The fallout from controversial changes to citizenship laws 


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The fallout from two controversial changes to citizenship laws continues to rock India. At least 35 people have died in sectarian violence in New Delhi which began on February 23. Muslims homes and businesses have been attacked and mosques vandalised by mobs.

All schools in the capital were shut as clashes intensified between those for and against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC).

The CAA, passed by India’s parliament in December 2019, means that “illegal migrants” of Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhists, Parsi or Christian faith from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh who escaped persecution and arrived in India before 2014 can be fast-tracked to citizenship. But not if they are Muslim.

Accompanying this is the adoption of the NRC, an attempt to draw up a register of Indian citizens. For those who can’t prove their citizenship through documentary evidence, it can lead to the loss of citizenship. The NRC has only been implemented in the state of Assam, but the government plans to extend it nationwide.

Together, the CAA and NRC mean that Muslims, and others who cannot provide the required documents, will be left with no recourse to citizenship, unlike those of other faiths.

Petitions filed before the Supreme Court of India alleging that the CAA violates the right to equality in India’s constitution and is antithetical to the word “secular” in the preamble to the constitution. In late January, the court refused to stop the implementation of the act while giving the government time to respond to the allegations.

Ostensibly, changes in citizenship policy are being framed by the government as a way to target “illegal migrants” or “infiltrators”.

But a common explanation for the changes is that they have been driven by the Hindu nationalism of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – the organisation that moulded the prime minister, Narendra Modi, as well as Nathuram Godse, the man who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. This ideology promotes the idea of a Hindu Rashtra, which aims to formally entrench Hinduism in Indian politics while continuing an anti-Muslim agenda.

As a lawyer and social psychologist, we think there is more to the story. By looking at the way India’s constitution was written and put the current crisis into the context of social psychological debates about migration, we argue that the government’s policies are constructing Muslims and other minorities as a problem for the country. By creating an “us” and “them” dynamic to Indian citizenship, the government is enabling private policing of people who it finds disagreeable – even if it has not explicitly sponsored sectarian violence.

What the constitution says

At the time of independence, India’s political arrangement was not constituted by ethnic status. Members of any religion, of various castes and sects, and speakers of different languages were all Indian. The historian Niraja Gopal Jayal has argued that the debates at the time the constitution was drafted in the late 1940s were influenced by pressing concerns about partition, mass migration, and the very real possibilities of communal violence between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.

These led to the adoption of ius soli, or citizenship by birth, as a key principle within the constitution. Despite polarised debates on citizenship, the decision was ultimately taken that anyone born in India would be Indian – a decision suitable to the historical moment.

For Indians, this has always meant that a person is a citizen of India because of its constitution rather than because of their religious, ethnic, or regional ties. Until now.

The CAA and NRC mark a fundamental transformation by emphasising the principle of ius sanguinis – or citizenship by descent or blood – over that of citizenship by birth. The CAA privileges the acquisition of citizenship on grounds of religion, and the NRC means a person’s name can be excluded from the register of citizens if they cannot prove their descent.

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