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India's Citizenship Amendment Act: Bigotry Triumphs Over Empathy

By Devasmita Dutta, Sreedipta Roy, Vanshika Sanganeria  | OMC 2024

Photo by Deepak Bhandari.

As India nears its 2024 elections, the government is moving forward with a variety of new legislation; one step it has taken that has triggered reactions from all over the world is the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The CAA, which was introduced in 2019, created an accelerated road to Indian citizenship for persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan while excluding Muslim immigrants from these nations. The CAA’s introduction in 2019 sparked nationwide protests due to its anti-Muslim discrimination, but the ruling party still enjoys majority support. This article explores the duality of reactions to the CAA, focusing on the opinions of previous generations of immigrants, many of whom have taken an anti-immigration stance.

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) excludes people from citizenship based on their religious affiliation and country of origin. It marks the first time that religion has been explicitly utilised as a factor for citizenship under the Indian constitution. The CAA reflects a rise in Islamophobia in Indian politics, much of which can be traced to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP). The BJP has used anti-Muslim rhetoric and discriminatory measures, fueling the narrative of Muslims as a threat to the Hindu majority. Instances of violence and discrimination against Muslims, such as the 2002 Gujarat riots, coupled with the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in 2019 have raised concerns among the Muslim community about potential disenfranchisement. 

Despite India's historical context as a nation shaped by immigration, a notable segment of its immigrant population supports the CAA, citing concerns over perceived threats to their religious identity and economic stability. India's diversity and secularism pose a perceived threat to the self-proclaimed proprietary claims of a significant section of Hindu nationalists who consider themselves the original inhabitants of the land. This majoritarian insecurity, rooted in the belief of being the "first arrivals," has been capitalised upon by the current ruling dispensation, fostering Islamophobic sentiments. This phenomenon underscores a shift towards self-preservation over empathetic considerations, potentially challenging India's foundational identity as a secular state.

Part of the support for the CAA among immigrant communities comes from the fact that Muslims form a majority in most of the neighbouring states mentioned in the act. The rise of Islamophobia in India has convinced many immigrants and refugees that Muslims are to blame for the persecution that forced them and other minorities to seek asylum in India. These factors, however, fail to take into consideration that the Muslim community itself faces persecution in the states overlooked by CAA. For example, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reports that the Uyghur Muslim community in China has experienced arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions on human rights and fundamental freedoms, in violation of international laws and standards”. Moreover, the CAA ignores anti-Muslim discrimination in the countries it covers. For instance, during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, it was not just Hindus but also Muslims who immigrated to India due to the genocide of the Bengali community as a whole in erstwhile East Pakistan.

Support for the CAA among immigrant communities can also be attributed to economic uncertainties. India is a densely populated nation with a high poverty rate (the 2021 World Bank report states the poverty rate to be at 12.92%), contributing to a reluctance to share limited resources. This trend mirrors global patterns, exemplified by the United States, where policies restricting immigration align with citizen demands to protect employment opportunities and access to resources. In the Indian context, popular uprisings like the Assam Movement (1979–1985), which demanded the detection, disenfranchisement and deportation of illegal immigrants living in the Indian state of Assam, demonstrate how economic insecurities can cause the development of anti-immigrant sentiments. As the Assamese population was struggling through poverty, many blamed the influx of illegal immigrants. There were also concerns that illegal immigrants were getting added to voter lists, giving them access to resources and benefits meant for legal residents. This sense of competition for limited economic opportunities acted as a major trigger for the movement demanding the immigrants’ detection and deportation from Assam.

India is a democracy, but as more members of the population, including immigrants themselves, turn against Muslim immigrants, its policies are becoming increasingly exclusive and anti-democratic. As right-wing governments globally tighten their grip with anti-migrant policies, from India to the UK and the US, the looming clash of identities is becoming a critical focal point in the face of majoritarian politics. 

Devasmita Dutta is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Political Science at the Department of International Relations at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Her areas of interest include Political Sociology, Diasporic Studies and Subaltern and Gender Studies from a political as well as psychoanalytic perspective. Devasmita identifies with Eva Hoffman's concept of the “hinge generation,” particularly in the context of migration during the 1947 Partition of India.

Sreedipta Roy is a final year undergraduate student of Political Science (Honours) at the Department of International Relations at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She is an avid reader and has a keen interest in Peace and Conflict Studies, Refugee Studies, West Asian Studies and Cold War Politics. Her relation to migration can be traced back to her grandfather’s stories about his experiences as a refugee during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 that formed an important part of her life growing up and contributed towards shaping her identity.

Vanshika Sanganeria is a final year undergraduate student of Political Science (Honours) at the Department of International Relations at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Her interest lies in Public Policy, Peace Research, Human Rights and Gender Studies. What connects her to ‘migration’ is her inclination to delve into policy development in order to better address the issue of migration in contemporary societies and ensure protection of migrant rights. 

1 Comment

Jun 18

Brilliantly crafted

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