For days, protests have spread across India against a new citizenship law that critics say marginalizes Muslims. Prime minister Narendra Modi insists the law will not “affect any citizen of any religion,” but protestors are not inclined to believe him or his government.
As is often the case, the protesters are shrewder than the politicians. They are right to be suspicious of the new law, which is far more than it seems.
It is, in fact, an amendment to the Citizen Act, clearing the way for members of six religious communities – Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians – to be given citizenship if they can prove they have lived or worked in India for six years. Muslims are pointedly excluded from the act, despite making up India’s second-largest religious community, after Hindus.
The changes are potentially far-reaching. For the first time, the new law makes it possible for religion to be used as a condition of citizenship, something that currently violates secular principles in India’s constitution. There is still a chance the Supreme Court will strike it down.
However, the law is not a one-off. Others laws have been drafted and passed that are designed to push non-Hindu communities in India to the margins of society. This latest law is a crucial step by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) toward making Hinduism the basis for Indian citizenship.
Beginning at the country’s periphery, these laws will gradually burrow into the heart of every city and every village. The protestors have taken to the streets because they know what is coming down the road.
This is not the first time the BJP has tried to use the law to control demography, to increase the Hindu population and marginalize the Muslim one.
In August, the Modi government terminated the special status of Indian-administered Kashmir, bringing the province fully under New Delhi’s control. The government said it was merely bringing the territory into line with the rest of the country. But Kashmir’s status as the only Muslim-majority state in India has raised suspicions. Ending Kashmir’s special status would allow Indians from any other part of the country to settle there, potentially shifting the demographic mix. That could have a significant impact in any future plebiscite.
The citizenship law seems to fit this pattern. Ostensibly, it is an attempt to help those persecuted by neighboring states. But a closer look suggests the citizenship law has nothing to do with events abroad but is aimed squarely at Muslim populations at home. To understand why, we have to look at a different state on the opposite side of India from Kashmir, with a different law.
In Assam, a state in northwest India bordering Bangladesh, the government in August finished updating the citizens’ register, a complex and costly exercise that took four years. Assam’s 30 million citizens were required to provide documents proving they had come to the state before March 24, 1971, the day before Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan. After almost half a century, many could not. In August, 1.9 million people in Assam were declared stateless and many pushed into camps. It is not clear what will happen to them.
Why was Assam chosen out of India’s many states as the first to begin compiling the national register of citizens? Critics have noted that Assam has the second-highest number of Muslim citizens after Kashmir.
The period for appealing against a stateless designation in Assam has not yet passed, but last month it was announced that registration of citizens was to be extended nationwide. In Assam, almost six percent of the population was found to be stateless. Applied across the whole of India’s enormous population, that means tens of millions of people could potentially be rendered stateless.
It doesn’t take much to see how the citizenship law and the national register could be used together to marginalize Muslim citizens.
Given the stipulations of the citizenship law, non-Muslims who cannot provide the right documents could be fast-tracked back to citizenship – the law only requires proof of living or working in India for six years. Those who cannot provide even that proof – the majority of whom will be Muslim – would be declared illegal, and would have no easy way to become citizens. Little wonder, then, that the protests have exploded.
The legal strategies have a broader purpose, which is to tilt the very basis of the state toward the Hindu community and away from Muslims, Christians and other groups. If the citizenship law survives legal scrutiny, it will be the beginning of a move away from a citizenry based on nationality, as was intended by the drafters of the constitution, toward one based on adherence to a particular faith.
This definition of India, not as a state for citizens but as a state for Hindus, is at the very heart of BJP ideology and it makes many Indians profoundly nervous – even Hindus, who worry that allowing a political party to define “Hinduness” will press an ancient and enduring culture into the service of here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians. In a country already riven with dividing lines – religion, economics, gender – faith is the most explosive division of all.
Piece by piece, the BJP is seeking to remake India from the inside. In the process, it is making hundreds of millions of Indian Muslims strangers in their own land.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.