How India’s New Citizenship Law Is Institutionalizing Religious Discrimination


On Wednesday 11 December, India’s Citizen Amendment Bill (CAB) was passed through the upper houses of parliament. CAB grants amnesty to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The bill is a reformation of India’s 64-year-old citizenship law which prevents illegal migrants from becoming citizens. Under CAB, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who have been living or working in India for six years will be able to apply for formal citizenship if they can prove they are from one of the three chosen countries.

India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has justified the bill by arguing that CAB gives sanctity to people fleeing religious persecution. Defending the bill, R Jagannathan, editorial director of Swarajya magazine, wrote that the exclusion of Muslims from the ambit of the bills coverage flows from the obvious reality that the three countries are Islamist ones.” But critics have argued that this bill is discriminatory against Muslims and a statement categorically condemning the bill has been signed by over 700 high-profile Indians, including jurists, lawyers, academics and actors. Investigative journalist Rana Ayyub has written Clearly you are catering to your Hindu base by telling them that this country is only for Hindus… Right now, we are coming across to the world as petty vindictive civilization. Thats not what India stood for.”

Under the guise of providing citizenship to religious minorities, CAB is institutionalizing in India’s secular constitution a method of religious discrimination against Muslim minorities. In practice, it is true that many non-Muslims do face persecution for their religion in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. However, so do many minority Muslim groups, such as Ahmadis, who would be discriminated against gaining Indian citizenship due to their religion by CAB. If the aim of CAB were truly to give sanctity to people fleeing religious persecution, then Muslim minority groups who also face oppression in these countries would also have been included. In 2018, most blasphemy cases in Pakistan were filed against Ahmadis and other Muslim minorities, as opposed to Hindus or Christians. Furthermore, CABs religious discrimination and selective choice of countries, which excludes bordering Myanmar, also prevents Rohingya Muslims, the most famous and widely persecuted religious minority in South Asia, from gaining citizenship in India.

The Citizen Amendment Bill was first put before parliament in July 2016, but it did not pass through the upper houses. It is following an increasingly widespread hostile atmosphere in the past years towards Muslim minorities in India.

As Rana Ayyub describes, The world’s biggest democracy had a big heart when it could accommodate people.” As an Indian, I have always been proud of one of the fundamental pillar stones of Indian culture: tolerance towards all religions. This pillar stone is a major reason why the original Indian constitution formed was secular. Whilst, in theory, providing sanctity to people fleeing religious persecution could have reflected this tolerance and generosity, its discriminatory nature against Muslim minorities being persecuted has led to the opposite. Conditions for gaining citizenship should be chosen based upon whether immigrants are being persecuted for their religion in their country, regardless of what religion this is. CAB should be amended to allow sanctity to all religions, including Muslim minorities, fleeing religious persecution. Countries such as Myanmar should also be included on the list. This has the possibility of resolving the discrimination based upon religion currently being institutionalized and normalized by creeping into Indian laws. The tolerance of Indian culture towards all ways of life then has a chance of being re-established.

Devyani Gajjar