The Citizenship Amendment Bill: A Pall Over India’s Democracy
Maria Tavernini 18 December 2019

Tension in India is rapidly escalating following the violent crackdown on the protests that have erupted after the upper house of the Indian Parliament ratified the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), 2019. The law will grant the right to naturalization to refugees and irregular immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh who have lived in India for at least 6 years, except those of Islamic faith. The law, approved last December 11th caused large protests throughout the country, from North to South. Police responded by charging protesters with hydrants, teargas and, in the northeastern states, even bullets. Five protesters have reportedly been killed by the police shooting on the people defying the curfew imposed in the region and manifesting against the CAB in Guwathi, in the northeastern state of Assam. Making religion a basis for citizenship, the amendment to the Citizenship Act is widely seen as a frontal attack on the secular character of the Indian Constitution and the principle of equality in front of the law enshrined in it, as it openly discriminates against the Muslim minority, which in India is around 200 million people, 14.2 percent of its population.


A Hindu nationalist state?

By amending the Citizenship Act, 1955, the new law will grant the right to citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian minorities fleeing “religious persecution”, while it openly excludes Muslims from the list. The move, promoted by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is seen by many political analysts as just another step towards the progressive alienation of the Muslim minority which brings India a step closer to becoming the Hindu Rashtra (Hindu State) theorized by Hindutva ideologists, a majoritarian state where minorities live in fear as effective second-class citizens. Article 14 of the Indian Constitution states that “The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or equal protection of the laws within the territory of India”, while article 15(1) asserts, “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth”. India’s secularism is peculiar and is intended as equality of all religions in front of the law. Yet, the Hinduization of India is making “some religions more equal than others”.

Indian journalist Rana Ayyub – who has documented from the inside the rise of the Hindu far-right and the politics and power games behind the Gujarat Riots in 2002, when prime minister Narendra Modi was Chief Minister of the State – recently published an opinion piece in The Washington Post, titled “Citizenship bill puts India on a path to become a Hindu nationalist state”. The investigative reporter writes, “intellectuals and commentators have called the amendment bill an attack on the Indian constitution and a distraction from the country’s economic failures. Many, like me, disagree. Since his ascent to power in 2014, Modi has been explicit in his agenda for a totalitarian, fascist regime, laying out his blueprint to ‘other’ India’s Muslims from his first day in office. Modi’s BJP swept to power with an increased majority in 2019 for his fulfillment of those promises”. She defines the CAB as Narendra Modi’s “most brazen action to lead India away from being the world’s largest democracy to a Hindu nationalist state”. The latest moves – revocation of Kashmir autonomy, NRC in Assam and the Ayodhya sentence – al seem to lead in the same direction.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill can be fully understood in all its discriminatory and majoritarian purpose if paired with the plan for extending the mandate of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) piloted in Assam to the rest of India. In the words of the Home Minister and mastermind behind the plan, the aim of the nationwide mass census is to detect and deport illegal migrants and “infiltrators” in every inch of India. The NRC in Assam, propelled by the belief that there were millions of undocumented migrants from Bangladesh, resulted in the exclusion of nearly two million people from its final citizenship list, including many genuine Indian citizens. People in Assam have been protesting against the NRC (and then the CAB) out of fear that the demographic composition of the state will be changed. In Assam, the CAB was meant to correct the twistedness of the NRC, as many non-Muslims were left out of the list meant to identify “genuine citizens” by setting the cut-off date in Bangladesh Independence in 1971. In this regard, at the national level as well, the CAB becomes a complementary tool to legitimize the citizenship of all those non-Muslims who may be declared “illegal immigrants” per the NRC because, as it often happens, they lack the documentation to prove otherwise.


Mobilizations against the CAB

In Delhi’s federally run Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) University, the student’s pacific protest organized on December 15th was met with brutal repression. Police entered hostels and attacked students in the library and in the mosque: hundreds of people were injured and 52 were students arrested following the police crackdown. A series of videos testify to the disproportionate violence with which the police responded to a pacific demonstration within the university area. Police is seen on videos (yet to be confirmed) setting a bus on fire in order to blame it on the students. The protests in support of the Jamia students and against the amendment to the Citizenship Act have spread to other cities and universities. Videos are circulating on social media of the moment when Jamia Millia and Aligarh’s Islamic University campus (AMU), in Uttar Pradesh, were raided by the CRPF personnel shooting teargas towards the students who were pelting stones in reprisal. “There was no firing, there have been no casualties in Jamia violence. The crime branch will investigate Jamia’s violence. [A] thorough investigation will be done, and accountability will be fixed”, declared a Delhi Police spokesperson in a press conference after people gathered outside the Delhi Police HQ in the aftermath of the violence demanding accountability.

An online petition has been launched against police brutality at Jamia Millia Islamia University and Aligarh Muslim University by students, professors and academics. The Chief Ministers of Punjab, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, and Kerala have refused to apply the CAB as it violates the Constitution. The UN, Human Rights Watch and other prominent organizations have slammed India for a law that openly discriminates against the Muslim minority and that violates India’s international obligations to prevent deprivation of citizenship on the basis of race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin as found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other human rights treaties. A nation-wide protest against the controversial Citizenship Bill has been called on the 19th of December, while the Supreme Court has agreed to hear petitions challenging the constitutionality of the Citizenship Bill. These days’ repression and events will have long-lasting consequences. They will be remembered as a dark page in the country’s history and another jab to its traditionally secular and pluralistic soul. It’s painful to see how dark pages seem to be becoming that norm in today’s India. Yet it has somehow managed to bring together a divided country. Not only Muslims and students, but whoever still believes in an inclusive and democratic India have taken to the streets to oppose this drift.



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