The protests over India’s Citizenship Amendment Act


Author: Arun R Swamy, University of Guam

In February, US President Donald Trump’s state visit to India was marred by reports of sectarian violence between Hindu mobs and residents of Muslim neighbourhoods in Delhi. Within days, dozens were dead in the latest round of conflict that has swept across India since the passage of the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) on 9 December 2019.

Supporters of India's main opposition Congress party shout slogans during a protest against inflation in Ahmedabad, India, 2 March 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Amit Dave).

The CAA, combined with the earlier National Register of Citizens (NRC), brought to a head simmering tensions over the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) efforts to identify Indian nationhood more closely with Hindu cultural and religious identity.

The CAA is ostensibly intended to make it easier for refugees fleeing religious persecution in neighbouring countries to apply for Indian citizenship by reducing the application waiting period. But it is highly selective about which countries and religions are eligible for accelerated treatment.

Only non-Muslim minorities from Muslim majority neighbours — Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan — are eligible. Religious minorities in China, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka — many of whom have sought refuge in India — are not. Moreover, the religious groups entitled to claim on the grounds of religious oppression in these three countries are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians. The Act conspicuously omits minority Muslim communities, such as Ahmadis and Sufis, who experience discrimination in Pakistan.

The NRC adds to the controversy. This was originally aimed at deleting putative illegal immigrants from Bangladesh from the voter rolls in the northeastern state of Assam.

In the 1980s, Assam experienced a violent agitation with citizens demanding the expulsion of Bengali speakers from Bangladesh. Protestors were concerned about the changing electoral balance between the Assamese and outsiders. Indian-born Bengalis could not be legally excluded from Assam, so the formal demand was to identify alleged illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Since these people could be either Muslim or Hindu, the Assam protestors did not draw a sharp distinction at the time, although Bengali Muslims bore the brunt of the violence.

Over the following decades, one government after another promised to remove illegal immigrants from the Assam voter rolls, but none did. Finally, a BJP national government amended the Citizenship Act in 2003 to, among other things, create the NRC. But the BJP lost power in 2004 and was in opposition for ten years. The issue remained dormant until a Supreme Court ruling in 2013 and the BJP’s return to power in 2014.

The implementation of the NRC was inevitably controversial in a country where many citizens do not have birth records. Muslims often complained that they were being falsely identified as non-citizens. Thousands of people so identified were then herded into detention centres to await deportation. At the same time for Hindu nationalists, for whom partition is the defining national trauma, the idea of excluding Hindu refugees from regions that extended to Pakistan was anathema.

The central purpose of the CAA was to allow the NRC to target Muslim migrants exclusively. As a result, the CAA was attacked from two sides. In Assam and other northeastern states, protestors objected to granting citizenship to Hindu Bengali refugees, who they feared would make the Bengali influx into Assam permanent. Elsewhere, Muslims and liberal Hindus feared that a national NRC, as promised by the BJP in its 2019 election campaign, could be used across India to round up Muslim citizens without adequate records, strip them of their citizenship and deport them.

From early December 2019 to March 2020, until the COVID-19 crisis pushed the issue to the back burner, India was rocked by protests across cities and university campuses. The most affected campuses, Jamia Millia University (JMU) — a Muslim confessional university in Delhi — and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) saw large-scale violence, with JMU targeted for repeated violent police raids.

Shaheen Bagh, a neighbourhood in Delhi with many Muslim families, saw continuous protests led by women and frequent police intervention. Protests across the largest state, Uttar Pradesh, have resulted in deaths at the hands of police. Other states, ruled by opposition parties, have witnessed large scale protests that often cut across religious boundaries. Reports about many smaller confrontations, like one at a women’s college in Bengaluru, spread via social media.

India’s demoralised and fragmented opposition, which lost the 2019 election decisively, initially dithered over the passage of the CAA, but then appeared to find a platform from which to oppose the BJP, as many opposition-ruled states passed resolutions refusing to implement the CAA or the NRC. But with the government enjoying a fresh mandate and large majority, and the country now under a lockdown to address the COVID-19 crisis, there is little scope to reverse the policy.

Arun R Swamy is Professor of Political Science at the University of Guam.

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