India’s Muslim and secularist parties have been in the forefront of protests against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over legislation that lets the country grant citizenship to religious minorities persecuted in neighboring Muslim countries.
Under the Citizenship Amendment Act, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who have entered India illegally can apply for citizenship if they can prove they originate from Muslim-majority Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan. All three countries enshrine Islam as their state religion.
It is the first time that India has used religion as a legal basis for determining nationality, since it excludes Muslims seeking citizenship.
At least six opposition groups, including the Congress Party and the Indian Union Muslim League, have condemned the bill for fundamentally altering how citizenship is decided. They argue that it is unconstitutional. But the government insists it does not remove any rights of Muslim citizens.
Students at two universities, Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi and Aligarh Muslim University in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, demonstrated against the law. Both universities have significant Muslim student populations.
Uttar Pradesh state, India’s most populous, is home to 40 million Muslims out of some 180 million – about 15 per cent of the population -- in the country. The state is ruled by Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath of the BJP.
After images of the crackdown on students surfaced, demonstrations exploded throughout India. At least 27 people have been killed and internet and mobile data services were suspended in some places.
People in the northeastern state of Assam also launched protests, in their case claiming they will be “overrun” by migrants from Bangladesh who will . They don’t want any migrants, regardless of religion, to be allowed entry.
Illegal migration from Bangladesh has long been a concern there. BJP-ruled Assam is one of India’s most multi-ethnic states and includes Bengali- and Assamese-speaking Hindus and various tribespeople.
Between 1971 and 1991 the Muslim population increased by 77 per cent. A third of Assam’s 32 million citizens today are Muslims, the second-highest number after Indian-administered Kashmir, and nine of its twenty-seven districts are Muslim-majority.
Equally importantly, the 2017 census showed that people who are ethnically Assamese are now a minority in the state as a whole and as people continue to arrive their proportion will continue to drop.
The citizenship law comes amid a push for a National Register of Citizens that would require the entire country to prove their citizenship. A regional version in Assam was held last summer.
Residents were told to provide documents showing they or their ancestors had lived in India before March 24, 1971, when Bangladesh split from Pakistan. It has left two million people facing statelessness.
The Register and the Citizenship Amendment Act are closely linked as the latter will protect non-Muslims who are excluded from the register and face the threat of deportation or internment; however, Muslims would not have this recourse.
The chief ministers of nine states have said they will refuse to implement them.
It’s unfair to simply blame Modi, though. Since the partition of India in 1947 waves of people from what was then East Pakistan crossed into India to escape persecution, intolerance and economic hardship.
The number increased following the conflict with West Pakistan that created Bangladesh. Estimates put the number of people who have moved permanently from there to India in this century alone at over 15 million.
There are even some Hindu nationalists who subscribe to a conspiracy theory regarding Muslims entering India. They assert that by changing the Hindu–Muslim demographics in Indian regions bordering Bangladesh, political parties will form that will demand autonomy and eventually independence, thus creating a new Muslim homeland. There is even a name for this imagined future state: Bango Bhoomi.
After hundreds were slaughtered in an anti-immigrant pogrom in 1982, Assamese leaders signed an agreement with India’s central government in 1985. Under that deal, there would be a mass citizenship check to ferret out illegal migrants.
Under BJP rule, this has finally happened, despite the protests.