India Activates Discriminatory Citizenship Law

Human Rights

This week, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government began implementing the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which parliament had enacted in 2019. The law fast-tracks citizenship requests from non-Muslims fleeing religious persecution from India’s Muslim-majority neighbors – Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh – but excludes Muslim refugees from those countries.

Before the government enacted the law, Home Minister Amit Shah explained the BJP government’s broader plans for a proposed nationwide citizenship verification process, called the National Register of Citizens, that would identify irregular immigrants.

When the CAA was passed, thousands of people across India protested the law, fearing it could be used to disenfranchise Indian Muslims and strip them of their citizenship rights. They had reason to be alarmed: in Assam state, citizenship screening ultimately rendered stateless over a million people

Indian authorities on Tuesday published a press release of questions and answers outlining the “positive narrative” of the law, but it was taken down hours later. The statement unconvincingly asserted that “Indian Muslims need not worry as CAA has not made any provision to impact their citizenship.”

Fearing further demonstrations, the authorities deployed a large number of security personnel in Delhi and Assam. Previously, police used excessive force to crush protests against the law, and communal clashes killed 53 people in New Delhi, most of them Muslim. The Supreme Court has yet to hear petitions challenging the amendments for religious bias and for violating fundamental rights.

The United Nations high commissioner for human rights expressed concern over the law, calling it a “breach of India’s international human rights obligations.” Several leaders from Indian opposition parties criticized the government for enforcing a law that fosters religious discrimination.   

Over the years, India has provided protection for many people fleeing persecution. Those persecuted often are members of minority religious communities or ethnic groups, and India is doing right to welcome them. But members of the majority can also face persecution, such as Afghans at risk fleeing the Taliban.

India should demonstrate that it is genuinely committed to helping those whose lives or freedom are in danger by protecting all asylum seekers. It should ratify the Refugee Convention, establish nondiscriminatory refugee law and asylum procedures, and establish a path to citizenship for all recognized refugees without regard to their religion.

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