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India's Citizenship Amendment Act: Why is it controversial?

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
March 13, 2024

Opposition parties and rights groups say the new citizenship law discriminates against Muslims and undermines the country's secular constitution

Protesters holding placards at an anti-CAA demonstration
Sporadic protests erupted this week after the announcement regarding the CAA's implementation but there have been no reports of damage or violenceImage: Subrata Goswami/DW

This week, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the implementation of the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), drawing sharp criticism from opposition parties and rights groups.

The CAA was passed by India's Parliament in 2019, but was not enforced until now.  

What is the law about?

The CAA fast-tracks Indian citizenship applications of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian immigrants who escaped to India from religious persecution in Muslim-majority Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

Instead of having to spend 11 years in the country to qualify for citizenship through naturalization, they would become eligible after just five years.

The law excludes Muslim immigrants from these countries, marking the first time that India has set religious criteria for citizenship.

The law will enable minorities persecuted on religious grounds in neighboring countries to acquire Indian citizenship, Home Minister Amit Shah wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

What do opposition parties say?

After the law was passed in 2019, widespread protests broke out across India.

Sectarian violence flared, killing scores of people and wounding hundreds.

Sporadic protests erupted this week after the announcement regarding the law's implementation, but there have been no reports of damage or violence.

In the national capital, New Delhi, where the 2019 protests were centered, authorities were on alert for any violence, prohibiting unlawful gatherings and increasing police presence in sensitive areas.

Opposition parties, Muslim groups and rights activists say the CAA discriminates against Muslims and undermines India's secular constitution.

"This law has been about creating two tiers of citizenships in India: non-Muslims and Muslims," Yogendra Yadav, a prominent political activist, told DW.

The CAA was a key promise in the 2019 election manifesto for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and has been implemented weeks before Modi seeks a rare third term as prime minister.

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Opposition leaders have also questioned the timing of the move, saying it is aimed at polarizing voters on religious lines.

"Ahead of general elections, the Modi government notifies rules under CAA. This is clearly aimed at sharpening communal polarization and seeking to electorally benefit," Sitaram Yechury, secretary general of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told DW.

Critics have filed a number of lawsuits in Indian courts calling for the scrapping of the legislation. 

What's the government's response?

The BJP has denied that the law is discriminatory toward Muslims, who account for about 15% of India's 1.4 billion people.

The party has accused the opposition of trying to create a "fear psychosis" among people.

"It is not as if people are going to be grabbed or deported because of the CAA. The government has decided to approach the issue in a humanitarian fashion. It will provide refugees a dignified life," BJP national spokesperson Tom Vadakkan told DW.

The Home Ministry, for its part, said in a tweet that "many misconceptions have been spread" about the law and that it "will not take away citizenship of any Indian citizen, irrespective of religion."

What are critics' concerns?

Critics say Modi is pushing a Hindu-nationalist agenda that threatens to erode India's secular foundation, shrink space for religious minorities, particularly Muslims, and move the country closer to a Hindu nation.

Muslim groups say the CAA, coupled with another initiative known as the National Register of Citizens (NRC), could be used to marginalize them. 

The NRC is part of the Modi government's effort to identify and weed out people it claims came to India illegally.

It has already been implemented in the northeastern state of Assam, resulting in nearly 2 million people, including both Hindus and Muslims, being excluded from Indian citizenship.

Modi's party has promised to roll out a similar citizenship verification program nationwide.

Critics say the new citizenship law will help protect non-Muslims who are excluded from the register, while Muslims could face the threat of deportation or internment.

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"The BJP has failed on the development front, and this is a diversionary tactic. If the government is looking at giving citizenship to refugees, it is OK — that is its headache," said Sadaf Jafar, an activist who was arrested during the anti-CAA protests in 2019.

"But, if we are asked to show our papers because of the NRC, we will hit the streets again. There will be a big civil disobedience movement if our credentials are questioned," she added.

"They can jail me or shoot me," she said, "but at least I will die on my own soil as an Indian."

No consistent policy toward refugees

Indira Jaising, a former additional solicitor general of India, who has studied the CAA closely, told DW that the policy of protecting persecuted persons is more than welcome but the solution is to grant them all refugee status, regardless of which religion they belong to.

India is not currently a signatory to the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

It has an inconsistent policy toward asylum-seekers and refugees. It treats them differently, either based on relations with the country from where they are arriving or after considering domestic politics.

"India must sign the Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees to demonstrate its commitment to the persecuted and stop persecuting its own minorities," Jaising said. 

"Failing this," Jaising said, "the CAA will be seen as a project to establish a Hindu nation."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11