What Is The Controversy Surrounding India’s Citizenship Amendment Act?

The BJP government has announced the implementation of the divisive Citizenship Amendment Act, which introduces religious tests for paths to citizenship. Critics contend that the law can serve the BJP's goals of finding legal means to deny citizenship rights to Muslims.

What Is The Controversy Surrounding India’s Citizenship Amendment Act?

On March 11, the Indian government announced the implementation of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The bill, originally passed by Parliament in 2019 but only implemented recently, has been met with criticism from various quarters, and sparked nationwide protests since its inception. 

The Citizenship Amendment Act is an amendment to the 1955 Citizenship Act, with the purported aim of providing refuge to persecuted religious minorities from neighboring countries—specifically Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Christians—who faced discrimination in Muslim-majority nations such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The law expedites the citizenship process for these religious groups, reducing the residency requirement from 11 years to just five.

Critics of the CAA argue that it fundamentally alters India's secular fabric by introducing a religious criterion for citizenship, a departure from the country's long-standing principle of secularism. The law explicitly excludes Muslims from its purview, lending credence to accusations of religious discrimination.

“The CAA has always been about creating two tiers of citizenship in India: non-Muslims and Muslims,” said Yogendra Yadav, an activist and academic who supported the anti-CAA protests in 2019.

Article 14 of the Indian Constitution guarantees equality before the law, and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, yet the CAA introduces a religious test for citizenship, contradicting a foundational Constitutional principle. By codifying religious discrimination into law, the CAA paves the way for the rights and dignity of marginalized communities to be marginalized, particularly India’s 20 million Muslims, who fear being further marginalized and targeted by state-sponsored discrimination.

While the CAA extends benefits to specific religious minorities, it excludes persecuted Muslim communities such as the Rohingya from Myanmar, the Ahmadiyya from Pakistan, and the Hazara from Afghanistan. This selective inclusion and exclusion has raised concerns about the law's discriminatory nature and its potential to exacerbate religious tensions within India's diverse social fabric.

Towards a Hindu majoritarian state

The implementation of the CAA has been closely linked to wider political rifts, particularly as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks to instrumentalize Hindu majoritarian politics to make electoral gains in the upcoming elections. 

Critics argue that the timing of the law's implementation, on the eve of the month of Ramadan, and a few weeks ahead of national elections suggests a deliberate strategy to polarize voters along religious lines. The BJP is also facing criticism over an electoral bonds scheme that made it possible for corporate groups to fund political parties without any disclosure over the source and amount of funding. The Indian Supreme Court has struck the scheme down, and many view the revival of the CAA as an attempt to distract the electorate from the electoral bonds fiasco.

The BJP's historical association with Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, has fuels suspicions of a covert agenda behind the CAA's enactment to use religious gradations in citizenship as a means to deny citizenship to Muslims, and to entrench the Hindu identity of the Indian state in law.

The CAA has been linked by senior BJP leaders like Amit Shah to another controversial measure – the National Register of Citizens (NRC). In conjunction with the NRC, the CAA could be used to deport millions of people who have lived in India for generations, but do not have the documentation to prove their legal status. The Citizenship Amendment Act would allow for the non-Muslims to be given a path to citizenship, while giving the government a clear path to expel Muslims whose names do not appear on the NRC.

The passing of the CAA in Parliament in 2019 sparked widespread public outrage and mass demonstrations across India. Citizens from all walks of life, including students, activists, and civil society groups, took to the streets to voice their opposition to what was widely perceived as an attack on India's secular and pluralistic ethos. The protests sought to raise concerns not only about the CAA's discriminatory provisions, but also served as a broader indictment of the BJP government's authoritarian tendencies and wanton disregard for democratic principles.

The CAA has faced legal challenges in Indian courts, with more than 200 petitions in Indian courts filed contesting its constitutionality. Critics argue that the law infringes upon fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution and undermines the secular foundations of the Indian state.

CAA has faced criticism globally

The international community, including the United Nations and the United States, has raised concerns about the CAA's compatibility with international human rights standards. A spokesperson at the UN Office for High Commissioner for Human Rights said "we are concerned that CAA is fundamentally discriminatory in nature and in breach of India's international human rights obligations."

Amnesty International released a statement claiming that "the Citizenship Amendment Act is a bigoted law that legitimizes discrimination on the basis of religion and should never have been enacted in the first place. Its operationalization is a poor reflection on the Indian authorities as they fail to listen to a multitude of voices critical of the CAA."

Even the United States State Department criticized the move, with a spokesperson saying that "we are concerned about the notification of the CAA on March 11... Respect for religious freedom and equal treatment under the law for all communities are fundamental democratic principles."