India’s discriminatory and divisive citizenship bill sparks mass protests

Across India, people have taken to the streets against the discriminatory and unconstitutional bill passed in both houses of parliament that implicitly turns Muslims into second class citizens in the country

December 11, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch

Protests have been raging across India following the approval of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB). The bill, which has been in the works for several years, was officially introduced in the lower house of parliament on December 9, Monday, by home minister Amit Shah. It was passed on the same day and on Wednesday, the bill was approved by the upper house. Following mass protests against the bill, the army has been deployed in the State of Assam and the internet has been shut down at several places.

The CAB allows Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian refugees who faced religious persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and who came to India before December 31, 2014 to apply for Indian citizenship. The bill explicitly excludes Muslim refugees and refugees of any religion from Sri Lanka and Myanmar, hundreds of thousands of whom live in India. Earlier, refugees who came to the country without the necessary documents were considered ‘illegal immigrants’ and were barred from applying for citizenship.

The far-right wing Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi has cited humanitarian concerns as the reason for passing this law. However, the exclusion of Muslims clearly exposes the government’s argument. Leftist and progressive sections of the country have pointed out that the bill is discriminatory and aims to stoke religious and ethnic divides. For instance, Rohingya refugees fleeing genocide not come under the ambit of this bill. Meanwhile, India has been in the forefront of expelling members of the community from the country

Those opposing the bill have pointed out that its aim is to clearly indicate to India’s Muslim community that they are second class citizens. The CAB is closely linked to the government’s plans to carry out a country-wide National Register of Citizens (NRC). The NRC is a mechanism to verify the citizenship of residents of India and remove all those who cannot prove legal status. The NRC exercise was recently completed in the State of Assam following a long-pending demand and over 1.9 million people were excluded from the list of citizens. Both Hindus and Muslims were on the list. The opposition says that through the CAB, the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is trying to ensure that the Hindu refugees get a chance at being citizens while the Muslims are left out. If the NRC is carried out at a countrywide level, Muslims will have to struggle further to prove their citizenship, solidifying India’s status as a Hindu country, which has been part of the BJP’s agenda since its formation.

Mass protests

The passing of the bill in parliament has led to massive opposition from leftist, progressive and secular sections in the country. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and other left parties held a protest on the parliament premises. In a press release, the CPI(M) called the bill unconstitutional: “Granting citizenship on the basis of religion violates the fundamental foundations of the Indian constitution which guarantees not only citizenship but also fundamental rights “irrespective of caste, creed or sex,” the party said. The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation said that “the aim of the CAB is not to benefit refugees and persecuted communities. Rather, it is to exclude Muslims from the definition of Indian citizenship.” Across the country, leftist students and youth organizations are organizing protests and planning civil disobedience movements, including burning of copies of the bill and calls to boycott any NRC processes.

At Delhi, under the banner of United Against Hate, civil society activists burned copies of the bill and described the proposal as “discriminatory in general which targets Muslims in particular”.

Internet shutdown and militarization

Protests have been especially strong in the northeast region of India. The communities there fear that the legalization of the status of the refugees will affect the demographic make-up of the region. Many States in the region have a substantial tribal population that is often wary of refugees.

Students and members of civil society in Assam protested en masse after several student organizations called for a strike in rejection of the bill. One of the placards in the protest held in Assam on December 9 read “Ready to die but not ready to accept the Citizen (Amendment) Bill.” 

“We will never accept this unconstitutional, communal [religion-based] and illegal Citizen Amendment Bill. Everybody who believes in democracy must reject and protest against this bill,” cried a protester in Assam. “It is better you shoot me rather than arrest me,” the protesters shouted in unison. Meanwhile, all major businesses, shops and markets as well as educational centers have been closed following the announcement of the bill in Indian parliament.