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Protests Against Citizenship Bills in India: An Explainer

Image courtesy Gayatri Khandhadai
Image courtesy Gayatri Khandhadai

In India, there have been widespread and continuing protests against an amendment of citizenship laws and revision of the citizen’s register since December 2019.

Last month, India amended its Citizenship Act of 1955, allowing Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian refugees and immigrants from neighbouring Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to be eligible to apply for Indian citizenship. This Act has drawn criticism from civil society organizations and the opposition for unfairly excluding Muslims from the list.

Added to this, the proposed updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a government register containing the names and relevant information for the identification of all Indian citizens, has become a concern for Indians, especially Muslims. The NRC was piloted in the Indian State of Assam in the Northeast of the country, among 33 million citizens and it left1.9 million Indians, including 1.3 million Hindus, facing the possibility of becoming stateless, as they could not show relevant documents.

To comply with the NRC, people in Assam had to show documentary evidence that they or their ancestors were born in Assam before March 25, 1971, the official cut-off date. However, this posed a problem, as a large number of Indians, especially older citizens, do not possess birth certificates and the birth registration rates have only improved in recent years.

Opinions are divided in India, as some are supporting the recent changes in these laws. However, defenders of human rights, independent intellectuals, as well as academics, students, and common people are protesting the changes, while facing police brutality.

The protests began in Assam, Delhi Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, and Tripura on December 4, 2019 and, in a few days, it spread across the country. So far, at least 27 people have been killed and thousands have been arrested.

The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) condemned the crackdown on peaceful protesters in India, including the harassment of APC staff member Gayatri Khandhadai.

APC Posted an explainer on what is happening:

“In recent weeks, peaceful protests have erupted throughout India in response to the adoption of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. Passed in early December, the amended legislation excludes Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who have been resident in India since before 2014 from the status of “illegal immigrants”, and expedites their path to citizenship. The Amendment does not extend the same protection to atheists and Muslims, including minority sects, from these three countries.”

“Critics say that the CAA undermines India’s secular constitution, which ensures equality for all religions and does not list religion as a criterion for citizenship. The CAA, read in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), has put India’s 200 million Muslims on high alert. The NRC, which is set to be implemented nationwide, is an exercise in registering every single person in the country in a single database, with the onus of proving citizenship on individuals through often hard-to-find ancestry documents. Incendiary remarks made by India’s Home Minister Amit Shah, linking the CAA and the NRC and calling Muslim migrants “infiltrators” and “termites”, has further heightened fear of the impact of both the CAA and NRC on Muslims and other marginalised groups. This joins a growing list of controversies spurred by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, which is accused of pushing a Hindu-nationalist agenda and discriminating against religious minorities.”

The Indian government's Citizenship (amendment) Bill - CAB - lead to protests in Assam in Northeast India. Image by Carsten ten Brink. CC BY-NC-ND
The Indian government's Citizenship (amendment) Bill - CAB - lead to protests in Assam in Northeast India. Image by Carsten ten Brink. CC BY-NC-ND

APC posted about the harassment of their staff members:

“We see open source technology as the definite alternative to the restrictive, capitalist nature of the current technology”

“On 29 December, a group of activists in Chennai, including APC staff member Gayatri Khandhadai, decided to protest by drawing kolams (patterns with rice flour) that said “No to CAA and NRC”. Kolams are part of a long-standing tradition in Tamil Nadu, drawn especially during the ongoing Tamil month of marghazi, which is a central part of their culture. They were met by over 40 police personnel who asked them to stop since they did not have permission under Section 41(3)(a) of the Madras City Police Act. The activists did not seek permission for this because it was not an organised protest and they were not raising slogans. [..]

[..] five of the activists, including Khandhadai, were forcibly put on a bus and taken to a community hall near the J5 Besant Nagar police station, where they were detained. “

“Three other lawyers, including another APC staff member, went to the area where the activists were being held in order to provide legal assistance and were themselves detained for “aiding the protests”, although no law was cited by the police despite being asked. The police released the eight individuals after a couple of hours, after taking down all their personal details. The activists later learned that they were being charged under Sections 143, 188 and 341 (wrongful restraint) of the Indian Penal Code.”

Image courtesy Gayatri Khandhadai
Image courtesy Gayatri Khandhadai

Reading List:

Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)

National Register of Citizens (NRC):

About the Author

Rezwan Islam has long experience in citizen and social media. For over 15 years, he has been writing for local and international citizen media sites/blogs.