INDIA: Government implements controversial Citizenship Amendment Act

India’s central government has announced that the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) will come into effect immediately.

CSW (15.03.2024) – The Act, which was strongly opposed by various national and international stakeholders for discriminating against Muslims, was passed by India’s Lok Sabha (Lower House) in December 2019, prompting protests and clashes across the country. At least 53 people were killed after violence erupted during protests in New Delhi in February 2020, and some estimates place the total death toll from clashes across the country at over 100.

Implementation of the law was delayed due to the unrest; however on 11 March 2024 the Home Ministry issued a statement that those eligible for citizenship under the law could start applying using a new online portal.

According to the law, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis and Sikhs who migrated from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, can prove that they are victims of religious persecution, and arrived in India before 31 December 2014 are eligible for citizenship, even if they have no valid identity documents or visas. The law also reduces the period of citizenship by naturalisation from 11 years to five years for these beneficiaries.

The law has been widely criticised for excluding religious communities from neighbouring countries who have also suffered persecution, such as the predominantly Muslim Rohingya ethnic group from Myanmar/Burma, and the Sri Lankan Tamils. Critics argue that the law is unconstitutional, contravening Article 14 which stipulates that the ‘State shall not deny to any person equality before the law’.

Even as the CAA is being implemented, close to 200 petitions have been submitted to the Supreme Court challenging its constitutionality.

The application of the CAA weeks before India is due to hold general elections, and without any attempt to answer the concerns it has raised, is seen by many as an attempt to solicit votes. Its implementation was a key promise in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s 2019 election manifesto and its enactment comes shortly after the similarly controversial inauguration of the grand Ram Mandir (Ram temple) in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh on 22 January, which was another election promise.

The implementation of the law has also raised concerns within the Indian Muslim community that the BJP’s next move will be to implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which would require Indians to prove their citizenship by showing family documents. While members of other religious communities without documents would be able to apply for citizenship under the CAA, Muslims without documentation would be ineligible for this.

The BJP’s claims that the CAA is not anti-Muslim contrast starkly with discriminatory remarks made towards Muslim refugees by its leaders in recent years. In 2019, Home Minister Amit Shah referred to Bangladeshi Muslim refugees as ‘termites’ and said that his government would pick them up one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal.

Protests against the CAA have begun in several states, including Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Seventy students were detained following protests in Delhi University, and security has been tightened in several areas across Delhi where unrest is expected. The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) has filed a plea before the Supreme Court of India to stay the CAA.

CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: ‘The Citizenship Amendment Act represents a clear departure from the values articulated in the Indian Constitution, and will alienate Muslim and other minority communities, creating further mistrust and increasing the risk of violence against them at a time when sectarian tensions and religious intolerance are already on the rise. We call on the BJP to halt the implementation of the CAA, to revise it as a matter of urgency, and to ensure that all individuals have access to Indian citizenship, regardless of their religion or belief.’ 

Further reading about FORB in India on HRWF website