Indian Citizenship Law Disenfranchises Millions

By Ria Mazumdar

 In the mainstream media, some atrocities carry more weight than others. While some events have the entire world in uproar, other instances of oppression are carried out quietly, with little commentary or historical analysis. This held true in India, when the Modi government passed a law in July that effectively stripped four million Assamese residents of Indian citizenship [1]. In tandem, the Citizenship Amendment Bill seeks to strip anyone of citizenship if they came to India after 2014 [2]. Allegedly, this measure was designed to peacefully limit migration. However, a little bit of digging into the historical context and political motivations for the decision no Assam reveals that this move is something the global community should be outraged about – it is nothing short of the first step to outright ethnic cleansing.

The original intention of the law with regards to Assam was purportedly to identify illegal immigrants from adjoining Bangladesh. Residents who had migrated after 1971, the year of Bangladeshi independence and the ensuing violent conflict, are considered to be “illegal” under this logic, and have been excluded from the National Register of Citizens. From a simple historical perspective, this is highly illogical. During this year, millions of migrants crossed the border as political refugees from what was then East Pakistan. Questioning the right of these people to be Indian citizens is problematic on multiple levels. Firstly, it makes little sense to censure young people whose parents have resided in India for decades. Secondly, completely limiting immigration to Assam precludes reasonable immigration policy that could qualify, but not totally eliminate, the possibility of migration. Moreover, the intention is clearly specific and targeted. No statement has been issued on other foreigners (whether American students, Asian employees, or other groups who are contributing positively to the economy).

The political motivations behind such a move are starkly clear. By targeting these residents, who are mostly Muslim, Modi and the BJP are sending a clear signal of Islamophobia and Hindu nationalism just before the upcoming general elections next year. This is consistent with a general strategy of appealing to the base, as the party originally came to power with campaign promises of cracking down on “illegal immigrants.” [3] Tactics of the Assamese majority have been used to suppress and marginalize Bengalis, both Hindu and Muslim, for decades. An eerie parallel can be drawn between the Modi and Trump administrations, with the wave of xenophobia and populism sweeping throughout the globe. Correspondingly global resistance is necessary to combat these forces.

Resistance to this measure has not done much to improve the situation on the ground. Sporadic acts of violence, including the killing of five men last week and a bomb blast in October (explicitly aimed to wan people supporting this bill) have incited anger against resistance movements and particularly the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam), while the latter have denied involvement. Responses from civil society are limited, and the potential for political change is constrained by the current administration. Violence and instability is likely to continue to increase with the repercussions of this law.

The situation is made even worse when considering the context of Bangladesh itself. Faced with the Rohingya crisis, a situation of genocide in Myanmar against the Muslim minority, Bangladesh has struggled to accommodate thousands of refugees into its borders. Granted, India has stated that Bangladesh will not be burdened with additional migrants as a result of any deportations from India [4]. Nonetheless, this puts Modi in a bind: if he has nowhere to potentially deport Assamese residents, he must find a way to cope with the claims of unlawful citizenship and ensuing social violence in the region. It is the responsibility of citizens as well as the international community to ensure that the unrest in Assam does not shift blame onto the minority group, empowering the nationalists’ exclusionary agenda.

Modi’s recent law is not simply an effort to streamline migration, or to properly organize the government census. It is a targeted move that attempts to exclude and marginalize Indian residents who had a rightful claim to the country as political refugees in 1971. Stripping people of citizenship is just the first step down a long road of human rights violations that seem both possible and politically advantageous for the current Hindu nationalist government. Resistance tactics have thus far centered on violence and have not been sufficient to mobilize civil society. A broad front is necessary to stop this exclusionary agenda in its tracks, and this will require organizing within India as well as concerted uproar by the global community.

Ria Mazumdar is a senior at Tufts University where she is pursuing a dual degree in International Relations and Quantitive Economics. She is also currently the Editor-in-Chief of Hemisphere, the Tufts University Journal of International Affairs.

Works Cited:

[1] Hartosh Singh Bal, Is India Creating its Own Rohingya? New York Times, Aug 10, 2018.

[2] Naresh Mitra, Citizenship bill will stop immigration in Assam: BJP, The Times of India, Oct 31, 2018.

[3] Zeenat Saberin & Abdul Gani, India’s Assam shuts down over plans to amend citizenship law, Al Jazeera, Oct 23, 2018.

[4] Singh Bal, NYT.

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