In India, the government passed a bill providing citizenship to non-Muslim illegal immigrants from three neighboring countries through the lower house of parliament. The new measure, called the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), passed through the lower house with a vote of 311 to 80 and analysts predict it will soon pass through the upper house and become law. The bill has received considerable backlash, critics arguing that it is a step in Prime Minister Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) agenda to marginalize Muslims and establish India as a Hindu state.
The CAB amends the Indian Citizenship Law, which currently prohibits illegal migrants from becoming Indian citizens. Instead, members of religious minority groups including Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Christians from neighboring Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan will be eligible for citizenship by naturalization after living or working in India for six years. Notably, the bill fails to provide citizenship to one of South Asia’s major religions, Islam.
To understand the implications of the CAB, we must first look at the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a list of people who can prove they came to India before March 24th, 1971, the day Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan. In August of 2019, India published a final version of the NRC, which stripped 1.9 million people in the northeastern state of Assam of their citizenship. The goal of the NRC was to identify illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Leading up to the publication of the NRC, Modi’s party, the BJP, supported the register, but they withdrew their support days before it was published, stating that it was filled with errors. A possible motivation for withdrawing support was that many Bengali Hindus, a strong voting bloc for the BJP, were left off the list. The NRC and CAB are closely related because the CAB will help protect the non-Muslims excluded from the register from deportation or internment while the Muslims on the list remain under threat. Modi and the BJP will then be able to protect the citizenship of the tens of thousands of Bengali Hindu migrants living in Assam while deeming Muslims placed on the list as non-citizens. According to sociologist Niraja Gopal Jaya, the combination of the NRC and CAB has the “potential of transforming India into a majoritarian polity with gradations of citizenship rights.” The dual workings of the NRC and CAB allow Modi to advance his Hindu nationalist vision of India, expelling Muslims from Assam while protecting Bengali Hindus.
Many Indians have argued the CAB excludes Muslims and violates the secular nature of India’s constitution, claiming that religion cannot be a determining factor for citizenship. India’s 200 million Muslims, the second largest Muslim population in the world, have enjoyed religious freedom since India’s independence in 1947. Stated in Article 12 of the Indian Constitution, “All persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.” The opposition Indian National Congress Party stands by the beliefs of India’s forefathers, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who decided during the founding of India that although the state was majority Hindu, it would practice passive secularism, providing equal treatment and free expression for citizens of each religion.
On the other hand, Modi and the BJP claim the purpose of the bill is to protect persecuted religious minorities including Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists living in majority Muslims states. Meanwhile, BJP party members such as Ravi Kishan have openly supported the prospects of India as a Hindu state, “There are Muslim countries, there are Jew countries, everybody has their own identity. And we are a billion-plus, right? We must have one identity.” Additionally, the Indian Home Minister, Amit Shah, has labeled illegal migrants from Bangladesh as “termites” and promised to expand the NRC across India. Many of Modi’s supporters argue that Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan are Islamic states where Muslims are not persecuted. They also claim that the British created Pakistan as a safe haven for Muslims while India remained a majority Hindu state. Contrary to this, critics of the bill argue that if the BJP truly wanted to protect the interests of religious minorities, they would have included minority Muslim groups such as the Ahmadis in Pakistan and Rohingyas in Myanmar suffering from persecution.
The prospect of passing the CAB represents a large step in Modi and the BJP’s efforts to transform India into a Hindu state. The CAB, combined with the NRC could be used to systematically persecute Muslims in India while protecting the citizenship of Hindus and others. Additionally, there are no signs of these Hindu nationalist policies stopping as Modi recently won a landslide re-election victory in May. Modi’s base has also supported pro-Hindu actions such as stripping away autonomy and statehood for India’s only majority Muslim state, Kashmir, and building a new temple on the remains of a destroyed mosque in Ayodhya. Preparing for the detention of migrants, the Indian government has also begun to build a network of prisons with large holding capacities.
Prime Minister Modi’s regime reflects many themes discussed in this course, including nationalism and majoritarianism. Through a clever combination of laws, the Indian government is beginning to persecute Muslims, setting up prospects of detainment and deportation without violating the principles of religious equality and secularism embedded in its constitution. While doing so, Modi and the BJP are appealing towards the majority Hindu population who believe India should be a Hindu state. How far will Modi and the BJP take this surge of Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiments? Will he attempt to detain and deport Muslims across the country? Furthermore, how will the Muslims react? Will they protest violently if these policies escalate and cause internal conflict?
“Assam NRC: What next for 1.9 Million ‘Stateless’ Indians?” BBC News, BBC, 31 Aug. 2019
“Citizenship Amendment Bill: India’s New ‘Anti-Muslim’ Law Causes Uproar.” BBC News, BBC, 9 Dec. 2019
Gettleman, Jeffrey, and Suhasini Raj. “India Prepares to Block Naturalization for Muslims.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 9 Dec. 2019