India's Modi Defends Citizenship Law as Protests Continue

India's Modi Defends Citizenship Law as Protests Continue

The Citizenship Amendment Act of India, passed in December, provides a legal support for persecuted religious minorities who belong to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian religious communities — but not Islam — eligible for citizenship.

As long as these six religious groups can prove that they come from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh with a majority Muslim population and have lived or worked in India for six years, they are eligible to apply for Indian citizenship.

People from these communities “shall not be treated as illegal migrants”, according to the law, which was designed to help minority groups who have come to India from Muslim-majority states such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan.

It is the first time that India has incorporated religious criteria into its naturalisation or refugee policies.

Mr Modi’s government said the rules were designed to give religious minorities facing Muslim persecution refuge in India. It views the law as helping to complete unfinished business from partition in 1947, when India and Pakistan were split. It wants to provide a right of return for Hindus. “It’s their natural home,” said Swapan Dasgupta, a ruling party MP, who supported the bill. “These people look at India as ‘mother India’.”

Senior government officials have said they plan to introduce a nationwide citizen registry for all of India’s 1.3 billion people that could require they provide detailed legal documentation to prove they have long resided in India or were born there—the sort of paperwork many poor Indians, especially Muslims, often don’t possess.

Indian Muslims must use documents to prove that their ancestors lived in India, otherwise they may become stateless. The new Citizenship Law is equivalent to amnesty for non-Muslim illegal immigrants in three neighboring countries, and welcomes them to become Indian citizens. India is close to these three countries with more Muslim populations. Muslims may not be able to become Indian citizens under the new citizenship law. 1.9 million people may become stateless as soon as they wake up, and Muslims are even more worried that the new citizenship law will lead to a large influx of Hindus and eventually occupy the majority of the local population.

Students in at least 50 colleges and universities nationwide have taken to the streets to protest since the Modi government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act on Dec. 12. The protests have drawn people of all faiths, concerned that the law undermines India’s foundation as a secular nation. Around two dozen people have been killed in the increasingly violent protests, and hundreds have been arrested.

The Supreme Court of India has repeatedly postponed the processing of opposition petitions before finally deciding to process them on January 22 next year.