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India just redefined its citizenship criteria to exclude Muslims

With a new law — and massive new detention camps — the country is undermining its status as a democracy.

An elderly man holds a placard saying “Stop Hate Politics” during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill in New Delhi, India.
A man holds a placard during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill in New Delhi, India.
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Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

India is home to 200 million Muslims. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, they have faced mounting threats to their status in the majority-Hindu country. And on Wednesday, they were walloped by a new worrisome development: The upper house of India’s Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB).

The legislation turns religion into a means of deciding whom to treat as an illegal immigrant — and whom to fast-track for citizenship. The bill is being sent to President Ram Nath Kovind for his approval (he will almost certainly sign it), and then it will become law.

At first glance, the bill may seem like a laudable effort to protect persecuted minorities. It says Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians who came to India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan won’t be treated as illegal. They’ll have a clear path to citizenship.

But one major group has been left out: Muslims.

That’s no coincidence.

The CAB is closely linked with another contentious document: India’s National Register of Citizens (NRC). That citizenship list is part of the government’s effort to identify and weed out people it claims are illegal immigrants in the northeastern state of Assam. India says many Muslims whose families originally came from neighboring Bangladesh are not rightful citizens, even though they’ve lived in Assam for decades.

When the NRC was published in August, around 2 million people — many of them Muslims, some of them Hindus — found that their names were not on it. They were told they had a limited time in which to prove that they are, in fact, citizens. Otherwise, they can be rounded up into massive new detention camps and, ultimately, deported.

So far, this measure affects potentially 2 million people, not all 200 million Muslims in India. However, Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has said it plans to extend the NRC process across the country.

Muslims have faced increasing discrimination and violence over the past few years under Modi’s BJP. But the one-two punch of the NRC followed by the CAB takes this to a new level. The country is beginning to look less like a secular democracy and more like a Hindu nationalist state.

If the Indian government proceeds with its plan, in a worst-case scenario we could be looking at the biggest refugee crisis on the planet. The United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom have all warned that this could soon turn into a humanitarian disaster of horrifying proportions.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill

The CAB is only the latest measure the Indian government has taken to marginalize its Muslim minority (more on this below). This measure is particularly blatant in its discrimination.

The CAB will grant citizenship to a host of religious minorities who fled three nearby countries where they may have faced persecution — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan — before 2015. But Muslims will get no such protection.

The BJP is positioning the CAB as a means of offering expedited citizenship to persecuted minorities. “It seeks to address their current difficulties and meet their basic human rights,” said Raveesh Kumar, a spokesman for the country’s Ministry of External Affairs. “Such an initiative should be welcomed, not criticized by those who are genuinely committed to religious freedom.”

After the CAB passed on Wednesday, Modi tweeted: “A landmark day for India and our nation’s ethos of compassion and brotherhood! ... This Bill will alleviate the suffering of many who faced persecution for years.”

In fact, this bill is likely to increase the suffering of many Muslims and is discriminatory on its face, as some of the BJP’s political opposition and several human rights advocates in India have noted.

Shashi Tharoor, whose Congress party opposes the CAB, dubbed it “fundamentally unconstitutional.”

Cedric Prakash, a Jesuit priest and human rights advocate, said in an emailed statement that by “assuring citizenship to all undocumented persons except those of the Muslim faith, the CAB risks ... destroying the secular and democratic tenets of our revered Constitution.”

India’s Constitution guarantees everyone equality under the law. Religion is not a criterion for citizenship eligibility, a decision that goes all the way back to the 1940s, when India was founded as a secular state with special protections for minorities like Muslims.

Harsh Mander, a noted rights advocate of Sikh origins, wrote that the CAB represents “the gravest threat to India’s secular democratic Constitution since India became a republic.” He said that if the bill becomes law, he’ll declare himself a Muslim out of solidarity. Meanwhile, he’s also calling for Indians to fight the CAB with a nationwide civil disobedience movement.

Already, protests are underway. In Assam’s capital, authorities have shut down the internet and implemented a curfew. The New York Times reported:

The Indian Army was deployed in the northeastern states of Assam and Tripura as protests grew bigger and more violent. The police were already battling demonstrators over the past few days with water cannons and tear gas. More than 1,000 protesters gathered in the heart of Assam’s commercial capital, Guwahati, yelling: “Go Back Modi!” In other areas, angry men stomped on effigies of Mr. Modi. Crowds set fire to tires and blocked thoroughfares with trees.

As protests against the legislation erupted in different corners of the country, the debate centered on what kind of country India should be.

“The idea of India that emerged from the independence movement,” said a letter signed by more than 1,000 Indian intellectuals, “is that of a country that aspires to treat people of all faiths equally.” But this bill, the intellectuals said, is “a radical break with this history” and will “greatly strain the pluralistic fabric of the country.”

Meanwhile, international human rights organizations are up in arms. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom said India is taking a “dangerous turn in the wrong direction,” adding that the US should weigh sanctions against India if it enshrines the bill in law.

Activists from All Assam Students Union burn effigies of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others associated with the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
Activists from All Assam Students’ Union burn effigies of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others associated with the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
Getty Images

However, Modi enjoys strong support from the Hindu majority, members of which seem to applaud him even more loudly when he cracks down on Muslims. And the country has swung to the right since he first came to power in 2014. It’s noteworthy that the bill passed not only in the lower house of parliament, where the BJP enjoys a majority, but also in the upper house, where it does not.

Now, the CAB will almost certainly be signed into law. The only hope for those who oppose it is that it will be struck down in court on the grounds that it’s unconstitutional.

Muslims stripped of citizenship may end up in massive detention camps

Exacerbating Muslim Indians’ anxiety about the citizenship bill is the recent rhetoric around the NRC.

Those in Assam whose names do not appear on the NRC have been told the burden of proof is on them to prove that they are citizens. But many rural residents don’t have birth certificates or other papers, and even among those who do, many can’t read them; a quarter of the population in Assam state is illiterate.

Residents do get the chance to appeal to a Foreigners’ Tribunal and, if it rejects their claims to citizenship, to the High Court of Assam or even the Supreme Court. But if all that fails, they can be sent to one of 10 mass detention camps the government plans to build, complete with boundary walls and watchtowers.

The first camp, currently under construction, is the size of seven football fields. Even nursing mothers and children will be held there. “Children lodged in detention centers are to be provided educational facilities in nearby local schools,” an Indian official said.

If the detainees in the camps end up being expelled from India — and that is the government’s plan — this could constitute a wave of forced migration even greater than that triggered by Myanmar in 2017, when hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims were displaced.

And it’s not clear where the newly stateless people would go. Neighboring Bangladesh has already said it won’t take them. All this has induced such intense anxiety that some Muslims are committing suicide.

By undermining the status of Muslims, India is undermining its own democracy

India is known as the largest democracy in the world. But its current government is leading it away from democratic norms.

Modi champions a hardline brand of Hindu nationalism known as Hindutva, which aims to define Indian culture in terms of Hindu history and values and which promotes an exclusionary attitude toward Muslims. UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet recently expressed concerns over “increasing harassment and targeting of minorities — in particular, Muslims.”

Under Modi, vigilante Hindus have increasingly perpetrated hate crimes against Muslims, sometimes in an effort to scare their communities into moving away, other times to punish them for selling beef (cows are considered sacred in Hinduism). And this summer, Modi erased the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, which had previously enjoyed considerable autonomy over its own affairs.

Muslims comprise approximately 14 percent of the national population. and more than twice that in Assam state. In the 2019 Indian election, one of Modi’s central campaign promises was that he’d get the NRC in shape and deal with the Muslim migrants in Assam once and for all. Other BJP members have used dehumanizing language to describe the Muslims there.

“These infiltrators are eating away at our country like termites,” BJP president and home minister Amit Shah said at an April rally. “The NRC is our means of removing them.” Shah has openly said the goal is to deport those who are deemed illegal immigrants.

Last month, Shah said the government will conduct another count of citizens — this time nationwide. This could be used to clamp down on Muslims throughout India, potentially triggering a huge humanitarian disaster.

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