Indian government notifies rules for Citizenship Amendment Act

The Modi government delivered on its 2019 campaign promise to implement the controversial law, which provides an expedited route to Indian citizenship to undocumented migrants from six religious communities from neighboring countries but excludes Muslims

March 12, 2024 by Peoples Dispatch
A protest against the CAA. Photo: Muzammil, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

On March 11, the central government in India, led by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), notified the Rules to implement the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). 

Passed by Parliament in 2019, the law grants an expedited route to Indian citizenship to undocumented migrants from six religious communities, except Muslims, alleged to be fleeing religious persecution from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh — the predominantly Muslim countries neighboring India.

The CAA had sparked major protests in the country in 2019, including the months-long, women-led sit-in in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, as people condemned the Act’s discriminatory exclusion of Muslims. The law was passed at a time when India had already been witnessing a severe rise in anti-Muslim sectarian violence and the growing mainstreaming of far-right Hindu extremism.

In February 2020, horrific violence spread in the north-east parts of the national capital, in which 53 people were killed, 40 of whom were Muslim.

In July of that year, a report prepared by a fact-finding committee constituted by the Delhi Minorities Commission stated that the violence had erupted “almost immediately” after a speech made by BJP politician Kapil Mishra, calling for the forcible removal of anti-CAA protesters in North East Delhi’s Jafrabad locality.

The report stated that the violence over the next four days had unfolded in an “organized” and “systematic pattern,” and that Muslim people, houses, mosques, vehicles, and shops had been “selectively attacked.”

Student leaders and activists arrested in the “Delhi riots conspiracy case,” including Umar Khalid and Sharjeel Imam have remained in prison without trial, even as Mishra was made the Vice-President of the BJP’s Delhi unit in 2023.

Meanwhile, announcing the notification of rules on Monday, Home Minister Amit Shah said the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi had “realized the promise of the makers of our constitution to the Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians living in those countries.”

The CAA was a key election promise of the BJP in the 2019 elections, and the rules have been notified just weeks before India is set to head to the polls once again. A slate of over 200 petitions challenging the Act for its discrimination against Muslims, citing Article 14 of the Constitution which guarantees equality before law and equal protection of the law, are still pending before the Supreme Court.

Under the Act, members of the six designated religious groups from the three countries will be granted citizenship if they are able to prove that they had entered India by December 31, 2014 and have lived in the country for five years, as opposed to 11 years under the citizenship law prior to the 2019 amendment. Muslims have been excluded from this provision en masse.

The Act drew wide-ranging criticism, given that religion would become a basis for citizenship in a country where secularism is enshrined in the constitution.

Responding to Tuesday’s notification, the Chief Minister of Kerala Pinarayi Vijayan reiterated that the State would not implement the CAA in the state, stating that it treated Muslim minorities as “second class citizens” and was a move to “divide the people, incite communal sentiments” and “stratify Indian citizens who have equal rights.”

“This can only be seen as part of the Hindutva communal agenda of the Sangh Parivar [the Hindu-right coalition of groups including the BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh],” the Chief Minister, who is from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said in the statement.

The opposition to the CAA was also amplified when considered alongside the separate project of preparing a National Register of Citizens (NRC).

In 2019, the central government had  approved funds for an updated National Population Register (NPR), to record “usual residents of the country,” including foreign nationals. 

The government has since denied that the extensive data collected under the NPR would link to an eventual NRC, which will definitively determine those who hold Indian citizenship and those who are undocumented migrants present in the country “illegally.” Apprehensions have remained given the government’s own statements calling the NPR the “first step” to a country-wide NRC.

In the event of people being unable to provide the necessary documentation and being left out of the NRC, as was the case in Assam— the northeastern border State where the sole NRC exercise has been conducted— they can appeal their case in what are called Foreigners Tribunals, a process marred by delays leaving poor and otherwise marginalized groups in a state of fear and uncertainty. 

With the CAA, undocumented people belonging to the designated religious groups under the law will be able to seek recourse through its provisions. However, Muslim people will be deemed to be in the country “illegally” and be at risk of “statelessness, deportation, and prolonged detention.”

The State governments of West Bengal and Kerala had refused to update NPR at the time. West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, stated on Tuesday that her party would “see” the notification and rules and determine if people “are being deprived of their rights under the rules, then we will fight against it”, adding that the move was “BJP’s publicity for elections” given that four years had passed between the law being approved and the issuing of the rules putting it into force.

Banerjee added that her party would “not accept NRC”, and “if people are sent to detention camps in [the] name of CAA, we will stop that ploy too…”. 

Protests were held by various student organizations at Delhi University on Tuesday. Media reports said over 150 students were detained by the police. Protests were also organized by students at the Jamia Millia Islamia University, were students held a press conference through the University’s locked gates, stating that the notification of the CAA rules just before the elections was a tactic of polarization. Among the demands raised at the protest was the repeal of the CAA, the release of all students and activists arrested during the protests against the CAA-NRC, and for a removal of police presence from the University. 

Police and paramilitary personnel had been deployed to the area on Monday following a protest at the campus, which had also been one the key sites of the 2019-2020 protests.

The Delhi State Committee of the left-wing Students’ Federation of India (SFI), has called for protests and demonstrations across the capital on March 13.