Following the landslide victory of the BJP in India’s 2019 General Election last month, Niraja Gopal Jayal (Jawaharlal Nehru University) argues that Narendra Modi’s second term could see a revival of the party’s Citizenship Amendment Bill (2016). Alongside routinised violence against minorities, the reintroduction and passage of this bill would undermine the universal conception of equal citizenship in India.
Among the apprehensions raised by the results of the just concluded election to the lower house of India’s Parliament is the concern that the Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016, which had been stalled by the upper house, will now find its way into the statute books. This is a legitimate anxiety because it portends a decisive shift in the universalist conception of equal citizenship adopted when India became a sovereign democratic republic. Albeit its most visibly worrisome aspect, this bill is however only one dimension of the citizenship question in contemporary India.
In 2014, a year after my book Citizenship and Its Discontents: An Indian History (Harvard University Press, 2013) appeared, India elected a government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headed by a controversial but charismatic leader, Narendra Modi. This was not only India’s first majority government since 1984, it was also the first non-Congress government ever to have won such a majority. The same leadership has bettered its own record in the elections of 2019. Before the elections, I had published an article about how citizenship – as legal status, rights and identity – had been reconfigured in the years 2014-19. The poll results of May 23 suggest that, given the brute majority won by the new government, the trends observed in this article are likely to get further consolidated in the coming five years. This has the potential of transforming India into a majoritarian polity with gradations of citizenship rights that undermine the constitutional principle of universal equal citizenship; with privileges of inclusion being attached to some categories of citizens while others suffer the disadvantage of exclusion.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill (2016) is the latest in a series of amendments to India’s Citizenship Act that have, since 1985, imperceptibly but steadily moved India’s jus soli (citizenship based on birth) citizenship regime closer to a jus sanguinis (citizenship based on ethnicity or descent) regime. The Bill essentially provides for fast-track citizenship for migrants from the neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who are religious minorities in those countries. It makes it possible for the preferred categories of Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians, among others, to obtain Indian citizenship in six years instead of the eleven it usually takes. Muslims are conspicuous by their absence in this listing, ostensibly on the grounds that they are not minorities in these three countries and cannot therefore be seen as persecuted. The fact that Muslim sects like the Ahmadiyas and Rohingyas are also persecuted in these countries is conveniently ignored. Simultaneously, the task of completing the National Register of Citizens for Assam has been given an impetus over the last year, threatening many legitimate but undocumented citizens with expulsion.
The Bill formed a central plank of the BJP’s election campaign, with the party President threatening to throw out the “termites” and “infiltrators,” terms used to indicate illegal Muslim migrants. His speeches initially included only Hindus and Buddhists as preferred candidates for citizenship; and though this was gradually expanded to include Sikhs as well, Muslims and Christians were consistently excluded. In many north-eastern states, religion was not a sufficiently binding factor and there were agitations against preferential treatment even for illegal Hindu migrants, because they speak a different language or do not belong to indigenous tribal communities or would compete for scarce employment opportunities. Nevertheless, when it came to the vote, the BJP did better than expected even in these states where the Bill had met with a hostile political reaction.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill of course affects only migrants seeking the legal status of citizenship. Not only are Muslim migrants excluded from the provisions for fast-track citizenship, Indian Muslims who are full citizens by birth, have also been experiencing the abrogation of their constitutionally guaranteed rights of equal citizenship. Over and above the endemic under-representation of Muslims in India’s public institutions and their abysmal education and employment indicators, India has in the last five years witnessed an unprecedented increase in incidents of vigilante violence against Muslims and Dalits, and the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of such violence signifies a systematic political and ideological attempt to render these groups second-class citizens. Early in the new government’s tenure in 2014, a campaign was launched called Love Jihad, the label used for Muslim men marrying Hindu women, suggesting that they were making false protestations of love in order to convert Hindu women and increase the numbers of Muslims. There was also a new vigour to the Ghar Wapsi (homecoming) campaign, which saw events being organised by right-wing Hindu organisations like the RSS and the VHP to ‘re’-convert Muslims and Christians to the Hindu faith. The killing of Mohammed Akhlaq for allegedly storing beef in his refrigerator and the stripping and beating of young Dalits by Gau Rakshaks (Cow Protectors) were emblematic moments that heralded the normalisation of patterned violence against these two groups. Over the next three years, India witnessed a spate of incidents of vigilante violence and violence by lynch mobs – targeting cattle traders and owners of slaughterhouses legitimately plying their business – and with more than a hint of state protection. Such violence has been disproportionately visited on groups that are vulnerable on account of multiple and intersecting inequalities of class, caste, religion, tribe and gender. Meanwhile, everyday practices of discrimination and exclusion continue to mock the guarantees of equal citizenship and minority rights in India’s Constitution.
India’s founding conception of citizenship by birth is today under challenge by a legislative amendment that seeks to introduce explicit religious difference into the religion-neutral law of citizenship. Simultaneously under challenge are constitutional provisions of equal citizenship, systematically undermined by daily acts of routinised violence against minorities and lower castes that are executed with impunity. The citizenship project of the last five years has created categories of differentiated citizenship based on religious identity, with minorities as second-class citizens, allowed to exist only on sufferance and undeserving of voice or representation.
There is as yet no reason to believe that these tendencies will slacken or subside in months to come. The enormous mandate given to Narendra Modi in this election may well result in their acceleration, with India’s society and state moving from being clandestinely to openly majoritarian. This will necessarily entail a repudiation of the civic nationalism, however fragile and imperfect, that was forged in the anti-colonial struggle and largely sustained in the decades after independence, to manage a culturally diverse society. The majoritarian and exclusionary conception of citizenship that is knocking at our doors threatens to replace this civic nationalism with cultural – specifically Hindu – nationalism. The refusal to recognise that civic nationalism and inclusive citizenship are both a moral and a pragmatic imperative in a plural society could cost India dearly, not just in terms of social cohesion but also economic performance and its much vaunted desire to be seen as a global power.
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Niraja Gopal Jayal is a Professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance at Jawaharlal Nehru University.