A raft of citizenship laws in India has galvanised government opponents
Plans to implement legislation restricting who qualifies as Indian have proven controversial as they could marginalise large segments of the country
Over the past few days, thousands of demonstrators across India have risen up in protest against a controversial new government bill. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), introduced a week ago, invites migrants from religious minorities from neighbouring countries – including Hindus, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, Sikh and Parsis from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh – to apply for Indian citizenship. Migrants who entered the country before December 31, 2014, are eligible but the law notably excludes Muslims.
The federal government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), says it introduced the legislation because religious minorities are denied equal rights and facing persecution in the three Muslim-majority neighbouring countries. It claims the law is a compassionate one that aims to offer safe haven to refugees and migrants who flee to escape persecution. But the legislation has sparked violent clashes that have so far left six people dead and inflicted considerable damage in major cities, with police even storming college campuses to quell demonstrations.
After days of violent clashes, the question now is whether these protests will run out of steam or escalate into a mass civil disobedience movement.
It is not every day that Indians feel driven to pour en masse onto the streets but the CAA is no ordinary law. Indians are bitterly divided over it and the idea of citizenship being granted on the basis of religion.
The exclusion of Muslims means that if members of minority groups of neighbouring countries seek refuge in India, they will be denied citizenship. The justification the BJP gives for this exception to the law is that Muslims are not persecuted in Muslim-majority countries – although this is not always the case.
Liberals, human-rights activists and several opposition politicians are incensed because discrimination based on religion violates the letter and spirit of India’s secular constitution.
Public indignation is also linked to the fact that this is just the latest in a series of seemingly exclusionary measures. It comes just weeks after the government finished compiling the National Register of Citizens, or NRC, in the north-eastern state of Assam, which was widely seen as an attempt to strip Muslims of their citizenship.
The NRC is essentially a population register that was put together with the stated purpose of identifying individuals legally residing in Assam. People had to prove that they or their ancestors had entered the state before midnight on March 24, 1971. March 25 marks the eve of the Bangladesh Liberation War and Assam shares a border with the country. Critics have long pointed out that the NRC was a tool being used by the state to identify and exclude Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh.
As it turned out, some estimates suggest that about 60 per cent of the 1.9 million people who did not find their names in the register, and are now stateless, are Hindus. That is why the BJP, a Hindu nationalist party, has been reluctant to reveal the religious composition of those left out of the NRC because, quite simply, its script did not go according to plan.
Apart from the NRC, last month saw the Supreme Court allowing the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of the centuries-old Babri mosque, destroyed by a mob in 1992 in riots that claimed 2,000 lives. And in August, there was yet another move that was seen as hostile to Muslims with the revocation of disputed Kashmir’s autonomous status. In earlier incidents, numerous Muslims were either killed or grievously injured by Hindu cow vigilantes over allegations of trading in beef.
All these measures form part of the BJP’s desire for a Hindu nation. Most of the previous protests against this divisive agenda have failed to muster much support in the general public. As a result, the opposition has remained small and scattered until now.
Take for instance the Karwan-e-Mohabbat, or Caravan of Love, a campaign launched by social activist Harsh Mander last year to connect survivors of hate crimes. It was a noble gesture to demonstrate to the families of those who were lynched that some Indians at least shared their pain but it remained a straggly affair. The caravan rolled around the country, failing to collect many followers on the way.
Now, however, the potential for mass opposition is greater because the BJP’s plan, having passed the discriminatory citizenship law, now plans to extend the NRC to the whole country. Effectively, the bulk of the population will be put through the ordeal of finding documents to prove to the state that they are indeed citizens, all because the BJP wants to weed out some illegal immigrants.
It would have made more sense for the state to prove who is not a citizen than for citizens to prove that they are.
As a result, there are calls for civil disobedience. “Boycott the register”, “refuse to provide the documents”, “defy orders to comply”, “tell them you are a Muslim even if you aren’t” are just some of the comments that have been published on social media.
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Mr Mander has even said he would register himself as Muslim in government documents “in order to stand in solidarity with my Muslim sisters and brothers”.
The new register will almost certainly discriminate against Muslims. All Hindus who fail to provide the documents proving they are Indian are covered by the new citizenship law; they will automatically be deemed to be citizens. But Muslims who cannot satisfy the authorities will enjoy no such protection because the law excludes them.
What is certain is that in a poor country where ordinary people tend not to have their papers in order – or they have tiny discrepancies and misspellings of names and addresses – it will be an onerous burden for many. Millions do not have birth certificates. What might erupt is fury over the sheer gratuitousness of it.
As it stands, it seems the pain of this exercise will be shared equally by Indians of all faiths and that is precisely where the potential for mass opposition lies: in the numbers, because a national register affects everyone.
The signs of anger on the streets indicate that, this time, the federal government might have miscalculated. The state governments of West Bengal, Punjab, Kerala and Chhattisgarh have already said no to implementing the register. This alone will encourage protesters who are urging rebellion against the indignity of having to prove Indian citizenship to the BJP.
Supposing the register unearths 10 or 20 million illegal immigrants. What will the government do with them – send them back? If so, to where? Or incarcerate them in detention camps?
Like the demonetisation drive in 2016 – when the government declared 500 and 1,000 rupee notes void overnight – the register could cause immeasurable disruption.
Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi
Updated: December 18, 2019 03:27 PM