India’s Controversial Law Ignites Public Resentment and Riots

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 By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

In December 2019, the government of India, led by Hindu nationalist BJP, adopted a new legislation called Citizenship Amendment Act, which gives undocumented immigrants, who arrived before 2015, from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, of several faiths, a path to citizenship. However, the act doesn’t include Muslims, who make up about fifteen per cent of India’s population. The law is part of a pattern of persecution of Muslims carried out by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which academia argue, is part of BJP’s ‘contemporary Hindutva constitutionalism’.

It was in the 1990’s when Hindu nationalist forces reinvented the idea of Hindutva as a political project, which eventually found takers in the competitive Indian democracy. However, during that time, Hindu nationalist parties did not use the rhetoric of Hindutva to oppose the secular character of the constitution. Rather, it demanded a comprehensive review of the constitution. Although, the CAA emerges out of this new Hindutva, a movement which had recognised the political nature of citizenship, even before Citizenship Bill 2016 was drafted in the parliament.

The origins of CAA lie in the 1985 Assam Accord, which was a result of a six year movement against Bangladeshi refugees in Assam. At that time, a memorandum of settlement was signed with the Indian government, which paved the way for pivotal restructuring of the Citizenship Act, 1955. The restructured law now demanded that it was mandatory to prove one of his/her parents was an Indian citizen, at the time of his/her birth. The law was again modified in 2004, where either of the parent should not have been an illegal migrant at the time of his birth to obtain citizenship. The 1985 Assam Accord also rejuvenated the National Register of Citizens (NRC) debate, where an official register would contain names of all Indian citizens. The expressed commitment for NRC led to the notion for instilling a National Population Register (NPR), where the aim was to create an ‘identity database’ of every usual resident. Infact, the Citizenship Rules, 2003 make it mandatory for every usual resident to apply for NPR. Historically, these changes in the citizenship law had direct implications for the CAA.

The CAA seems to draw inspiration from this distinction between legal and illegal migrants, as the revised citizenship rules of the past do not treat citizenship as a right. Rather, it demands that the citizenship status is officially verified. That’s why, CAA does not treat citizenship as a right. The discussion of Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 is relevant is this regard. Despite legal restructuring in the past giving favourable outcomes for the creation of CAA, there have been some controversial issues which have been debated in the parliament and in public. The selection of three Muslim majority countries to identify non-Muslim majorities is the first question. The inclusion of Afghanistan looks strange. Not only doesn’t it share a border with India, but it was also not born out of partition like Pakistan and Bangladesh. Also, if India cared about persecution of neighbouring minorities, why didn’t it consider including Sri Lankan Tamils? Secondly, the CAA does not use the term ‘minority’. Rather, it identifies six non-Muslim communities. This is something which goes against the established constitutional principles in India. A JPC report also highlights this point. Some legal experts even argue that the idea of CAA was to introduce the idea of religious prosecution, although the term ‘religious prosecution’ is not used anywhere in the text of CAA. The pretext of CAA, it must be noted, started in 2015 after six non-Muslim communities were granted visa relaxations. The final criticism of CAA is its ostracisation of Muslims, which is a violation of Article 14 (equality before law), and Article 25 (Freedom of Religion). The JPC had also raised this question. But its defenders argued that this law was justified under the doctrine called ‘reasonable classification’. To add to that, the CAA, does not grant citizenship directly to the selected migrants, but gives them an opportunity to be considered for the grant of certificate of naturalisation.

In a scathing criticism, Niraja Gopal Jayal, a professor at the Center for the Study of Law and Governance at Jawaharlal Nehru University and the author of several books on Indian democracy called these developments as the biggest threat to ‘India’s self-definition as a nation.’

Soon after the passing of the CAA, protests broke out throughout India, including New Delhi. The protests in Shaheen Bagh, an ordinary working-class Muslim neighbourhood in the city, soon snowballed, transforming the area a pivotal point of the anti-CAA movement. 

The demonstrations in Delhi were quickly met with a strict crackdown. Police had entered universities and detained students. In Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, protests had turned violent as twenty seven people were killed.

In Assam, people feared a demographic change. Those against the act believed that the influx of Hindu refugees from Bangladesh would threaten their culture, language and further burden their resources. Five people were dead there during the protests. In West Bengal, there were reports of arson and blockage of highways, and railway lines. The crackdown on anti-CAA activists even continued during the lockdown, throughout the nation.

In February 2020, riots happened in Delhi’s northeast between Hindus and Muslims, and Delhi police faced criticism, from various social spheres, for being ineffective in handling the communal tensions. Muslims were main targets of the violence. Muslim men, who are commonly circumcised, were forced to remove their lower garments before being brutalised. Among the injuries reported in the hospital were lacerated genitals. Several properties were destroyed disproportionately, including four mosques which were set ablaze by the rioters. By the end of that tragic month, Muslims were seen leaving their neighbourhood. Several Muslim boys also were unable to attend their exams.

The riot had its origin in Jaffrabad, where a sit in by a women against CAA had been in progress on a stretch of Seelampur-Jaffrabad-Maujpur road, blocking it. In response, BJP leader, Kapil Mishra, called for Delhi police to clear the road, failing which he threatened to ‘hit the streets’. After Mishra’s ultimatum, violence had erupted. Most deaths were attributed to gunfire, and the balance in the riots had eventually shifted towards Hindu rioters. About thousand Muslims had sought shelter in a relief camp on the fringes of Delhi. Some left to their ancestral villages, with an intention of never coming back. For those left homeless, or who had run away from their homes out of fear, temporary relief camps were set up in houses, temples, madrasas and the Al-Hind Hospital. Camps housing larger numbers were erected in areas like Idgah, the Mustafabad prayer ground. The Idgah camp was the largest among nine others and was funded by the government. However, it soon grew crowded. Majority of the victims, doctors reported, suffered from anxiety and mental trauma.

In the midst of prevailing anti-Muslim attitudes, senior lawyers in Delhi were not accepting cases on behalf of the riot victims. During this time, stories were also told of Sikhs and Hindus coming to the aid of besieged Muslims. In some neighbourhoods, the religious communities cooperated in protecting themselves from violence. Several incidents of mobs attacking journalists were also reported during the riots. Until March 2020, police had registered 690 FIRs and around 2200 individuals involved in the violence were taken into custody. Some activists were charged with offences under the Indian Penal Code and the Arms Act. The friends and relatives, of the convicted, alleged that they were tortured in custody.

Some of the actions of Delhi police were even controversial and needed more explanations: according to Zafarul Islam Khan, former chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission, 1,300 Muslim youth had been arrested since the riots began as the pressure had been constantly mounted on the Delhi police to create a fabricated narrative that these youths started the riots. The Special Commissioner of Police (Crime) had written in an order dated July 8 2020 to senior officers heading probe teams and asked them to “suitably” guide the investigating officers to note that the arrests of “some Hindu youth” from riot-hit areas in northeast Delhi has led to a “degree of resentment among the Hindu community” and “due care and precaution” must be taken while making such arrests.

During a parliamentary debate, Home Minister Amit Shah went on to commend the Delhi police for their efforts, and blamed Muslim leaders and members of the Congress party for instigating the riots. Another BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi, irrationally accused ISIS elements of having organised the riots. Members of the opposition like Kapil Sibal, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, and Asaduddin Owaisi also criticised the federal government for its lack of timely action.

Across the country, ever since the CAA came into existence, there is a panic among people to collect documents, and this panic is mostly seen amongst poorer Muslims. In Bengal, there were even suicides by people who were anxious about not having documents. People are even choosing wrong documents in the hope that they will prove their citizenship. Some are lining up their district offices to consult a few records.

In an interview with The New Yorker, Niraja Gopal Jayal commented: ‘Right now, with the Citizenship Amendment Act, it is the illegal migrant that is the figure, but that figure then becomes a proxy for the Indian Muslim, who is as much a part of the soil as any of us.


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