India recently passed a new law that makes religion a criterion for nationality for the first time in their history. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) applies to those who were “forced or compelled to seek shelter in India due to persecution on the ground of religion” in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. However, this only applies to Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists. Muslims are exempt.
To put it simply, those belonging to these religions, coming in from the three countries, stand a chance of expedited citizenship.
In northeast India, particularly Assam, the bill has been met with protests rooted in fears that potential streams of Bengali Hindu migrants will threaten culture and language in the region. Tensions between Assamese speakers and Bengali speakers have existed for years, so it comes as no surprise that the prospect of legitimizing immigrants from Bangladesh has resulted in such violent opposition.
In other regions, people have been taking to the street alleging the bill to be discriminatory against Muslims and as such unconstitutional. Protesters believe that it has intentions of establishing Muslims as second-class individuals, violating the secular founding ideals of India and the Constitution’s Article 14, the fundamental right of equality to all persons.
The Government’s justification for selecting Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan is that those countries have a state religion (Islam) where religious minorities face persecution. But protesters argue that the bill does not apply to all religions or neighbours, even though the Ahmedia Muslim sect and Shias face discrimination in Pakistan, Rohingya Muslims and Hindus face persecution in neighbouring Myanmar, and Hindu and Christian Tamils in neighbouring Sri Lanka.
So while the bill is couched in the language of refuge and sanctuary, it is actually selective in its welfare.
The bill has been received as just another step in the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) to side-line Muslims. The BJP came to power under Modi in 2014, and has since taken on increasingly daring actions to reshape the country. For example, in August, Modi revoked the constitutional autonomy of Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state. In November, construction of a Hindu temple at the site of a 16th-century mosque illegally destroyed by Hindu extremists, was given the go-ahead.
Throughout all this, the Government ignored mob-violence against Muslims. The BJP chief even pronounced a commitment to “throwing out” 10 million Bangladeshi Muslim “infiltrators”.
While the Government’s objective seems intentionally discriminatory, a large majority in India is undoubtedly determined to preserve their founding ideals.
During early-day protests, students held up images of Gandhi and Ambedkar, capturing not only the anger and fear in India, but revealing the need to consult past leadership while present state power is unbalanced. But since then, protests have become more disorganised and violent.
Yet, to make a real change, the outrage on the streets needs to transform into organized opposition.
Many Indians are looking for a more contemporary reference point of leadership, but will they find it?