An Image of Protests across India against the new Indian Citizenship Law

(Image Source: AFP)

India Advances Controversial Anti-Muslim Citizenship Law

Published on 26 Mar 2024

The government of Narendra Modi in India is preparing for an upcoming election year cycle by implementing a controversial “citizenship bill” which excludes adherents of the world’s second-largest religion. According to CNN, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) would provide a fast-track to citizenship for immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan – provided they are not Muslim. The controversial law would apply to religious minorities persecuted on religious grounds; including Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians (but not Muslims).

Originally passed by India’s parliament in 2019, the CAA had previously stripped Indian citizenship from at least 2 million Muslims in the state of Assam alone. Even though Prime Minister Modi- a right-wing Hindu nationalist- had praised the controversial law, the bill was heavily protested by his opposition parties, which claimed that it was unconstitutional and marginalized India’s 200-million-plus Muslim population.

In the year 2024 alone, there has been a rise of anti-Muslim activity which might electorally bolster right-wing Hindu nationalist hardliners during this year’s election cycle. In February 2024, two mosques were demolished in both Uttarakhand state and the capital New Delhi within days of each other. The ensuing clashes and curfews killed at least 6 people as religious polarization continues to metastasize across India.

“This is the worst possible time to be a Muslim in India,” according to author Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, adding that it has “become normal to demolish mosques in India. The stigmatization of Muslims is an old story, seen as the new normal. No longer does it shock people.”

A month earlier in January 2024, Modi inaugurated a gigantic Hindu temple built on the former site of a 16th-century Muslim mosque that was destroyed by Hindu nationalist hardliners in the 1990’s during communal violence. While many Hindu nationalists celebrated the opening of the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir in Ayodhya, this January 2024 re-inauguration was a painful reminder to the country’s minority Muslim population of the religious divisions that have grown more pronounced under Narendra Modi’s  rule.

Hindu nationalist allies of Modi include a right-wing party called the Hindu Mahasabha which was founded in 1907 during British rule and which has become one of India’s oldest political organizations. The Hindu Mahasabha’s vision- according to the group’s own official website– is to declare India the “National Home of the Hindus.” Their official website further states that if they take political power, they will not hesitate to “force” the migration of India’s 200 million-plus Muslims into neighboring Pakistan and they also vow to reform the country’s education system to align it more with their exclusionary right-wing version of Hindutva ideology.

The timing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) implementation and concurrent rise of anti-Muslim violence across India during an election year is not coincidental. The Economist magazine noted that “there is a suspicion its implementation was timed to rally Hindu voters ahead of a general election” which is supposed to take place by May 2024. Similarly, other international observers are also questioning the implementation of this anti-Muslim piece of legislation and its timing.

“As we said in 2019, we are concerned that India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (CAA) is fundamentally discriminatory in nature and in breach of India’s international human rights obligations,” a spokesperson from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) recently stated. “We are concerned about the notification of the Citizenship Amendment Act and we are closely monitoring how this act will be implemented,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson told Reuters as well. “Respect for religious freedom and equal treatment under the law for all communities are fundamental democratic principles,” they added.

U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD)- chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee- said in a public statement about the CAA: “I am deeply concerned by the Indian government’s decision to notify its controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, particularly the law’s potential ramifications on India’s Muslim community. Making matters worse is the fact that it is being pushed during the holy month of Ramadan.” Senator Cardin also added that, “As the US-India relationship deepens, it is critically important that our cooperation is based on our shared values of protecting the human rights of all persons, regardless of religion.”

Additionally, global human rights organizations and Indian opposition political parties also called  out Modi’s right-wing BJP party for election year fearmongering in light of the advancement of the CAA legislation. According to the Associated Press, India’s main opposition Congress party questioned the announcement, saying “the timing right before the elections is evidently designed to polarize the elections.” Human rights watchdog group Amnesty India in a statement called the law “discriminatory” and said that it “goes against the constitutional values of equality and international human rights law.” They also said that the law “legitimizes discrimination based on religion” and is “exclusionary in its structure and intent” against Muslims.

“This law has been about creating two tiers of citizenships in India — non-Muslims and Muslims,” Yogendra Yadav, a prominent anti-Modi political activist, told Deutsche Welle in a March 2024 interview. Legal, human rights, and political opponents of the CAA have also filed a number of federal lawsuits in Indian courts trying to scrap the legislation, while the secretary general of India’s Communist Party stated that the CAA implementation is “clearly aimed at sharpening communal polarization and seeking to electorally benefit” Modi’s right-wing BJP party during an election year.

As Narendra Modi seeks a third term in office, he has defended the controversial citizenship law as a humanitarian gesture arguing that the law is meant only to extend citizenship to religious minorities fleeing persecution and would not be used against Indian citizens. “These rules will now enable minorities persecuted on religious grounds in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to acquire citizenship in our nation,” wrote Indian Home Minister Amit Shah who is one of Modi’s closest political aides and had once previously promised to remove Muslim “infiltrators” from India and even described Muslims in overtly genocidal terms as “termites” who he wanted to throw into the Bay of Bengal.

Under the controversial law, Muslim victims of religious persecution like the Shia Hazara in Afghanistan or other neighboring nations (such as the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar) will still need to wait for the same 11 years before they become eligible for Indian citizenship. But unlike non-Muslim groups like Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians, Muslims would still need to provide valid documentation to justify their presence in India, which some analysts claim violates the equal protection clause (Article 14 of the Indian Constitution) which says: “The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.”

Since Muslims would need to provide valid documentation under the CAA, many people believe that the Modi government might seek to implement another controversial initiative- the National Register of Citizens (NRC)- whose purpose is to identify and deport undocumented immigrants in India who do not possess valid papers to increase deportation of Muslims from India. Thus far, the NRC has been implemented in the state of Assam in 2019 to strip citizenship rights from 2 million Muslim migrants in that state alone. If the CAA and NRC are combined together, it could potentially allow the Modi government to first expel anyone deemed “illegal” under the NRC and then allow non-Muslims (like Christians, Buddhists, etc.) to re-enter India but deny that same re-entry to Muslim migrants at the government’s political whim.

Most constitutional democracies today have some sort of “equal protection” clause which promises equality under the law, regardless of race, religion, and/or socioeconomic status. The rise of right-wing ethno-nationalist governments around the world are galvanizing their political power by demonizing and scapegoating minorities for their political advantage. The South Asian nation of India is supposed to be a secular multi-religious democracy, but the last few decades have shown the country taking an ethno-nationalist lurch during the political watch of prime minister Narendra Modi.