Why is India’s Citizenship Amendment Act so controversial?

The law, which comes into force on the eve of elections, creates India’s first religion-based citizenship test, discriminating against Muslims and some other refugees.

Students protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Guwahati, India,
Students protest against the CAA in Guwahati, Assam [Anupam Nath/AP]

The Indian government on Monday announced the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a law that was passed by parliament in 2019 but was not enforced until now.

This decision on the CAA – whose passage in parliament had set off protests across the country five years ago over allegations of an anti-Muslim bias – comes weeks before Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks a third term in office through national elections.

So what is the law about, and why is it so controversial?

What is the Citizenship Amendment Act in India?

The Act, which was an amendment to the 1955 Citizenship Act, was first introduced in the parliament in July 2016 and passed in December 2019.

Before the CAA, any foreign national seeking Indian citizenship through naturalisation needed to have spent 11 years in India to become eligible.

The CAA expedites Indian citizenship applications of Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians who escaped to India from religious persecution in Muslim-majority Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan before December 31, 2014. They become eligible for citizenship in five years. Applicants from these faiths are eligible even if they are currently living in India without valid visas or other required paperwork.

Home Minister Amit Shah, a close confidant of Modi, posted on X that the law will enable minorities persecuted on religious grounds in neighbouring countries to acquire Indian citizenship.

But what about Muslim asylum seekers?

Before the CAA, India’s citizenship law did not make religion a determinant of a person’s eligibility for an Indian passport. All those seeking naturalisation had to show that they were in India legally, and needed to wait for the same period – 11 years – to become eligible for citizenship.

That’s what the CAA changes – introducing for the first time in independent India’s history – a religious test for citizenship.

Muslim victims of religious persecution in Pakistan (like the Ahmadiyya), Afghanistan (the Hazara) or other neighbouring nations (such as the Rohingya in Myanmar), will still need to wait for 11 years before they become eligible for Indian citizenship. And unlike Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians, they need valid documentation to justify their presence in India.

This, many legal experts have argued, violates Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, which says: “The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.”

In 2019, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a statement describing the law as discriminatory against Muslims.

But other communities – including many who have long sought refuge in India – have also been denied the benefits of the law.

Human rights watchdog Amnesty India said in an X post on Monday that the law goes against the constitutional values of equality and “legitimizes discrimination based on religion”. Amnesty India added that the act also denies benefits to Tamils from Sri Lanka, and immigrants from countries like Nepal and Bhutan.

In 2019, after the law was passed, large protests broke out across India. Violent clashes erupted in New Delhi. More than 100 people were killed across the country, mostly Muslims. Hundreds of others were injured.

How can beneficiaries get faster citizenship?

The Indian government announced that those eligible under the CAA can apply for Indian citizenship using an online portal, launched by Shah’s home ministry on Tuesday.

A committee headed by the Director of Census Operations will review applications, a government notification on Monday said. The panel will have seven other members.

What’s next?

There are more than 200 petitions against the law still pending before Indian courts even as the CAA has come into effect.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party government has denied that the law is discriminatory towards Muslims, arguing that it only seeks to protect those escaping religious persecution. A statement released by the Home Ministry said “many misconceptions have been spread” about the law and its implementation was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the same time, critics fear that the Hindu majoritarian BJP will also seek to implement another initiative, the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which aims to identify and deport immigrants in India without valid papers.

Combined, the CAA and NRC could allow the government to expel all of those deemed “illegal” migrants – and then allow Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians to re-enter, while denying the same opportunity to Muslims.

BJP leaders have previously made remarks discriminating against Muslim refugees. Home Minister Shah has, in the past, called Bangladeshi immigrants “termites”, “infiltrators” and a threat to national security.

What is the NRC and how is it linked to the CAA?

The NRC is a register that is meant to identify and deport “illegal” immigrants.

It has only been implemented in India’s northeast state of Assam so far, where nearly two million people, including Hindus and Muslims, were left out of the citizenship list in August 2019. The BJP has declared its intent to implement the NRC nationwide.

What has the response been so far?

Protests have erupted in parts of India as a result of the CAA implementation.

Students of Jamia Millia Islamia, a university in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera that protests broke out in the institute and police arrived. Security forces conducted flag marches in areas near Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, which became a hub of protests over the CAA in 2019 and 2020.

Critics have also pointed out how the law has deliberately been implemented right as elections are about to take place. Yogendra Yadav, a political scientist and activist who was closely associated with the anti-CAA protests, told Al Jazeera that this move of voter polarisation by the BJP before elections is unsurprising.

Jairam Ramesh, spokesperson for the opposition Congress party posted on X: “After seeking nine extensions for the notification of the rules, the timing right before the elections is evidently designed to polarise the elections, especially in West Bengal and Assam”.

The opposition Communist Party of India (Marxist), which governs the southern state of Kerala, called for state-wide protests on Tuesday against the CAA.

Activists from several organisations in Assam, including the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), burned copies of the law, calling for a statewide shutdown on Tuesday. Different student groups are organising similar protests in other regional states, including Meghalaya and Tripura. Many of these groups are opposed to the CAA not because of its allegedly discriminatory nature but because they oppose the legalisation of citizenship status for any foreign nationals.

Source: Al Jazeera