A protest against the new citizenship law in New Delhi, India, December 2019
Javed Dar / Xinhua / Eyevine / Red​ux

For the past week, Indians have flooded the streets in cities and towns across the country to protest a controversial new citizenship law. They have marched in droves despite the imposition of colonial-era prohibitory orders to prevent public assembly. The agitation started in dozens of universities across India, provoking a violent crackdown by the government and the detention of thousands. But demonstrations still spread to give rise to one of the largest pan-India protest movements the country has seen in several decades. Though it has resorted to shutting down Internet and mobile service in several areas (including in New Delhi), the government has not been able to contain the sheer scale of the protest. 

Since its reelection in May, the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pursued a more strident and divisive series of policy measures, including stripping Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status. Modi’s government has also become more authoritarian, leading even India’s normally reticent business community to complain of a contentious and toxic atmosphere brewing in the country. But the seemingly benign Citizenship Amendment Act, passed by the Indian Parliament on December 11, was one step too far. 

According to the new law, members of minority groups—Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, and Parsis—from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who came to India illegally will be granted a fast track to Indian citizenship. But through this simple provision, the government has also redefined Indian national identity in terms of religion and spawned a crisis for India’s secular constitution. In conjunction with the proposed nationwide extension of the National Register for Citizens—a survey of the citizenship status of all individuals in India that until now has only been implemented in the state of Assam—the citizenship law has created a pervasive sense of fear. In turn, the ensuing protests have sparked the most potent challenge to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to date.

REDEFINING INDIA

The Citizenship Amendment Act is a challenge to India’s secularism. Yes, the groups named in the act should have the ability to become naturalized citizens. And yes, any country can choose to prioritize which refugees or illegal migrants it will naturalize based on a variety of factors: risk assessment, the demands of international law, historical ties, and the practical realities of migration. But for the first time since India’s constitution was adopted in 1949, Parliament has explicitly linked religious identity to citizenship.

The government insists that these minorities are at risk in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan and are also unlikely to find refuge elsewhere. But this is an argument in bad faith twice over. First, it overlooks Muslim groups that are persecuted in those countries, such as Ahmadis in Pakistan. Second, only Muslim-majority countries have been named in the Act, excluding other potential sources of refugees and illegal migrants, such as neighboring Myanmar and Sri Lanka. The law excludes Rohingyas, for example, from future citizenship. The government claims that, in principle, groups not covered by the act can always apply under existing naturalization mechanisms. But that argument cuts both ways. Why shouldn’t members of all persecuted groups have access to the same legal mechanism? In light of these considerations, there is only one conclusion that can be drawn. The purpose of the new law is not just to protect the named groups; it is to exclude Muslims from equal consideration. This makes the act potentially unconstitutional.

India is only a Hindu nation in the trivial sense that a majority of its inhabitants are classed as Hindu.

The act also redefines Indian national identity, moving the country emphatically in the direction of becoming an ethnocracy. In 1947, the British partitioned colonial India into two independent countries: Pakistan, conceived as a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims, and India, a secular and pluralist state. India is only a Hindu nation in the trivial sense that a majority of its inhabitants are classed as Hindu. It has the second-largest population of Muslims in the world and a significant presence of almost every other religion. It has never defined its identity in terms of religion or ethnicity.

But Hindu nationalists have long wanted to remake India as a homeland for Hindus, embracing an idea of nationhood similar to the Israeli model. The citizenship act, by excluding Muslims, takes a step in that direction. The unfinished business of partition that Hindu nationalists want to complete involves not just granting refuge to minorities from neighboring Muslim-majority countries but signalling to Muslims inside India that they don’t have an equal claim to belonging there.

A REGISTER OF CITIZENS

The government claims that the new act won’t impact the rights of any existing Muslim citizens of India. In a formal, legal sense, that is true. But to grasp the full insidiousness of the citizenship act, one has to consider it alongside another proposed measure: a National Register of Citizens, a sweeping nationwide catalog of the legal status of all individuals in India. Again, it is difficult to contest the idea that a country should be allowed to draft a register of its citizens. But how will authorities determine who is a citizen in a country where many poor Indians lack identifying documentation?

If the experience of the state of Assam—where the government has carried out a limited form of this exercise—is any guide, the verification process itself will be Kafkaseque. Millions of poor people with no birth certificates or other documentary history (birth certificates only became widespread in India in the last 30 years) struggled to prove that they are citizens. The process is bureaucratic and arbitrary, leaving many to languish in camps. At the moment, 1.9 million individuals face the prospect of statelessness in Assam.

1.9 million individuals face the prospect of statelessness in Assam.

But here is the real catch. Suppose two individuals, one Hindu and one Muslim, were asked to prove their claims to citizenship. Suppose for a moment that officials determine both are in India illegally. After the enactment of the citizenship law, the Hindu will have a fast track to naturalization. It is likely that the Muslim will not.

Combined with the citizenship law, a National Register of Citizens is bound to create millions of stateless people as a result of administrative errors as well. Even if one assumes the Indian state has a high capacity for bureaucratic performance and won’t arbitrarily discriminate between different religious groups (both of these are contestable assumptions), an error rate of just five percent would render tens of millions of people potentially stateless, as the scholar Shruti Rajagopalan has pointed out. But the risks that Muslims face will be considerably higher, even if the state does not explicitly target them. 

The government is speaking with two voices about the link between the citizenship law and the register of citizens. But the link is obvious. The law enables the government to reassure any Hindus who are found to be illegal that they will not be rendered stateless. It gives no corresponding assurance to Muslims. In other words, it creates a legally sanctioned system of discrimination, one that is an affront to India’s secular democracy.

Demonstrators marching against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Kolkata, India, December 2019 
Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

SEASON OF DISCONTENT

The citizenship law has provoked unprecedented resistance across the country. The resistance comes in two rather different forms. The first is regionally specific opposition in the state of Assam, which has seen rolling protests since the law passed earlier this month. Opposition to the law there is rooted in the state’s local ethnonationalist politics. For decades, many Assamese activists and politicians have argued that the migration of Bengalis from Bangladesh (and from its pre-1971 incarnation of East Pakistan) threatens Assam’s identity. In 1985, the government of India signed the Assam Accord, which pledged to put in place a process to identify illegal migrants in the state. Authorities finally published their findings for Assam this year, and not surprisingly, the majority of those identified as illegally settled in Assam were Bengali Hindus. The new citizenship law now potentially grants them citizenship in violation of the Assam Accord. So protests have erupted across the state, with demonstrators decrying the new law as a betrayal by the central government and a threat to the demography of Assam.

Elsewhere in India, protests against the citizenship law have been more in consonance with the country’s constitution and its principles of equality. India has seen the largest eruption of student protests since the period of dictatorial “emergency rule” in the 1970s under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Protests have shaken literally every major university. And across the country, demonstrators from across the broad range of Indian religious and social groups have marched in favor of repealing the law. Many state governments, including some allied with the BJP, have pledged not to implement the National Register of Citizens.

The government's response to the protests is reminiscent of heavy-handed tactics in Kashmir.

These protests have the potential to plunge India into a deep crisis. Already, the Indian state is using its arsenal of prohibitory orders to contain these legitimate protests. The scale of this suppression of dissent is extraordinary: Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh, two large states ruled by the BJP with a combined population of over 260 million people, have issued statewide colonial-era prohibitions that prevent the assembly of more than five persons. Several districts in India have been subject to Internet shutdowns. These measures are reminiscent of India’s heavy-handed tactics in Kashmir.

The burgeoning movement against the citizenship act is a refreshing sign of possible constitutional regeneration. But it may struggle against the headwinds of Modi’s assertive Hindu nationalism. The BJP’s policy priorities in recent months reflect a hard ideological turn: the shredding of Kashmir’s nominal autonomy and the ensuing crackdown in the restive territory; the triumphant exultation over the Supreme Court decision to allow the building of the powerfully symbolic Ram Temple in Ayodhya; and talk of anti-conversion and population control legislation. Even in public discourse, the baiting and demonization of minorities is more palpable. In a recent speech in the central state of Jharkhand, Modi made a sly reference to the fact that those protesting the citizenship law could be “recognized by their clothes,” a clear dog whistle for Muslims.

Modi’s robust combination of Hindu majoritarianism and authoritarianism will not be defeated easily. But the passage of the citizenship act has woken India to the dangers that threaten its core constitutional values. The road to recover and protect those values will be long, arduous, and full of conflict. Many Indians are finally saying, “Enough is enough.”

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