Indian Muslims, who represent less than 15% of the population but about 200 million people, have been recently affected by different measures. Repeal in August of Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy, ruling by the Supreme Court in November authorizing the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, and, in December, two announcements regarding the extension of the National Register of Citizens to all states and the revision of the Citizenship Act. Christophe Jaffrelot, Senior Research Fellow at Ceri-Sciences Po/CNRS, sheds light on this law’s political implications, both in terms of the emerging governance model and of the redefinition of State-society relations.
Which proposed amendments of the Citizenship Amendment Act will have the greatest impact on the Indian society, and what is the timeline for its implementation?
The Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), which was passed by the Indian Parliament last December, creates a new path to Indian citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians who are victims of religious persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and who have found refuge in India before 2014. These refugees would only have to prove six years of residence in India to apply for citizenship status, rather than the twelve years that the law previously required. It is likely to have a significant impact in some regions because, at the same time it was passed, the Modi government revived an old legislative draft, actually dating back to the first government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the National Register of Citizen (NRC). The NRC was established in 2003 via an amendment to the Citizenship Act to create a register of all Indian citizens. The aim back then was to target undocumented migrants, particularly in Assam, a neighbouring state of Bangladesh from which many migrants have come. In Assam, several laws dating back to the 1980s have enabled the expulsion of undocumented migrants who had arrived after 1971 – when Bangladesh was established – but had never been implemented. The NRC’s creation has revived the case. The Congress-led government from 2004 to 2014 had initiated the first pilot projects, establishing "Foreign Tribunals" to deal with contentious cases, and building the first internment camps.
The BJP’s return to power in 2014, however, gave these operations a new scope, under pressure from the Supreme Court, annoyed by the process’ markedly slow pace. The NRC was extended to the whole of Assam, where the administration declared, in August 2019, that 1.9 million people were in an irregular situation. New "Foreign Tribunals" have been established, new camps have been built, and so on.
The government is now considering extending this process to the whole of India, by replacing the NRC with the National Population Register (NPR), which would in substance hardly make any difference. The combination of the two, the CAA and NPR, would have important consequences because Muslims with an illegal status, unlike other undocumented migrants, would not be eligible for refugee status nor citizenship for that matter. They could end up in camps that the government recently asked Indian states to build.
As for the timeline, it remains uncertain. Pilot projects are said to have started on January 1st 2020, but the full-scale exercise is expected to start in April – though several states, led by the BJP, have already released figures specifying the number of undocumented migrants they have identified... It is all the more unclear because in February 2021, as is the case every decade, the government is due to conduct the customary census operations following the same modus operandi going door-to-door. It is difficult to picture India carrying out this daunting exercise twice, a few months apart.
Which aspects of the text has the protest movement focused most on?
What triggered the first protests was the use of religion as a criterion for citizenship access. Traditionally, as evidenced by the Citizenship Act of 1955, citizenship in India was acquired by birth on Indian soil (jus soli) or by descent (the son or daughter of Indian citizens are themselves an Indian citizen, even if they were born abroad). The reforms which took place from 1987 onwards tended to fully replace the old jus soli by a form of jus sanguinis as at least one of the parents had to be born Indian (and after 2003, the other parent should not be considered as illegal at the time of birth). The CAA poses an even greater problem for those who hold a territorial definition of the nation: by distinguishing refugees' eligibility for Indian citizenship on the basis of their religion, the government is, according to many lawyers, introducing discrimination contrary to Indian law, and the principle of equality for all people before the law.
The law reflects a key dimension of the ethno-religious definition of the nation that Hindu nationalists have always favoured as well as the age-old problem they have had to integrate Muslims into the Indian nation.