The Citizenship Amendment Act In combination with the nationwide National Register of Citizens has been compared, by opposition parties and others, to the infamous Nuremberg Race Laws that disenfranchised and rendered stateless German Jews, reminding people that RSS leaders admired the racist policies of the Nazis.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill was introduced by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Indian parliament’s lower house, the Lok Sabha, on 9 December 2019 and passed on 10 December 2019. It was introduced in the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, on 11 December, and passed the same day with the support of the BJP’s allies, becoming the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019. It amends the Citizenship Act, 1955, which ruled out giving citizenship to undocumented immigrants. The CAA provides eligibility for Indian citizenship to undocumented Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian immigrants who entered India from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan on or before 31 December 2014, but not to Muslims. The legislation was met by mass protests throughout India on a scale that had not been seen for many decades.
The reasons for enactment of the CAA come from two directions. One is the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organisation of the BJP, which was founded in 1925 and was not only inspired by Italian fascism and German Nazism but also actually established links with them (1). For the RSS and its enormous family of organisations, Muslims play the same role as Jews did for the Nazis, and hatred of democracy is as intense as it was for European fascism. The ultimate goal is a fascist Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation-state).
Previous BJP-led governments have had to limit their anti-Muslim, anti-democratic agenda because they depended on non-BJP allies in parliament. But since Narendra Modi first came to power with an absolute majority in 2014, his government has steadily undermined democratic checks and balances on the absolute power of the executive, shifting control over all supposedly independent institutions to the RSS.
In tandem he has moved to centralise power in his own hands and crush all dissent, for example incarcerating critics and dissidents like human rights defenders, lawyers and intellectuals, who can broadly be seen as members of the non-party left, on the charge of being ‘urban Naxals’ (i.e. Maoist terrorists), and intimidating media outlets and journalists (many of whom have been killed) to toe the government line. His government has stoked anti-Muslim bigotry, ensuring that perpetrators of anti-Muslim terrorist attacks and lynch-mobs get away with murder. After coming to power again in 2019, in an election that was widely perceived as being rigged in favour of his party, he installed his right-hand man Amit Shah as Home Minister and accelerated progress towards a Hindu Rashtra.
The other direction from which the rationale for the CAA comes is the National Register of Citizens (NRC). This is a more complicated story, which starts when the British rulers made Bengali the official language of Assam in 1837. Although Assamese was made a joint official language in the early 1870s, the British measure fuelled tensions between Assamese and Bengali speakers. This was somewhat mitigated when Bengali Muslim migrants to Assam at the turn of the 20th century registered Assamese as their mother-tongue, thereby ensuring its continuance as the official language. But tensions continued, especially after a further influx of Bengalis, Hindus as well as Muslims, into India during the Partition violence in 1947. This resulted in the first NRC in 1951, ‘National’ in this case referring not to India but to the nation of Assam. In 1971, another influx of refugees fleeing the genocidal assault of the Pakistani Army in the war that gave birth to Bangladesh exacerbated these tensions, giving rise to a student-led Assamese nationalist movement and a great deal of bloodshed, including the massacre of thousands of Bengali-speaking Muslims in Nellie in 1983. The RSS clearly saw an opportunity to use this movement to further its own agenda (2)
In the wake of the Nellie massacre, the Congress Party government under Indira Gandhi passed the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act (IMDT Act), 1983, in an attempt to appease Assamese nationalists. It allowed for the expulsion of undocumented immigrants who had entered Assam after 24 March 1971 – the day the Pakistani Army launched its attack on East Pakistan – but put the onus of proving that a person was an undocumented immigrant on the accuser, not the accused. In spite of this safeguard against arbitrary allegations that people were ‘illegal,’ thousands of immigrants were disenfranchised. Hundreds were locked up in prisons which were called ‘detention centres,’ where conditions were even worse than those suffered by convicted criminals. In 1985, the central government signed the Assam Accord with the Assamese student movement, setting 24 March 1971 as the date after which undocumented Bengali immigrants would be regarded as illegal and excluded from an updated NRC.
In 2005 Sarbanand Sonowal, a former leader of the All-Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and now the BJP chief minister of Assam, filed a case asking the Supreme Court to strike down the IMDT Act, and the Supreme Court complied, referring to the migrants (some of whom would have been refugees from the 1971 war) as responsible for ‘external aggression and internal disturbance’. This allowed anyone to accuse anyone of being an ‘illegal immigrant,’ and put the onus of proving they were not on the accused: a complete nightmare in a country where the vast majority of the poor have no birth certificates and women in particular have very little documentation even to prove their existence.
In 2013, the Supreme Court took up a case filed by an NGO asking for the names of undocumented migrants to be struck off electoral rolls, and the case was assigned to Ranjan Gogoi, former Chief Justice of India, who is Assamese. He ruled that an updated NRC should be produced, in the name of which an enormous amount of cruelty has been inflicted on the people of Assam, especially the poor. (3) Families have been ruined by the expense of hiring lawyers to prove their Indian citizenship and split up as some members were declared citizens and others were not, many driven to suicide, fathers detained in one detention centre, mothers in another, and children left to fend for themselves. Unqualified members of Foreigners’ Tribunals ruled out perfectly acceptable documents because of a spelling mistake or some other arbitrary reason (4). Since most of the people thus classified as ‘foreigners’ had no documents to prove they were citizens of any other country, this effectively made them stateless. Amnesty International reported that the Foreigners Tribunals were riddled with ‘bias, prejudices and arbitrary decision-making’ and committed ‘grave human rights violations… rendering people stateless’, while the judiciary was ‘complicit in perpetuating this exclusion and abuse’. (5)
First the Northeast, then the rest of India erupts
At the end of this exercise, almost two million people in Assam were declared foreigners, and it turned out that over half of them, contrary to the BJP’s expectations, were Hindus. The BJP went into overdrive, putting the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) on their 2019 election manifesto in order to reassure Hindus excluded from the NRC that they would have an easy path back to citizenship. At the same time, Home Minister Amit Shah stated publicly that the NRC would be extended to the whole country (whereas its only purpose had been to protect Assamese culture by excluding foreigners from Assam), and that all ‘infiltrators’ and ‘termites’ would be expelled from India before the next Lok Sabha elections in 2024. (6) State governments were directed to build detention centres, on a pattern closely resembling concentration camps, where these aliens could be held until they were deported.
Opposition parties argued and voted against the CAA in parliament, on the grounds that it was unconstitutional because it violated Article 14 of the Constitution guaranteeing equality before the law, and introduced a religious criterion for citizenship, which was not acceptable in a secular, democratic state. 59 petitions against the law were lodged in the Supreme Court. The CAA was also anathema to the Assamese nationalists. They were already disappointed that more residents in their state had not been declared foreigners; the last thing they wanted was for more than half of those excluded to have their citizenship restored, and, on top of that, for even more migrants from Bangladesh to be invited in, contradicting the Assam Accord. Assam went up in flames, and other Northeastern states, similarly anxious that their culture would be threatened by a huge influx of Hindus from Bangladesh, followed suit. Mass protests against the CAA in Assam have persisted despite efforts by the BJP to bribe and threaten protesters. (7)
In the rest of the country, however, mass protests did not take off until the students of Jamia Millia Islamia University (JMIU) in Delhi and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in Uttar Pradesh (UP), who saw the introduction of religion as a criterion for citizenship as a violation of the Indian Constitution, demonstrated against it. At JMUI, students protesting peacefully outside the campus withdrew back to the campus when outsiders who joined them as well as the police turned violent. Having ensured that no outsiders followed them, they were shocked and horrified when the police broke in, smashing windows, shooting tear-gas shells into the canteen and library, and beating students mercilessly, abusing them as ‘katwe’ (circumcised). (8) One student lost an eye, hundreds were seriously injured.
The violence in AMU was even worse. On the night of 15 December, police and soldiers of the Rapid Action Force stormed the campus where students were engaged in peaceful protest against the CAA, firing teargas shells and stun grenades into rooms, dragging out students, stripping them and thrashing them mercilessly while abusing them. One student’s palm was blown off, making it necessary to amputate his hand, many had their bones broken, but the police didn’t even allow ambulances in to take them to hospital for a full three hours. (9)
As the news filtered out, students in colleges throughout the length and breadth of India, including engineering and management students who don’t normally engage in such protests, came out in support of their fellow-students. To the original demand to scrap the CAA and countrywide NRC was now added the demand for the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, which had so viciously been denied in JMIU and AMU. Others came out in solidarity with the students. The protests developed into a mass movement, with young people heading it and women playing a leading role. (10) Its icons were Mahatma Gandhi, leader of the non-violent movement against British rule, and B.R. Ambedkar, who drafted the Indian Constitution, which was held aloft and read aloud in demonstrations. Its moving spirit was solidarity: with Muslims who were threatened with statelessness, with students who were being abused and attacked.
Prime Minister Modi’s first reaction was what one reporter described as a foghorn rather than a dog-whistle: he said that those who were stoking this ‘fire’ could be identified by their clothes i.e. that they were Muslims. In UP, ruled by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, whose anti-Muslim bigotry matched that of Modi, this pronouncement was taken as a signal to launch an Indian version of Kristallnacht, with policemen, paramilitaries and stormtroopers entering Muslim localities, smashing up shops, homes and vehicles, beating, abusing and dragging off residents, and shooting to kill even when there were no ongoing protests. (11)
Modi’s narrative was disrupted by video evidence that although there was stone-pelting by some protesters, in many cases vehicles had been smashed and set on fire by the police themselves. And in West Bengal, a BJP worker and his associates were nabbed by police donning skull-caps before throwing stones at a train. (12) Numerous observers pointed out that all the violence had taken place in BJP-ruled states and Delhi, where the police are controlled by the BJP government at the centre, whereas in opposition-ruled states not a single incident of violence had taken place. The protesters too derided his claim, one man taking off his shirt to reveal his janeu, the sacred thread worn by Brahmin men and boys. As the protests spread, it was the turn of AMU students to express solidarity with students of Banaras Hindu University who had been arrested. Modi also blamed opposition parties, especially the Congress Party, and ‘urban Naxals’ for misleading the students, seemingly unable to understand that these young people were perfectly capable of thinking for themselves.
It is in fact a leaderless movement, and what is striking about it is the sheer range and variety of slogans and placards on display. Apart from the ubiquitous ‘No NRC, No CAA’, here are some examples (some translated): ‘Not anti-nationalist, Just pro-democracy’; ‘They are scared because we are not’; ‘No violence, no silence’; ‘I am a Hindu, Not an asshole’; ‘My citizenship documents and Modiji’s degree are in the same cupboard’; ‘The cow ate my documents’; ‘Make dystopia fiction again’; ‘So what happened to the economy?’ ‘If Hindus and Muslims agree, what will the Nazis do?’ with others along the same lines, such as a picture of Shah with the caption ‘Urban Nazi’, and a picture of a baby Modi being held up by Hitler.
The police in BJP-ruled states and Delhi responded with full force, making it illegal for more than three people to congregate in one place and firing on peaceful protesters. By 22 December, the death toll had risen to 25, by 26 December the death toll was 21 in Uttar Pradesh alone, and thousands had been arrested. A German student who had held up a poster saying ‘1933–1945: We have been there’ was deported. In an extreme crackdown on freedom of expression, internet services and mobile phone networks were suspended for up to ten days at a time, and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued advisories to TV channels not to broadcast content promoting ‘anti-national attitudes’ (which the government has hitherto interpreted as content criticising the government in general and PM Modi in particular), or ‘which is likely to instigate violence’ (i.e. coverage of police brutality), and demanding ‘strict compliance’. (13) But some kind of fear barrier seems to have been crossed, because when Modi denied on 22 December that the government had plans for a nationwide NRC or detention centres, protesters were willing to call out his lies on camera, and the least sycophantic TV channels continued to cover the protests and police brutality.
The real rationale for the CAA
The completely self-contradictory elements of the CAA that make it unacceptable as legislation are numerous. The government claims that it aims to right the wrongs of Partition. There were indeed a huge number of refugees, mainly Hindus, from what was then West and East Pakistan, but they have been given Indian citizenship long ago. And what is Afghanistan doing in the list, since it was not involved in Partition? If the aim is to grant refuge to persecuted religious minorities from neighbouring states, why leave out Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, the Ahmediyas and Shias from Pakistan and Afghanistan, or even the Tamils – predominantly Hindus – from Sri Lanka? Why the cut-off date? Did the named countries stop persecuting religious minorities on this date? And it is surely an irony that the BJP suddenly becomes sympathetic to victims of religious persecution in other countries at a time when India’s Muslim minority is suffering unprecedented persecution. There is also the absurdity of asking people who claim to be Indian citizens, and have provided documents to support that claim, to now claim that they are refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan, and to provide documents to prove their new claim.
The BJP argues that the law does not discriminate against Indian Muslims, since only ‘illegal’ Muslim migrants are excluded, but discrimination is between like and like: if a law is passed discriminating between Muslim migrants and non-Muslim migrants in granting citizenship, this opens the door to laws discriminating between Indian Muslim citizens and non-Muslim citizens. In other words, if Article 14 of the Constitution mandating equality before the law can be flouted in this law, it can also be flouted in future laws affecting Muslims who are Indian citizens; indeed, this is its whole purpose.
The practical impediments to this NRC-CAA exercise are also enormous. The NRC exercise in Assam alone cost around Rs 16 billion. To carry it out nationwide would cost around Rs 500 billion. Can a country with a rapidly failing economy afford that? Then, what is to be done with those who are excluded? Bangladesh will accept those whom the Indian government can prove are Bangladeshi, but so far only a few hundred per year have been deported in this way. So the vast majority would have to be held in detention centres, which are already being built at collosal expense (14). Even if we ignore the dreadful human costs of such an exercise, the monetary cost would be prohibitive.
However, from the standpoint of the RSS goal of a Hindu Rashtra, it all makes perfect sense. Amit Shah has time and again emphasised the sequence: first the CAA will make all non-Muslims citizens, and ‘They wouldn’t be asked for any documents’. Then the NRC will weed out ‘infiltrators,’ the vast majority of Muslims who are too poor to have documents to prove their citizenship. (15) Other undesirables, like Dalits, Adivasis, supporters of opposition parties and ‘urban Naxals’ could easily be added in such an arbitrary process. They would immediately be disenfranchised, which explains the deadline of getting the process done before the 2024 elections to the Lok Sabha (the lower house of India’s bicameral parliament); millions of voters have already been deleted from the voters’ lists, so why not tens or hundreds of millions more? That would guarantee the BJP a permanent majority. Those in the detention centres could be used as slave labour or left to die of starvation, inhuman conditions and lack of medical care, as detainees are already doing.
The CAA echoes the Nazi concern for German minorities in other countries. (16) In combination with the nationwide NRC, it has been compared, by opposition parties and others, to the infamous Nuremberg Race Laws that disenfranchised and rendered stateless German Jews, reminding people that RSS leaders admired the racist policies of the Nazis. (17) Meanwhile Dr Gregory Stanton, founder of Genocide Watch, testified on 12 December that ‘Preparation for a genocide is definitely under way in India’. (18) Ten years ago, people in India would have been confident that the Supreme Court would strike down the CAA as unconstitutional. But the judges hearing the case have refused to order an inquiry into the brutal assault on Jamia Millia students or to hear the multiple petitions against the law until 22 January 2020, by which time the government clearly hopes to have crushed the protests. This gives rise to the apprehension that they, like the judges indicted at the Nuremberg trials, might give their consent to legislation that marks a decisive step towards a genocidal fascist state.
It is all the more important that the courageous protesters against the CAA and NRC should receive international solidarity.
December 26, 2019