Protests in India as Modi enforces migration laws that exclude Muslims

Protests in India as Modi enforces migration laws that exclude Muslims

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi's government has moved to implement a contentious citizenship law that has been criticised for being discriminatory against Muslims, four years after it was passed in parliament.

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which the Hindu-nationalist government claims to be "pro-refugee", comes into effect just weeks before the 2024 general elections, where Mr Modi is seeking a rare third consecutive term in office.

The law grants the right to apply for Indian citizenship to refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan who arrived in India before 31 December 2014 – but only if they come from minority religious groups in these Muslim-majority countries.

An announcement from India’s home ministry that the legislation would finally be enforced triggered fresh protests on Monday night in the northeastern state of Assam and the capital Delhi by critics who say the law is anti-Muslim.

India witnessed massive nationwide protests and sit-in demonstrations against the law when it was first passed in 2019, resulting in multiple deaths and arrests. Following the backlash, the government said it would need time to finalise the rules, and further delays were blamed on the Covid-19 pandemic.

Critics of the law say it violates India’s secular constitution, and fear that the CAA combined with a proposed pan-India national register of citizens (NRC) could lead to discrimination against the 200 million Muslims living in India, especially in border states.

Various reports have pointed to a rise in hate crimes against Muslims since the BJP came to power in 2014, with critics saying Mr Modi has said or done little to condemn such incidents.

The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) – a party based in the southern state of Kerala – has moved India’s supreme court seeking a stay on the implementation of the citizenship law. The petitioners have argued that the law links citizenship to religion, which was “prima facie unconstitutional”.

Implementing the CAA had been one of the key manifesto promises of the BJP before the last general elections in 2019. "This will pave [the] way for the persecuted to find citizenship in India," a spokesperson for the prime minister's office said.

The home ministry in a statement said the law would remove legal barriers to citizenship for refugees, giving a "dignified life" to those who have suffered for decades.

"Many misconceptions have been spread" about the law, the statement said. "This act is only for those who have suffered persecution for years and have no other shelter in the world except India," it said.

Home minister Amit Shah on X heaped praise on Mr Modi, saying the prime minister "delivered on another commitment and realised the promise of the makers of our constitution to the Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians living in those countries".

Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal and one of Modi’s fiercest critics, led the outrage against the implementation of CAA with just weeks to go until the elections.

The law has been opposed by West Bengal's more than 31 million Muslims, amid fears that it could be weaponised to declare them illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

Ms Banerjee said her government would steadfastly oppose "anything that discriminates (against) people".

"If there is any discrimination, we won't accept it. Be it religion, caste, or linguistic. They won't be able to give citizenship to anyone in two days. This is just lollipop and show-off," she said.

A spokesperson for the country’s main opposition party – the Indian National Congress – questioned the timing of the law. "After seeking nine extensions for the notification of the rules, the timing right before the elections is evidently designed to polarise the elections, especially in West Bengal and Assam," spokesperson Jairam Ramesh said on X.

The northeastern state of Assam has been facing unrest since a national register of citizens was imposed to weed out people who came to India illegally, defined as anyone who migrated across the border into Assam after 1971. The law put the burden on residents to show documents proving their citizenship or risk deportation.

The Communist Party of India (CPIM), which rules Kerala, called for state-wide protests on Tuesday.

"This is to divide the people, incite communal sentiments and undermine the fundamental principles of the Constitution," Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said in a statement. "This move to stratify Indian citizens who have equal rights, must be opposed unitedly."