The Pulse

PM Modi Begins Implementing Controversial Citizenship Law Ahead of Elections

Recent Features

The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

PM Modi Begins Implementing Controversial Citizenship Law Ahead of Elections

It is aimed at the communal polarization of India to solidify Hindu votes, and deflect attention away from disclosures of the government’s controversial party funding scheme.

PM Modi Begins Implementing Controversial Citizenship Law Ahead of Elections

Women protesters block a major road to protest against the enactment of the Citizens Amendment Act in Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, India, Jan 11, 2020.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/DTM

On March 11, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government announced the implementation of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The announcement, just weeks before India votes in general elections, seems aimed at stirring the communal pot. Additionally, its announcement at this juncture, four and half years after it was originally enacted, may be a bid to deflect public attention away from disclosures of the Electoral Bonds Scheme. This threatens to shine the light on the BJP’s controversial party funding scheme, which benefited the BJP the most.

India’s Supreme Court recently declared the electoral bonds scheme as “unconstitutional” and directed the State Bank of India to disclose the names of all donors to the opaque electoral funding scheme, despite government efforts to prevent the disclosure. This has hit the BJP’s credibility hard.

Following the announcement of the implementation of the CAA, protests have erupted in various parts of the country. The CAA is deeply controversial. It fast-tracks citizenship for religious minorities (Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, or Jains) from Muslim-majority Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, even as it excludes persecuted Muslims from these three countries, or Muslim minority groups from other neighboring countries like Myanmar.

The law has been criticized for being unconstitutional, as it discriminates against Muslims and paves the way for religion-based citizenship.

Under the CAA, all those non-Muslims who entered India before December 31, 2014, who would otherwise have been deemed as “illegal migrants,” will now be granted citizenship. It thereby amends the country’s existing citizenship law, the Citizenship Act 1955, which mandates a period of residence in India for 11 years.

When the CAA was passed by Parliament in 2019, it sparked massive protests across the country, especially in Muslim-dominated areas like Shaheen Bagh in the capital New Delhi. During the subsequent communal riots that broke out in northeast Delhi, the majority of those killed were Muslims.

Opposition parties have slammed the government’s implementation of the CAA in an election year and accused it of trying to polarize voters. The Home Ministry and the BJP have been quick to dismiss this as false propaganda, insisting that the CAA would help rehabilitate those who had faced “religious persecution” and that it was a humanitarian gesture for helpless refugees.

However, political observers have questioned this specious rationale — why have Hazaras in Afghanistan or the Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan not been extended the same immunity under the CAA? Likewise, the CAA does not extend citizenship to Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka or Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

Amnesty International has denounced the CAA as “discriminatory” and in violation of the right to equality. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has also expressed concern about the citizenship law.

Implementing the CAA has been one of BJP’s long-standing poll promises. Over the past decade, it has consistently spoken of its intention to weed out “illegal infiltrators.”

How this law will be implemented to achieve this objective is noteworthy. The CAA will first enable the government to grant citizenship to non-Muslim refugees. Then, through the countrywide National Register of Citizens (NRC), undocumented migrants are to be identified and weeded out. As critics of the CAA have pointed out, this law does not operate in isolation. Home Minister Amit Shah has on several occasions referred to this process as a “chronology” that will be followed.

The BJP and affiliated Hindutva organizations have consistently raised the bogey of illegal Bangladeshi Muslim squatters or infiltrators availing welfare benefits in India.

Through the CAA, the BJP has quite unambiguously deployed polarization to rake in the benefits of a Hindu-Muslim divide in the run-up to the polls. By projecting itself as a protector of persecuted Hindus in Muslim-majority countries, the BJP and Modi aim to reinforce in the popular consciousness the BJP’s commitment to Hindutva. Combined with the Hindutva frenzy it had stirred with the inauguration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya earlier this year, the BJP is confident the CAA gambit will polarize and consolidate the Hindu majority vote in its favor.

The BJP is desperate to wrest control over the eastern state of West Bengal, which is ruled by the opposition Trinamool Congress that has been a thorn in the flesh of the BJP. Muslims, who comprise 27 percent of Bengal’s population, are considered to be a loyal vote bank of the TMC.

The promise of citizenship through the CAA was welcomed by West Bengal’s Matua community, the second largest Scheduled Caste (Dalit) group in the state. Originally inhabitants of Bangladesh, they migrated to India after 1971 due to religious persecution there. Their support helped the BJP gain a foothold in Bengal in the 2019 general elections, when it bagged 18 of the 42 parliamentary seats in the state.

However, with the BJP government dragging its feet on implementation of the CAA over the past four and half years, the Matuas became restive. The BJP is now wooing the Matuas through implementation of the CAA. It will be hoping that this will help it improve on its 2019 performance in West Bengal.

While the March 11 announcement has been welcomed by the Matua community, there are apprehensions in some sections about providing the documentation required to be eligible for citizenship.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has lashed out at the BJP and questioned its intentions behind the timing of the enforcement. She has declared that she will not “allow any detention camps in Bengal” for holding those who don’t qualify for citizenship.

The northeastern state of Assam, which has faced a large migration of Bengali-speaking migrants — both Muslim and Hindu, whether from Bangladesh or India — is opposed to the CAA. Ethnic Assamese have vehemently opposed the CAA since they believe it is an erosion of their cultural and demographic identity. The enactment of the CAA has triggered massive protests in the state.

Notably, Assam is the only state where the NRC exercise has taken place to date. After the official registry was finalized in 2019, many people were labelled illegal immigrants and pushed into detention camps in Assam. Ironically, much to BJP’s dismay, of the 1.9 million who were left out of the NRC in Assam, 1.4 million were Bengali Hindus. Himanta Biswa Sharma, chief minister of this BJP-ruled state, has assured that they will be granted citizenship under the CAA. Nonetheless, protests and strikes have once again rocked the state since March 11.

Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal reacted sharply to the center’s notification of rules for implementing the CAA. He questioned how and where these migrants will be resettled in a scenario where India is struggling to provide basic essentials to its own citizens.

Meanwhile, in opposition Left Democratic Front-ruled Kerala, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has categorically stated that the CAA treats Muslims as second-class citizens and that Kerala will not implement it.

Several rights organizations, including the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and parties like the Indian Union Muslim League, have moved the Supreme Court to stay the implementation of the CAA until the court decides on over 230 petitions challenging the CAA that have been pending before the court since 2019.

The Modi government has gone ahead full throttle in launching an online portal for submission of applications for citizenship under the CAA as well as a helpline.

Following criticism at home and abroad on the CAA, the Home Ministry has sought to assuage concerns by claiming that the law “will not take away citizenship of the 18 crore [180 million] Muslims in India.”

Newsportal The Wire has busted the government’s claims as “lies and half-truths.” Political scientist Niraja Gopal Jayal told BBC online that taken together the NRC and CAA have the “potential of transforming India into a majoritarian polity with gradations of citizenship rights.”

Modi is seeking a third straight term in office. The BJP is turning again to the most successful tool in its arsenal to win the majority vote — communal polarization, this time through enforcing the CAA.