The Citizenship Amendment Act is one amongst many steps taken by the Indian government to practically consolidate its Hindutva agenda. Immediate fall-outs of the amendment, however, are proving to be counterproductive for Bharatiya Janata Party’s dream of Akhand Bharat. The conversion of Citizenship Amendment Bill into a presidentially approved Act has spurred series of mass protests across a number of Indian states. Resistance to the legislation from India’s North-Eastern states was a little anticipated. However, protests erupting in centrally-located states like Delhi and Hyderabad, where right-wing politics dominate, took the government off guard. Coercive state-led measures to curtail these protests have further infuriated the masses, turning the domestic political environment highly volatile. The upcoming political developments within India shall not only decide the future trajectory of Indian political and societal fabric but will also have consequential impacts on regional stability.
The essence of Indian Citizenship Act has degenerated, over the passage of time. India’s Citizenship Act, initially developed in 1955 set Jus Soli (citizenship by birth) and Jus Sanguinis (citizenship by descent), apart from naturalisation as the core premises for acquiring Indian citizenship. The recent amendment is expected to reduce the scope of Indian citizenship by scrapping off the premise of Jus Soli. This has been manifested by National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act, both of which are designed to grant citizenship on the basis of “descent” only.
Announced as a goodwill gesture, the recent amendment in India’s Citizenship Act seeks to grant Indian citizenship to illegal refugees and immigrants on humanitarian basis. This is a religion-based provision, and therefore, only Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, and Buddhists qualify for it. Another peculiarity regarding the amendment is that citizenship shall be awarded to Pakistani, Afghan, and Bangladeshi refugees and immigrants only. While it legislates to grant citizenship to individuals fleeing religious persecution from three neighbouring states, India conveniently overlooks its own status of being the world’s largest perpetrator of religious persecution.
The amendment comes as an affront to the core principles of Indian constitution. Given the heterogeneous nature and the intricate communal structure of Indian society, an all-inclusive Indian constitution was formulated that disapproved all forms of discrimination. The preamble of Indian constitution pledges to provide “liberty of thought, expression, belief and faith to all citizens of India” without any discrimination. The Citizenship Amendment Act therefore stands in violation of articles stipulated under part II – corresponding to citizenship and part III – corresponding to freedom of rights of the Indian Constitution. The act further goes on to defy International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that prohibits states to deprive citizenship to its citizens based on colour, race, descent, or ethnic origin.
The upcoming political developments within India shall not only decide the future trajectory of Indian political and societal fabric but will also have consequential impacts on regional stability.
Nation-wide protests, as an immediate reaction to the Citizenship Amendment Act demonstrate the negative externalities it entails for India’s societal and political stability. Indian citizens’ reaction to the amendment is completely at odds with the underlying objective of the Act, which seeks to rid India of Muslim citizens and consolidate Hindus from across the region, under the Indian flag. Protests in India have been increasing in width and depth since 10 December 2019, with thousands arrested and around 20 killed. Communication and transportation lock down, crackdown on peaceful protestors, raids on educational institutions and invocation of Section 144 in different Indian states count as some of the measures taken by the government to curtail the protests. Heavy handed authoritarian style state response in a country, that for long has taken pride in its democratic orientation, has reduced people’s confidence in the sitting government.
The amendment is facing backlash due to different reasons. For Muslims of India, the amendment comes as a tool of marginalisation, which in the longer run might deprive them of their citizenship rights. This insecurity mainly stems from BJP’s communal politics and formulation of Assam’s NRC, which declared around 1.9 million Indians as non-citizens. A nation-wide formulation of NRC, as envisioned by the BJP leadership is expected to scrape many Indians off their citizenship, an overwhelming majority of which will be Muslims. On the other hand, the amendment has enraged Indian leftists for carrying a religious tint to it, discriminating citizens on the basis of their faith. However, the most dominant factor remains the fear of refugee and immigrant influx, potentially leading to demographic changes, distribution of resources and other economic fall-outs.
With hopes attached to the Indian Supreme Court, masses currently look forward to the amendment being declared unconstitutional. The Indian Supreme Court will be hearing petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the amendment in January 2020. However, Supreme Court’s refusal to stay the controversial act in the initial hearing delineates that the final verdict might not be quite satisfactory for the protesting citizens.
With hopes attached to the Indian Supreme Court, masses currently look forward to the amendment being declared unconstitutional.
The recent amendment and state-led response to public protests together have raised concerns across different international circles as well. The United Nations’ Office of Human Rights has condemned the Act for being “fundamentally discriminatory.” The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs also shared their apprehensions regarding the amendment bill. Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, has warned of an emerging refugee crisis that can inflict detrimental consequences to the regional states. To this extent, India has considerably antagonised its long-standing ally Bangladesh as well by accusing it of religious persecution. Following the presidential approval over the bill, Bangladesh cancelled the state visit of its Home and Foreign Affairs ministers as a display of its reservations regarding the Act.
South Asia’s regional integration and stability has historically remained prey to India’s aggressive policies. India’s changing foreign policy orientation from non-alignment to alignment with the West will expectedly unleash an even more aggressive regional policy in the future. Attributing to NRC and CAA, the Indian neighbourhood already finds itself antagonised. Establishment of detention centres in different Indian states indicates that a refugee crisis for Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh might just be in the offing. Pakistan already hosts millions of Afghan refugees which has come at the cost of its economic and social security. Bangladesh is currently struggling to cater to the Burmese refugee influx. Since long, Afghanistan’s domestic stability has remained turbulent, offering a highly inconducive environment to its citizens. In such a scenario, India’s divisive communal politics can do nothing more than sheer damage to the state itself and the regional stability. While the dream of Greater India may or may not be realised, the region ought to gear up and devise ways to take the minimal toll of emerging trends in India.
Maryam Raashed is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She is a graduate of International Relations from National Defence University, Islamabad.