India’s new citizenship law for religious minorities leaves Muslims out


As It Happens6:30India’s new citizenship law for religious minorities leaves Muslims out

India is providing a fast-track to citizenship for religious minorities seeking refuge in the country — except, that is, for Muslims.

The controversial 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) came into effect on Monday, marking the first time the secular state has set a religious criteria for citizenship.

Political activist Yogendra Yadav says it flies in the face of the country’s constitution, which protects people from discrimination on the grounds of religion, thereby turning Muslims in India into “second-rate citizens.”

“The whole point of the law is to exclude Muslims,”  Yadav, founder of the Swaraj India political party, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

“The essence of this law is to say, ‘No Muslims, please.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has defended the law as a humanitarian gesture, saying it is meant only to extend citizenship to religious minorities fleeing persecution, and would not be used against Indian citizens.

What does the new law do?

The CAA amends a previous law that barred anyone who entered the country illegally from seeking citizenship.

It creates a path to citizenship for Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians who fled to Hindu-majority India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan before Dec. 31, 2014. Those eligible have been invited to apply online. 

But it does not encompass Muslims, who are a majority in all three nations.

The Indian government denies the law is discriminatory and says it was needed to help minorities facing persecution in neighbouring Muslim-majority nations. 

“This act is only for those who have suffered persecution for years and have no other shelter in the world except India,” India’s home office said in a statement.

A man with white hair and a neat white beard gestures with both hands while speaking into a pair of microphones at a podium.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government says the law is not anti-Muslim. Modi is seeking his third term in office in this year’s federal election. (Amit Dave/Reuters)

But Yadav notes the law ignores Muslim minority sects in Muslim-majority countries, like the Ahmadiyya in Pakistan.

It also excludes neighbouring countries where Muslims are the minority, he said, citing the Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where the Rohingya, an Islamic ethnic group, have faced a targeted campaign of violence and persecution that, according to Canada, amounts to genocide.

“The minority Muslims in Myanmar have suffered one of the worst kinds of oppression. They desperately want to come to India. They are being prevented,” he said. 

“So we protest not against giving protection and shelter to persecuted minorities. We protest against doing it selectively in a way to target one community in India.”

Why now?

The law was approved by India’s Parliament in 2019, but Modi’s government held off its implementation after deadly protests broke out in New Delhi and elsewhere

The nationwide demonstrations drew people of all faiths who said the law undermines India’s foundation as a secular nation.

Modi’s government blamed the delays on the COVID-19 pandemic, but Yadav says it’s no coincidence that it’s coming into effect ahead of the spring election. 

Yadav accuses Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of trying to” divide people on religious lines,” instead of focusing on more pertinent issues, like soaring unemployment, national security, women’s safety, the plight of farmers, and the rising cost of living. 

“It’s a diabolic attempt to distract,” Yadav said. “People like me can just hope that those are the real issues that will attract people, and people would refuse to be sidetracked.”

Yadav is not running in the election, though members of his party are. 

How will it impact Muslims in India?

Critics of the law include lawyers, protesters, civil rights groups and Muslim organizations. They say that, combined with a proposed national register of citizens, it could lead to discrimination against India’s 200 million Muslims — the world’s third-largest  Muslim population. 

That register is part of the Modi government’s effort to identify and weed out people it claims came to India illegally. So far, it has only been implemented in the northeastern state of Assam, but Modi’s party has promised to roll out a similar citizenship verification program nationwide.

If you are Muslim, then you would be kicked out.– Yogendra Yadav, political activist

Yadav and other critics of the CAA say it will help protect non-Muslims who are excluded from the register, while Muslims could face the threat of deportation or — if they can’t return to their countries of birth — internment.

“This law says that if you are Hindu and if you came from Bangladesh, that’s all right. But if you are Muslim, then you would be kicked out,” he said. 

What is the international community saying?

The U.S. government, the United Nations and various human rights organizations have expressed concerns about the CAA.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called it “fundamentally discriminatory in nature and in breach of India’s international human rights obligations.”

An unnamed U.S. State Department spokesperson told Reuters the government is “concerned” about the law and “closely monitoring” its implementation.

“Respect for religious freedom and equal treatment under the law for all communities are fundamental democratic principles,” the State Department spokesperson said in email.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have also said it discriminates against Muslims.

Global Affairs Canada did not respond to a request for comment before deadline. 

A gray-haired man surrounded on all sides by soldiers and reporters.
Yogendra Yadav is pictured in 2019 being detained by police while protesting the citizenship law. This time, he says he will protest by enacting his democratic rights at the polls. (Altaf Qadri/The Associated Press)

In 2019, Yadav was out in the streets protesting the citizenship law. But this time around, he recommends a different approach. 

 “The most effective way of protesting would be to vote out a government which has been doing these kinds of things,” he said.

“The BJP manages to convey an impression of invincibility, which is not quite rooted in reality.”

With files from Reuters and The Associated Press. Interview with Yogendra Yadav produced by Chris Trowbridge.

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