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India’s Citizenship Act and the Politics of Belonging

Photo credit: Vishal Bhatnagar/NurPhoto via Getty Images
February 20, 2020

Priya Nair is the Program Coordinator for Common Threads at the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness, where she leads research and programming initiatives related to forced migration. This article was originally published on Alternatives International.

“My daughter and I have been going to India almost every year since she was four years old. This past year when we went, she told me, ‘Ma, this is not the India that I remember.’ I feel she is right … today in India, I see a marked change — people do not have time for their neighbours like they used to … do not know them—there is more of a segregation,” reflected Dipti Gupta, a professor, researcher and independent filmmaker based in Montreal.

Over the past few months, protests have been held in cities across Canada and around the world–including Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, New York, Amsterdam, and Cape Town—against India’s new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).  

The CAA was enacted in December 2019 as an amendment to India’s 1955 Citizenship Act, which delineated five pathways for obtaining Indian citizenship: birth, descent, naturalization, registration, or the incorporation of a territory. The CAA creates a new pathway for undocumented migrants of select religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to gain expedited Indian citizenship, if they entered India prior to 2015. The religious minorities specified in this act include Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians; however, Muslims are explicitly excluded. 

Since the enactment of the CAA, India has been gripped with one of the largest waves of nation-wide protests seen in decades. Both opponents and supporters of the CAA are divided. Some opponents are against the act’s inherent religious discrimination, whereas others are afraid that granting Indian citizenship to the stated religious minorities will alter the demography and culture of their state. Proponents of the CAA also diverge in that some argue it is a humanitarian act supporting persecuted minorities, whereas others see it as a means of building a Hindu nation and establishing a bulwark against a perceived Islamic threat. 

The CAA has shaken the bedrock of Indian’s pluralistic society, raising the polarizing question of who belongs to India. The cross-cutting diversity India holds within its geographic boundaries is unlike any other nation. Diversity has thrived across, within, and between axes of religion, language, caste and tribe in India for centuries and is not merely the product of migration as in the case of many Western nations. India’s pluralist constitution has always ensured that those of different religions, languages, castes, and tribes have an equal right to belong, but the advent of the CAA risks dividing the country along religious lines.

The CAA fundamentally ties the right to belong in India to religious identity. By not offering uniform protection to persecuted Muslim minorities such as Hazaras, Ahmadiyas, Rohingya, or Uighur in neighboring countries, it creates a religious hierarchy of naturalization. This deliberate religious stratification of Indian society has real implications on the ground. Waves of police brutality against Muslims in India have been recorded since the enactment of the CAA. Coupled with the government’s push to introduce a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC), the CAA also risks rendering thousands, if not millions, stateless. 

The National Register of Citizens and The Burden of Proof for Belonging

When the NRC was implemented in the northeastern state of Assam in 2015, all residents had to provide documentary proof that they were ‘genuine’ Indian citizens, as opposed to undocumented migrants. Nearly two million people were left off the final citizen list due to bureaucratic discrepancies or sheer misfortune: lost documentation due to floods or name changes after marriage.

If an NRC were to be implemented country-wide, the CAA would protect most Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Parsis from being rendered stateless; however, the same cannot be stated for Muslims. Muslims who have been living in India for decades—and who consider themselves Indian—may now have to prove their right to belong to India or find themselves in detention camps with no claim to a state.  

A former student at McGill University who was born in India and comes from a Muslim family that has called India home for generations, spoke to me about how recent political developments have affected her, “When I first heard of the CAA, it felt like I was being told I was not equally Indian, that I didn’t belong. My mother is worried about our futures and is trying to ensure that my sisters and I all have voter IDs.” 

While India’s Muslim families anxiously collect and safeguard documents proving that they are indeed Indian citizens, we must ask ourselves what it means to single out one segment of the population and demand they prove their citizenship, and ultimately, their right to belong. 

For many Indians, in the diaspora and at home, the essence of India is rooted in a pluralistic social fabric—1.3 billion people with different religious, regional, and cultural identities who feel a sense of belonging to each other and to the land, are able to call India home. Unfortunately, this may no longer be the case as “being Indian” becomes reduced to a question of citizenship based on religious identity. If we pursue a policy of exclusion, we set a precedent to allow the marginalization of any minority group in India; with a population as diverse as India’s, nearly every person can be deemed a minority through one axis or another. As India divides along its diversity, Dipti’s daughter’s observation holds true: this may no longer be the India we remember.