India’s citizenship law: what is it and why has it stirred such anger?
India is in lockdown after violent protests swept across the country against Narendra Modi’s new citizenship law. Defying curfews and internet shutdowns, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to reject the ruling party’s Hindu nationalist agenda. Critics claim the law threatens India’s status as a secular democracy while the demonstrations have evolved into the biggest challenge to Mr Modi’s administration.
What is the new citizenship law?
The Citizenship Amendment Act, passed in December, creates a legal loophole for persecuted religious minorities who belong to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian religious communities — but not Islam — eligible for citizenship.
People from these communities “shall not be treated as illegal migrants”, according to the law, which was designed to help minority groups who have come to India from Muslim-majority states such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan.
It is the first time that India has incorporated religious criteria into its naturalisation or refugee policies.
Why is it important to the ruling Bharatiya Janata party?
Mr Modi’s government said the rules were designed to give religious minorities facing Muslim persecution refuge in India. It views the law as helping to complete unfinished business from partition in 1947, when India and Pakistan were split. It wants to provide a right of return for Hindus. “It’s their natural home,” said Swapan Dasgupta, a ruling party MP, who supported the bill. “These people look at India as ‘mother India’.”
Niraja Gopal Jayal, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University and author of Citizenship and Its Discontents: An Indian History, said the law “advances the Hindu nationalist project as the two-nation theory”, the idea that Muslims and Hindus should live in separate countries. “But the protesters are countering that by reminding society of the constitutional vision of citizenship” with secular values, she said.
Why are citizens against it?
Critics argued that the citizenship law, taken together with a proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC), an official record of legal citizens, would marginalise Muslims. Amit Shah, India’s powerful home minister, pledged at the beginning of December to implement the register by 2024 and to “throw out all the infiltrators” — coded language for illegal Muslim immigrants.
The NRC has been implemented in the north-eastern state of Assam, where almost 1.9m people were stripped of citizenship, many of them Hindus. The new law would allow them to claim citizenship, but not Muslims, who are unlikely to find asylum in neighbouring countries. New Delhi has started constructing detention centres in Assam, sparking panic among Muslims who worry they do not have the necessary documents to prove citizenship.
“Giving shelter to persecuted minorities is a welcome move but the argument implicit in this is that India is the natural home for some religious communities and not for others,” said Ali Khan Mahmudabad, a spokesman for the Uttar Pradesh-based Samajwadi party, which counts Muslims among its supporters, in a recent editorial.
Calling the law India’s “Nuremberg moment”, Mr Khan said “this goes against the spirit and letter of the Indian constitution, which grants all persons equality before the law”.
Can the law be stopped?
As pressure from the protests rises, the ruling party has sought to assure Indians that the law does not discriminate against Muslims and that the NRC would not be rolled out immediately. Mr Shah said “bona fide Indian citizens” should have no fear.
But critics insist the law shatters Mahatma Gandhi’s inclusive vision for India. The Supreme Court will hear more than 50 petitions against the law in late January, but experts do not expect a swift resolution.
“The creation of right of return for Hindus helps create an ethnic democracy, a model of democracy which follows constitutional rules but which the majority group has precedence and where citizenship is defined along ethnic lines,” said Gilles Verniers, a political scientist at Ashoka University.
“For the BJP this is a doctrinal matter rather than a short-term matter. They are going to push for it no matter what.”