Since December 2019, India, the second most populous nation in the world with great diversity in religion, ethnicities, and language, has been facing large-scale protests across the country. Mass protests swept when the parliament on December 11 approved the new Citizenship Amendment Act, which makes religion a criterion for receiving Indian citizenship, thereby violating the secular constitution of India. The new law that has been pushed by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was ratified by President Ram Nath Kovind on December 12.
The issue with the 2019 amendment is that it allows illegal immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, but only Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who entered India on or before December 31, 2014, due to religious persecution or fear thereof to be given Indian citizenship. The law also reduced the duration of required residency from 11 years to five years for people belonging to the mentioned six religions and three countries [Indian Ministry of Law and Justice, 2019]. It caused a wave of disagreement among the population due to several reasons. The most significant issue is that it does not offer citizenship to Muslim minorities, which for India – the second largest Muslim populated country in the world – is crucial. The amendment also violates secular and non-discriminatory principles of the constitution, the right to equality, equality before the law and protection of human rights of all individuals including non-citizens. In addition, it may evoke an influx of more refugees from the neighboring countries, which will affect the demographics, decrease employment opportunities and worsen other social conditions. Yet, there are much more consequences that will stem from these changes, which induced protests across the country, including in such major cities as Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Kerala, Karnataka, Assam, and Tripura. While the mentioned cities imposed a curfew and internet shutdowns, Prime Minister Narendra Modi twitted that “No Indian has anything to worry regarding this Act. This Act is only for those who have faced years of persecution outside and have no other place to go except India” [Modi, 2019]. So, what are the implications of the updated Citizenship Amendment Act and why is it crucial for the Indian population?
First, India is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol hence it does not provide a national protection framework to refugees. Yet India has been hosting refugees since its independence, whose number as of 2014 amounted to around 200,000. Namely, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates, in September 2014, India registered around 109,000 Tibetan, 65,700 Sri Lankan, 14,300 Rohingyas, 10,400 Afghan, 746 Somali and 918 other refugees. India hosts refugees from Tibet since 1959; refugees from Bangladesh since 1971; Chakmas, a Buddhist ethnic minority from former East Pakistan, since 1963; and refugees from Sri Lanka since 1983, 1989 and 1995 due to the civil war; from Afghanistan since the 1980s and from Myanmar since 1990s [Ahmad, 2017]. Refugees find home in India due to social instability, poverty, armed conflicts and persecution in their own countries. Even though the Indian government does not officially recognize them as refugees and lists them as “illegal migrants”, the government de facto allows protecting them through the UNHCR. In addition, the Indian government follows the principle of non-refoulment, refusing to return refugees to a place where they face a threat to their life. Hence, depending on the situation, the Indian government applies an ad hoc approach to different refugee influxes, whereas mainly political and administrative decisions rather than a certain codified model of conduct provide the relevant status to refugees [HRLN, 2007].
Meanwhile, the Indian Constitution defines two broad categories of people granted with citizenship: 1) those who were residing in India during the adoption of the Constitution automatically became Indian citizens; 2) those who moved across borders but with different patterns of movements from/to Pakistan and returned before the commencement of the Constitution [Roy, 2010]. Further, the initial Citizenship Act of 1955 enacted under Article 11 of the Indian Constitution provided the acquisition and determination of Indian citizenship by birth, descent, registration, naturalization, or through the incorporation of territory. At the same time, the term “illegal migrant” in the act is defined as a foreigner, who entered India without a valid passport or other travel documents and/or remains therein beyond the permitted period of time. Overall, at present, the Constitution of India, the Citizenship Act of 1955 and the Citizenship Rules of 1956 are the legal bases for determining citizenship in India. In addition, the Citizenship Amendment Acts were adopted in 1986, 1992, 2003, 2005, 2015 and 2019. In particular, a major change in 1986 was the requirement for the citizenship by birth to have at least one parent as an Indian citizen; the 2003 change requested that a parent could not be an illegal immigrant; moreover, before the latest amendment came into force, Indian citizenship could not be granted to illegal immigrants. Apart from that, the initial act did not distinguish refugees fleeing persecution from other foreigners [TISS, 1955].
In the 2003 amendment, the government of India also introduced the National Register of Citizens (NRC), an official record of legal citizens, where people have to prove that they entered India by March 24, 1971, a day before Bangladesh became an independent country. Subsequently, the NRC was held in the state of Assam in northeastern India between February 2015 and August 2019 in a pilot mode. As a result, 33 million Assamese were asked to provide their documents of ancestry to be enlisted as Indian citizens. However, due to displacement, poverty, and illiteracy, 1.9 million people, many of whom are Muslims, could not prove their belonging and were accused of being “infiltrators” [Perrigo, 2019]. Needless to say, the government chose to implement the NRC first in Assam due to a vast number of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, both Hindu and Muslim, who came in India during the course of the liberation war in Bangladesh in 1971. According to the 1972 joint declaration, the Indian Prime Minister pledged to complete an unprecedented task of resettling the refugees and displaced persons in Bangladesh. Notably, the 1985 Assam Accord and the 1986 amendment in the Citizenship Act, fixed the date of March 24, 1971 as the cut-off date for deportation of all undocumented immigrants [Roy, 2010]. Thus, being among the largest recipients of immigrants, Assam suffers more than other Indian states under the present amendments, and, as a result, it was among the first states that protested against the new law. It is noteworthy that other northeastern states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Manipur (included on December 9, 2019) that have the Inner Line Permit system, as well as the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura, are exempt from the act.
Consequently, the implementation of the new citizenship amendments has multiple implications for both India and its neighborhood. According to the official rhetoric, the amendments, which was pushed by the BJP and was part of the election promises about the Hindu nation of incumbent Prime Minister Modi, are a humanitarian measure that aims to help non-Muslim minorities from the three countries who faced religious persecution and entered India before 2015. Yet, these measures seem to be part of the larger project to persecute Muslims as second-class citizens, especially taking into account the August 5, 2019 revocation by the government of the special status of India’s only Muslim-majority state Jammu and Kashmir. Besides, those illegal migrants coming from Muslim-majority countries are largely forced to search for refuge due to the extreme level of poverty and other threatening conditions back home, including armed conflicts and religious persecution. Hence, if the Indian government’s aim was to protect minorities, the act has to include Muslim minorities, since they are also facing religious persecution like Ahmadis in Pakistan. Moreover, India’s constitution declares the state secular, therefore any religious segregation should be excluded, especially in the largest Muslim minority country in the world. At the same time, the amendments threaten to disrupt the existing demographics of Indian states. Assam, as well as other northeastern states, received large numbers of Bangladeshi migrants between 1951 and 1971. Accordingly, the Assamese are worried by the possibility of a new influx of illegal migrants from the neighborhood that would affect the socio-economic condition of people. Indeed, illegal migrants are poor people whose presence directly affects the wellbeing of the low-income class of India. As a matter of fact, even though India made significant progress in reducing poverty down to 271 million people in 2016, 5% of the Indian population still live in extreme poverty, according to the World Poverty Clock [OPHI, 2019; Slater, 2018].
Another public concern is about the updated NRC, which, according to Home Minister Amit Shah, will be implemented throughout the country. In view of 1.9 million of the Assamese that were excluded from the Indian citizenship list and are in danger of becoming stateless due to the NRC, the planned nation-wide NRC process causes more concerns rather than strengthens belief in the eradication of the problem with “infiltrators”. Therefore, taking into account the Indian government’s lackluster experience with nation-wide projects that mainly affect the most vulnerable poorest people, such as the chaos of the November 2016 demonetization, the results of the NRC implementation might be detrimental. Either way, it seems that through marginalizing religious minorities and detecting “infiltrators”, the BJP-led government seeks support for the next assembly election in India among other groups of voters. Yet, the ongoing protests show that the government has to more carefully deal with its diverse and democratic society. Otherwise, the influx and outflow of refugees could become a regional problem.
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Human Rights Law Network (2007). Report of Refugee Populations in India. Retrieved from https://www.hrln.org/admin/issue/subpdf/Refugee_populations_in_India.pdf. Accessed on 21.12.2019.
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Roy, Anupama (2010). Mapping Citizenship in India. Oxford University Press, 226 p.
Slater, Joanna (2018). India is no longer home to the largest number of poor people in the world. Nigeria is. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/07/10/india-is-no-longer-home-to-the-largest-number-of-poor-people-in-the-world-nigeria-is/. Accessed on 21.12.2019.
Tata Institute of Social Sciences (1955). The Citizenship Act. Retrieved from https://www.tiss.edu/uploads/files/Citizenship_Act_1955.pdf. Accessed on 21.12.2019.
Modi, Narendra (2019). Official Twitter Account. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/narendramodi/status/1206492850378002432. Accessed on 24.12.2019.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Dr.Albina Muratbekova is a research fellow of the Eurasian Research Institute at H.A.Yassawi Kazakh Turkish International University. Albina holds a PhD degree in Oriental Studies from Al Farabi Kazakh National University. She was a Fellow of the EUCACIS PhD support programme, Fudan Fellow 2017, a visiting student of the Cambridge Central Asia Forum at the University of Cambridge along with being an exchange student at Lanzhou University. Previously, she had worked at the international departments of Narxoz and AlmaU universities on the implementation of the internationalization strategy of th