The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a press statement, this week. “The CAB enshrines a pathway to citizenship for immigrants that specifically excludes Muslims, setting a legal criterion for citizenship based on religion. The CAB is a dangerous turn in the wrong direction.”
The U.S. commission’s statement was “neither accurate nor warranted,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs said. “The Bill provides expedited consideration for Indian citizenship to persecuted religious minorities already in India from certain contiguous countries. It seeks to address their current difficulties and meet their basic human rights,” the ministry’s spokesman Raveesh Kumar said in a statement.
If the bill becomes law, India’s tradition of secularism and pluralism could crumble, said Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Washington-based Wilson Center, who has closely researched India’s politics over the past decade, comparing it with Myanmar’s discriminatory law based on ethnicity introduced in the 1980s.
“What happened in subsequent decades in Myanmar — particularly the horrors of the massacres of the Rohingya — underscore just how destructive these types of discriminatory citizenship laws can be for marginalized communities,” said Kugelman.
The bill has evoked both strident support and sharp censure, sparking protests around India, with lawyers working overtime to help millions at risk of being left stateless in the world’s largest democracy.
The hashtag #CitizenshipAmendmentBill2019 was trending on Twitter in India. On Tuesday morning more than 88,000 people had tweeted about the bill, with many supporting the government and others calling it an attack on the country’s secular traditions.
(With inputs from Reuters, Bloomberg and The Washington Post)