India’s Citizenship Amendment Act institutionalizes anti-minority discrimination and normalises the violation of human rights

What is the CAA?

In December 2019, the Citizenship Amendment Act [CAA] passed the Rajya Sabha, India’s upper house of Parliament, granting amnesty to any “person belonging to [the] Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan”. Amending India’s 1955 Citizenship Act, those who were previously categorized as “illegal migrants” were now fast-tracked through the process of becoming Indian citizens. Supporters of the Act, including Indian Home Minister Amit Shah asserted that the law aimed to “give citizenship” to the “persecuted minorities” of India’s neighbouring nations. Yet, this excluded the state’s largest religious minority population; its 138 million Muslims. India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s [BJP] justified this using “the obvious reality that the three countries are Islamist ones”. Upon first glance, the CAA seems to be a harmless, even humanitarian decision. Why, then, since December 2019, has a wave of dissent swept the South Asian nation?  

In truth, the CAA is only part of the story. Only when analysed in conjunction with the proposed National Register of Citizens [NRC], an official record of Indian citizens - those who can prove they entered the state by 24 March 1971 - can we appreciate the gravity of the Act. The prototype of the NRC was seen as early as August 2019, in the north-eastern state of Assam, where some 1.9m people have now been stripped of citizenship. Between the NRC and CAA, those who have been classified as illegal can use the CAA to apply for citizenship, with the exception of the Muslim population. Despite justifications that the Act only seeks to provide sanctuary to religious minorities, the exclusion of vulnerable Muslim groups such as “Hazaras from Afghanistan, the Shia and Ahmadiyya from Pakistan, and the Rohingya from Myanmar” discredits these claims, indicating a far more sinister agenda. BJP leaders have pledged to implement the NRC throughout the nation by 2024, and with the CAA now enshrined in law, “Muslims alone [will] bear the indignities and consequences of potential statelessness”.

Still, the Act is a mere stepping stone in the right-wing BJP’s wider agenda of transforming India into a Hindu Rashtra [Nation]. As the political branch of the Hindu nationalist [Hindutva] paramilitary group the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [RSS], the BJP has historically opposed India’s secular constitution, and openly supported the creation of a Hindu nation. While communal troubles in India pre-date even the 1947 Partition, it was the 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya by a Hindu nationalist mob - including several members of the BJP - that marked a turning point for Hindu-Muslim relations. The steady deterioration of relations since has seen sectarian riots in Gujarat in 2002, which left more than 1,000 people dead, 800 of them Muslims. Gujarat’s BJP leadership, then-Chief Minister Narendra Modi, expressed little remorse for the events, setting the foundation for its future policies in central government. Since its election win in 2014, Modi’s BJP administration has done little to counter growing Islamophobia in the country, and often encouraged it. Lynchings of India’s minorities have surged, with Human Rights Watch reporting at least 44 between May 2015 and December 2018, as have other campaigns of violent intimidation, along with the overall marginalization and demonization of Muslims. It was Modi’s landslide re-election in 2019, however, which sealed the fate of India’s Muslim minority. Prior to this, the BJP’s actions had largely been limited to, at best turning a blind eye, and at worst, complicity in Islamophobic attacks. Modi’s second term, however, has precipitated a dangerous turn towards institutionalising discrimination against Indian Muslims.  Article 48 of India’s constitution prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves has given lynch mobs a carte blanche to arbitrarily attack minorities, often Muslims, who are suspected of “eating beef, slaughtering cows, or transporting cattle for slaughter”. Though the Supreme Court has, since 2018, urged central and state governments to implement stricter laws for such killings, no appropriate action has been taken, while the Home Ministry “instructed the National Crime Records Bureau to omit lynchings from the 2019 crime data report”. The lack of convictions for the crime of forced conversions has also emboldened Hindutva groups to “conduct campaigns of harassment, social exclusion, and violence” against Muslims and other minorities. Finally, the repealing of India’s sole Muslim province, Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutonal autonomy, has seen the widespread violation of human rights including freedom of movement and assembly, and freedom of expression. The Citizenship Amendment Act used in conjunction with the NRC, is little more than a calculated final step in the BJP’s long-standing agenda to create a Hindu Rashtra, through the institutionalization of Islamophobia and erasure of India’s Muslim population

What have the impacts of the CAA been?

The CAA’s assent violates a number of laws and conventions, threatening the very existence of India’s Muslim population. Article 15 of the Indian Constitution of 1950 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of “religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them”. The Citizenship Amendment Act is not only a contravention of this article, but the wider “secular principles enshrined in the constitution”. Moreover, the Act breaches not only the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which India is a signatory, but other international human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, prohibiting the restriction of civil or political rights on the basis of religion. Perhaps the most blatant violation of basic human rights has been the setting up of detention centers in Assam, to detain those declared illegal by the NRC. As of November 2019, Assam had six such centres, with 988 people detained within them.

By January 2020, over fifty petitions protesting the law had been brought to the Supreme Court. In March 2020, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, filed an application urging the Supreme Court to grant the UN permission to be a third party in one such petition. While the move generated backlash from the BJP government who stated that the CAA was an “internal matter”, it signified widespread international concern for the violation of human rights in India. The combination of the CAA and NRC, on the most fundamental level, threatens the disenfranchisement of millions of Indian Muslims by not only eradicating their say in democratic processes, but also by potentially rendering them stateless.   

The Act has precipitated the mobilisation of the Indian public on an unprecedented scale. Beginning on December 15, the women of Shaheen Bagh - a Muslim-majority neighborhood of Delhi - staged peaceful protests which drew attention from across the country and the globe. The demonstrations were a watershed moment, not only in their scale and length - lasting over a hundred days before the Covid-19 pandemic forced the country into lockdown - but also in terms of gender roles. While Muslim women, “many with their infants and children wrapped tightly to their waists” held the government to account, Muslim men instead helped with distributing provisions, standing guard and managing entry into the premises. The peaceful protests of Shaheen Bagh negated a number of stereotypes disseminated by Hindutvists about Indian Muslims. The so-called backwards, uneducated, violent, misogynistic community simultaneously challenged the government, centuries of a patriarchal system, and disproved the dominant, hateful narrative to which they have long been subjected.

Concurrently with Shaheen Bagh were demonstrations led by the students of India’s various universities. This mass mobilisation quickly expanded to citizens and faculty members, not only from Indian universities, but from around the world. These protests, however, were met with a campaign of violent repression by the government and state sponsored police force. On December 15, police opened fire on students at Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, beating several students and some staff. One academic present at these protests, who has requested to stay anonymous, recounted a protest at Jantar Mantar, a famous Delhi landmark. The peaceful demonstration had a large turnout with students singing, and holding up slogans. Faculty members, including elderly ones “formed a ring around the students so that if the police stepped in, they had a barrier to protect them”. Despite the non-violent nature of the protests, police were dressed in military gear and armed with water cannons. While the demonstrations began peacefully and democratically, actions by the government and police force resulted in an eruption of communal violence and repression of those who opposed the Act.

In January 2020, four days of brutality swept the Indian capital.  What began as stone pelting between protestors and supporters of the CAA, culminated in Hindu mobs roam[ing] the streets, while Muslims were burned alive or lynched, their properties and businesses destroyed. Human Rights Watch reported 52 deaths and 200 injuries, with the Muslim community overwhelmingly bearing the brunt of the brutality. Musharraf, a a 30-year-old Muslim man from north-east Delhi had his house broken into by men armed with iron rods, knives and chains. Despite the pleas of his wife and young children, Musharraf was dragged into the street and beaten to death, his mutilated body thrown in a gutter. The Guardian reports that in al-Hind hospital in Mustafabad, an area on the frontline of the violence, Dr Meeraj Ekram recounted over 500 patients who had suffered from gunshot wounds, stabbings, acid burns and mutilated genitalia. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the violence was the fact that the state and law enforcement stood by and watched, and “those who called the police for help did so in vain”.

What happened in Delhi over those four days was not a clash, nor a riot. It was a pogrom. Not only did police turn a blind eye to lynchings and murders, but they overwhelmingly targeted protestors and “actively participated in the mob attacks on Muslims”. Authoritarian measures including a colonial-era law against public gatherings, internet shutdowns, limits on public transportation and the arbitrary arrests of those critical of the government, were used to further repress any opposition to the Act. The police, however, were taking orders from the upper echelons of government; the BJP, and even those who have called out against the violence and complicity of the police, have been silenced. Justice S Muralidhar, a judge of the Delhi high court, condemned the actions of the police and government and within a week was transferred to another court.

The government’s dangerous rhetoric and draconian actions have irrefutably emboldened the repression of India’s Muslim population. What began as a “virulent” campaign against Muslims to garner votes for the Delhi Legislative Assembly election in February, rapidly turned into revenge, when the BJP lost to the Aam Aadmi Party.  The violence in Delhi was directly provoked by a local BJP politician, Kapil Mishra, who had “led a large demonstration calling to “shoot” the protesters[1] and posted a video in which he gave an ultimatum to the police, threatening to take matters into his own hands. Uttar Pradesh province’s BJP chief minister Yogi Adityanath stated that anti-CAA protestors should be fed “bullets not biryani”, while Vice magazine released a documentary in which prominent BJP leader, Dr. Subramanian Swamy, claimed that “we know where the muslim population is large, there’s always trouble”. Such dangerous rhetoric compounds the legitimization of anti-Muslim discrimination in India, with the promotion and normalization of violent means to further repress and ultimately exterminate their voice.

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has meanwhile been the final nail in the coffin of Indian Muslims, forcing protests to grind to a halt, justifying the “quarantining” - or rather, arrest - of large swathes of the population, and fuelling Islamophobic rhetoric. Days before lockdown was implemented in India, a mass meeting of the Tablighi Jamaat, a fundamentalist Islamic missionary group, had taken place, with roughly 8,000 people in attendance. While a number of those present had unknowingly contracted Covid-19, and carried it across various regions of India, this was capitalised on by the state, as a way to further repress the Muslim population. Police were ordered to gather anyone associated with the organisation, and by April 2020, over “27,000 Tablighi Jamaat members and their contacts [had] been quarantined in about 15 states”. Meanwhile, the BJP have exploited this incident, embarking on a vitrolic campaign that claims the members are involved in an Islamic conspiracy of “corona terrorism”, and intend on infecting and killing millions. This has been disseminated among the wider public through social media and TV, with Twitter hashtags such as “CoronaJihad” becoming trending topics. Muslims have, as a result, been separated into different hospital wards, and in some cases entirely denied hospital treatment. The banning of Muslims from certain public spaces, neighbourhoods and access to healthcare echoes the era of racial segregation in the United States. The world cannot simply stand by and watch as the largest democracy in the world seeks to institutionalize dsicrimination against a community of 138 million citizens.  

What is the CAA’s wider significance?  

Arundhati Roy has controversially claimed that the situation in India is “approaching genocidal”, comparing the Nazi Party’s usage of typhus to stigmatize the Jewish population with the “cultural preparation” against Muslims occurring in India. While likening the persecution of Indian Muslims to the largest genocide in living history would be inappropriate, the idea of cultural preparation preceding a genocide is undeniable. The BJP, state apparatus and media have been complicit in a long trajectory towards making Muslims second class citizens, from spreading venomous rhetoric, to normalizing and advocating violence against the community. The Citizenship Amendment Act is simply the crescendo in the steady march towards the creation of a Hindu Rashtra, an ethnic democracy in which citizenship is hierarchical. The CAA undermines India’s secular constitution and its role as the largest democracy in the world, in which every citizen is equal, and has a voice. It weakens India’s role as a beacon of religious, cultural and ethnic diversity. It violates countless international treaties to which India is a signatory, and above all, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

While Prime Minister Modi insists that the policies of the government are not discriminatory, he has done little to substantiate his words. Far from establishing a dialogue with those protesting, Modi has not even prevented his party members and supporters from spewing hateful rhetoric, nor has he urged state governments to prosecute those responsible for the numerous Islamophobic human rights abuses that have occurred. The Prime Minister, and the BJP government, must be held to account. How can India continue to call itself a democracy, and uphold its dedication to safeguarding human rights when those in its uppermost positions of government claim “there is no such thing as equal rights, [Muslims] are not in an equal category”?  

That the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has condemned India’s Citizenship Amendment Act as “fundamentally discriminatory” against Muslims, should be cause enough for international outrage. Governments worldwide, particularly allies of India must take swift and tangible measures to put an end to the misery and relentless persecution of Indian Muslims. Inaction in this situation would set a precedent for countries to persecute minorities without consequence, a trend already visible in China with the persecution of Uyghur Muslims and in Myanmar with the Rohingya minority. It is no longer enough to make statements without any substantial action; independent investigations must be conducted and sanctions implemented. The world cannot simply stand by and watch silently, as the largest democracy in the world undertakes a monumental program of ethno-religious cleansing.

[1] Mishra popularized the slogan “desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko” [shoot them, those traitors of the nation].