India citizenship law at work

Contentious law grants expedited citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan


May 18, 2024

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The first batch of migrants, comprising 15 people, have gained Indian citizenship under the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the controversial law that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government passed in 2019 but did not really begin enforcing it until March, just days before the first phase of the general elections in the country. The contentious law grants expedited citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

While the Modi government claimed the controversial citizenship law only meant to help people escaping religious persecution in their countries, it actually replaced a more inclusive law that gave preferential treatment to all people escaping persecution. And while Prime Minister Modi’s allies claimed that Muslims were only excluded because their rights were secure in the three mentioned countries — all of which have Islam as their state religion — critics have noted that Muslims are also persecuted in these countries: just look at the plight of Hazara people in Afghanistan, and even Pakistan. Excluding the Muslims, and thereby Hazaras for instance, was clearly an intentional effort to manipulate demographics, especially when considering the added impact of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which made it harder for people in India to prove Indian citizenship. When put together, the NRC strips most poor and illiterate people of Indian citizenship — regardless of which religion they practice — but the CAA gives back citizenship to everyone but the Muslims, effectively rendering stateless any Indian Muslims who lack proper documentation. This is why the ruling BJP goes to great lengths to try and portray the two laws as unrelated, even though they are literally both amendments to the same law — the Citizenship Act of 1955.

It is also notable that the exercise to grant citizenship under the NRC remained suspended for several years precisely because several non-Muslims, including notable Hindu figures, could not provide sufficient documentation to make the list when it was launched in the northeastern state of Assam, which was allegedly chosen as the testing ground because it has a large Muslim minority and is a popular destination for Rohingya migrants. Although the NRC has been on hold for almost a decade since then, the ‘activation’ of the CAA has raised new fears that Modi will start a new NRC exercise in its next term, not that the CAA’s 2019 iteration provides a safety net to followers of BJP-approved religions.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 18th, 2024.

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