Protests erupted across India last week when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to demonstrate against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which passed both houses of parliament on Dec. 11, 2019.
The CAA intends to grant Indian citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who face religious persecution in their respective countries — but excludes nationality to Muslims.
The act struck a nerve in a nation where, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda, secular freedoms, pluralistic principles and Indigenous rights enshrined in the constitution have eroded.
In New Delhi, the capital, thousands of protesters have gathered since Monday, Dec. 16, to sing songs and read out the preamble of the Indian constitution in unison, holding large posters and chanting "azaadi" or freedom in Hindi.
“Our forefathers fought for this constitution ... they included the word 'secular' in it. [The government] can’t just remove this word by proposing a bill. That’s why we are all here. There has to be something that unites India and I think it’s [our] secular freedom."
“Our forefathers fought for this constitution ... they included the word 'secular' in it. [The government] can’t just remove this word by proposing a bill. That’s why we are all here. There has to be something that unites India and I think it’s [our] secular freedom,” said Sandeep Babal, 22, as he cut a big piece of black cloth into small chunks that some protesters used to cover their mouths as a sign of nonviolence.
Sarita Santoshini/The World
Opponents have vehemently criticized the CAA, calling it a violation of Article 14 of the constitution — the right to equality. They say the CAA is unconstitutional because citizenship cannot be granted based on religion. It also leaves out neighboring countries like Sri Lanka and Myanmar, where Tamil and Rohingya people have faced religious persecution. And it excludes rights for the Ahmadi people of Pakistan who have also faced religious persecution.
Several Indian state officials have stated their intention to refuse to implement the Act, and the Supreme Court of India will review the constitutional validity of the Act in January 2020.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has assured citizens that the CAA will not affect them, but critics say that it cannot be understood in isolation from other hardline citizenship policies like the National Register of Citizens (NRC) — a process implemented in the border state of Assam in 2015.
The NRC aims to identify illegal immigrants by asking them to furnish documents to prove ancestry in India. As Modi plans to replicate the NRC nationwide, critics say that the CAA is yet another discriminatory policy that threatens citizenship rights for Muslims.
Assam state, rising
The backlash against the CAA has been the strongest in Assam, where the CAA is rejected not just on constitutional grounds, but also because of Assam's history as a border state that has struggled against what many deem "illegal immigration."
Statewide mass protests, which began on Dec. 11, have led to the deaths of at least four people as a result of police fire. Hundreds of protesters have been detained. The entire state experienced an internet shutdown for nine days that was restored on Dec. 20.
In Assam, citizenship for those deemed “foreigners” — including Bangladeshi Hindus and Muslims — has been a point of contention since the early 1970s, when about 10 million people fled to Assam during Bangladesh’s war of independence.
In 1985, following student-led anti-immigrant protests, in which hundreds were killed, the government signed an accord declaring that anyone who entered Assam without Assam-specific documents after March 24, 1971, would be deemed a foreigner.
The government established tribunals and a border police force tasked with identifying and detaining illegal immigrants. Then came the idea to update the NRC list, the sole purpose of which is to identify valid citizens and root out foreigners in Assam without proper documentation.
The NRC has severely impacted the lives of the poor and marginalized, especially women. Due to poverty, illiteracy and discrimination, many have found it impossible to secure the necessary documents.
At least 1.9 million have been threatened with statelessness after they found their names excluded from the final NRC list released on Aug. 31, 2019.
“In Assam, all of us went through a lot of trouble. Especially the Muslims, they really supported NRC in the initial stages because they were very hopeful that this stigma of illegal immigrants, of being called Bangladeshis and [getting] beaten up [would end.] … They actually believed that once NRC is completed, once their names are included, this stigmatization will end."
At first, Assam welcomed the NRC in the hope that it might once and for all put the question of citizenship to rest, said Parvin Sultana, assistant professor of political science at Assam's Pramathesh Barua College.
“In Assam, all of us went through a lot of trouble. Especially the Muslims, they really supported NRC in the initial stages because they were very hopeful that this stigma of illegal immigrants, of being called Bangladeshis and [getting] beaten up [would end.] … They actually believed that once NRC is completed, once their names are included, this stigmatization will end,” Sultana said.
“But we see that even after this, [the government is] completely negating the entire process because not enough Muslims were left out. So, now I think even people who supported NRC are a bit disillusioned.”
In a recent tweet, Assam’s finance minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, categorized the entire Muslim population of the state as infiltrators from Bangladesh.
On Dec. 9, in parliament, Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah assured citizens that the CAA exempts parts of three northeastern states, including Assam, under protection by the Sixth Schedule in the constitution, which allows for autonomous councils and districts to hold administrative authority.
But the majority of Assam state is not protected by the Sixth Schedule clause. And even northeastern states entirely exempted from the CAA continue to oppose it.
The Assamese community has mobilized for decades against “illegal immigrants” and many fear that the CAA undermines this struggle by allowing for non-Muslims who entered India before 2014 to be eligible for citizenship.
“Assam is of the view that it has already taken the burden of people who came from 1961 to 1971 — which the rest of the country was exempted from,” Sultana said. “There is also a very palpable fear of Assamese culture and language being marginalized in its own state.”
The protests in Assam, Sultana stressed, have been secular and inclusive of religious and linguistic communities. Chants of “jai, aai Axom” or “hail, mother Assam,” reverberated across the state. “It is a mass movement [against CAA],” she said.
Solidarity in Delhi
Protests throughout India began largely with students who spoke out against inequality inherent in the design of the CAA.
On Dec. 15, when protests turned violent at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, thousands of other citizens from all walks of life took to the streets that very night and the following days to condemn the brutal crackdown. Delhi police had forcibly entered campus and allegedly attacked several students. Two students suffered bullet wounds and many others were hospitalized. The police violence is currently under investigation.
“We decided that women in burka, women in hijabs, women in sarees, women in Western clothes, everyone should come out and support each other as a group. We are agitated by what’s happening and we wanted to show our solidarity.”
Kashish Badar, 26, who co-organized a protest on Dec. 17, said she wanted to show her solidarity, especially with women. “We decided that women in burka, women in hijabs, women in sarees, women in Western clothes, everyone should come out and support each other as a group. We are agitated by what’s happening and we wanted to show our solidarity.”
“This Act is wrong, both constitutionally and on humanitarian grounds. If we don’t speak up, who will? We should participate and raise our voice.”
Others came out for the first time to voice their opposition to the CAA. “There is a lot of hatred being spread against Hindus and Muslims,” said Niloufer, 64, a first-time protester who asked The World not to share her last name. “This Act is wrong, both constitutionally and on humanitarian grounds. If we don’t speak up, who will? We should participate and raise our voice.”
Shabana, 32, also a first-time protester who did not want to share her last name, agreed. “Whatever the government is doing is wrong and against the Muslim community,” she said. “But I am not scared. This definitely has to stop.”
At a large protest at India Gate on Dec. 16, a mother marched with her two young children, each holding a placard with the preamble of the constitution. “I want my children to know what fighting for freedom looks like,” she said.
While thousands have protested the CAA on the basis of religious discrimination, not everyone is open to the idea of lax immigration laws.
Meanwhile, protests continue unabated throughout India, despite curfews and protest bans.
On Dec. 19, two people were killed during protests in Mangalore, southern India, and one protester was killed in Uttar Pradesh. On Dec. 20, six more protesters died in Uttar Pradesh as protests turned violent.
“I see it’s a long battle,” said Badar, who organized the women’s protest in the park. “But we are ready to fight it.”