Why citizenship bill is sparking protests across India

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Aden - Yasmin Abdel Azim - Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against the government's Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in Guwahati on December 12, 2019. Indian police fired blanks on December 12 as thousands of protesters ignored a curfew in the north-east of the country, in a fresh day of demonstrations against contentious new citizenship legislation. Image Credit: AFP

New Delhi: As India’s Parliament moved swiftly to amend its laws to prevent undocumented Muslims migrants from neighboring countries from becoming citizens, SM Hadi was busy making sure he could find documents going back generations to prove that his family was Indian.

“We have been sorting through all our old junk to find some proof that my father, grandfather, great grandfather all lived here,” said Hadi, a professor emeritus at Aligarh Muslim University. “There’s such panic it’s ridiculous.”

What has changed?

Lawmakers in India enacted a fundamental change to its citizenship law to include religion as a criterion for nationality for the first time. The new law creates a path to citizenship for migrants who belong to several South Asian religions but pointedly excludes Islam, the faith practiced by 200 million Indian citizens.

The measure was approved by a majority of the upper house of India’s parliament in a final vote late Wednesday. Its passage marks the latest political victory for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

What does the new bill say?

The new Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) bars undocumented Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan from seeking citizenship, but allows Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who illegally migrated to India from these regions to do so.

Adding to the anxiety is that Modi’s government has also vowed to implement a National Register of Citizens to weed out undocumented migrants similar to the one carried out in the eastern Indian state of Assam in August. The changes - key election promises made by Modi – have raised concerns about the whittling away of values laid out in the secular constitution of the world’s second-most populous nation.

What is the worry?

It’s the third move since Modi won a resounding second term that adversely affects Muslims, who form about 14 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion population. “Given the kind of mistrust that has been created, even documented Muslims are concerned,” Hadi, who for now doesn’t have to prove his citizenship, said in an interview. “There are a lot of questions in our minds as to what the eventual purpose of this exercise is. We don’t know what we need to prove that we belong.”

What has been the impact?

In India’s northeastern states, which share borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh, the law has unleashed anger and fear about an influx of migrants.

Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen has canceled a scheduled visit to India, Farid Hossain, press minister at the country’s High Commission in New Delhi confirmed. The decision to cancel his India visit came amid protests over the bill. According to an earlier statement by India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Momen was expected to arrive on Thursday evening.

What has the Indian government said?

Ahead of its approval by Parliament the opposition had called the bill anti-constitutional because it makes religion a key determinant for citizenship. A US federal commission had called for sanctions against India’s home minister should the legislation be passed. “This bill is for the religious minorities who came here from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Muslims are not minorities there,” Home Minister Amit Shah told Parliament as he argued the legislation didn’t discriminate against Muslims. “There is a difference between infiltrators and refugees.”

What other events have taken place in the run-up to this?

On August 5 India scrapped nearly seven decades of autonomy in the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir. Just three weeks later in the northeastern state of Assam some 1.9 million people, many of whom were Muslims, faced the risk of losing their Indian citizenship as the state enforced a National Register of Citizens. In November, Hindus won the Supreme Court case over a religious site disputed for centuries in northern city of Ayodhya. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had promised a grand temple there.

India’s Muslims have faced varying degrees of marginalisation even under previous governments “but there was always the promise of equal citizenship and religious equality, embodied in the Constitution,” said Asim Ali, a political researcher at Delhi University. “The stirring of unrest and unease is definitely part of the plan. The CAB and the NRC are inextricably linked and part of a singular project to unravel secular India.”

Why are protests flaring in the north-east?

Over the last two days angry protests have erupted in Assam with thousands clashing with police. There’s also been demonstrations in other northeastern states including Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Tripura, forcing the government to send in hundreds of soldiers to aid local police. On Thursday most airlines had waived cancellation and rescheduling charges on flights to and from Assam, while long-distance and passenger train services were also disrupted.

What about those left out of NRC?

When the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens is prepared, people excluded from the list will be required to prove their Indian citizenship before a tribunal or risk detention or deportation. Last month, the government informed the Parliament that 988 so-called foreigners were being held in six detention centres in Assam. All of India’s poor and undocumented will face the prospect of having to negotiate a complex maze of bureaucracy to prove their citizenship. The hardest hit in that eventuality will be poor Muslims who will have the fewest safeguards. The timeline and even how the government plans to undertake the enormous task of holding a national citizens’ registry remains unclear.

“Clearly, none of it has been thought through,” said Neelanjan Sircar, assistant professor at the Ashoka University and visiting senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. “This is going to be a massive mess.”

But the fear and panic seem here to stay. For many Indian Muslims, the law feels like a betrayal, said Shah Alam Khan, an orthopedic surgeon and professor at New Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences. “I feel really stateless.”

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