Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019: A step towards undoing the Indian secular democracy

Locals and Jamia Millia Islamia students protest against CAA/NRC in New Delhi
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Locals and Jamia Millia Islamia students protest against CAA/NRC in New Delhi on 15 December 2019

India today is at the crossroads of history. The country won independence from the British colonial rule in 1947. The bedrock of this new independent state was secular democracy. Secular democracy is characterised by equality, liberty and fraternity. India has been home to a plural and diverse group of people – linguistic, ethnic and religion – who have coexisted peacefully. The Constitution of India elaborately spells out its affirmation to the commitment of secularism and safeguards to protect secular democracy. This helped India tide over many crises as a young state and become a vibrant democracy, which is celebrated the world over. However, in the past six years, the secular democracy in India is severely challenged by rising majoritarianism and supremacism promoted by the ruling dispensation. The Constitution, which ensures equality and pluralism, is under a relentless assault through discriminatory policies and impunity enjoyed by supremacists who are targeting the religious minorities, Dalits, indigenous people and women. Recently, the ruling dispensation in India pushed and hastily got the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA) passed owing to its brute majority in Parliament. This Act seeks to radically change the nature of Indian democracy and challenges the very idea of India and all it stands for.

Socio-political landscape of India

In order to understand the serious implications and import of the CAA, it is important to fully comprehend the socio-political backdrop prevailing in India. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came into power in India in 2014. The BJP with its exclusionary ideology of Hindutva has to a large extent polarised the Indian society and deepened the fault lines along religious identities. One has to bear in mind that this agenda was set and took off with the formation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of BJP, in 1925 with the objective of establishing the Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation), a goal pursued by BJP in its governance and subsequent policies. Hindu Rashtra, to put simply, is a state conceived on the concept of supremacy of Hindu religion, race and culture. Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, the most revered ideologue of RSS, in his conception of Hindu Rashtra based on the hegemony of the ideology of Hindutva elaborates in his book, We or Our Nationhood Defined: “…the foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment – not even citizen's rights.”

The RSS with this divisive agenda has been fortified and backed with a gamut of affiliated organisations penetrating almost all institutions in public sphere. For example, it has organisations of farmers, women, university students, groups for indigenous people and caste with one common agenda of Hindutva. This has helped them create a formidable network of grassroots workers having an impressive reach out. The RSS indoctrinated members hold important positions in educational institutions, media houses and bureaucracy. The divisive agenda, until before 2014 was pushed informally through these institutions. But post 2014, this agenda has gained traction with the state power BJP enjoys. In that sense, the agenda is pursued with legitimate power.

These supremacist organisations have worked in a concerted manner to popularise fabricated narratives that portray the religious minorities in a negative light in an attempt to ‘other’ or marginalise them. The Muslims are depicted as anti-national, loyal to Pakistan, fanatic, polygamous and deliberate in increasing their population in order to overtake the Hindu population (The Telegraph, 2018). History is distorted to spread the myths that Muslim rulers in India destroyed temples of the Hindus and spelled the dark ages for India while ancient India ruled by Hindu rulers had a glorious past, which India must strive to regain (Ashraf, 2015). The narrative related to Christians is dominated by the aggressive drive of the missionaries to convert the Hindus to Christianity and thus posing a threat to Hindus and Hindu identity. The supremacist organisations in the past aggressively took up the campaign of ‘ghar wapsi’, literally meaning returning home, by the vigilante groups to convert non-Hindus into Hindu religion forcefully. The vigilante enjoyed impunity though this campaign was in violation of freedom to religion enshrined in the Constitution. The BJP has also brought about anti-conversion laws, which make it illegal for anyone wanting to convert into any other religion from Hindu religion out of one’s own free will. The current RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, in a bid to justify ghar wapsi, remarked that, “People may belong to different castes, religions or regions, but ideologies and values of all Indians are the same. They all have the same ancestors — those who have laid down their lives for the country (Verma, 2015)”. This exposes that attempt at homogenising India.

These divisive narratives are used to spread politics of hatred and political mobilisation for violence. Various state commissions, which have investigated into communal riots or religious violence, have found the RSS instrumental in fomenting hatred, instigating and participating in violence. This violence is explained in the form of the institutionalised riot system by political scientist Paul Brass who has studied communal riots in India closely. Brass observes that before elections, in order to polarise the communities and benefit electorally, riots are engineered (Brass, 2004). Riots are not spontaneous but planned and the minorities like Muslims and Christians have suffered heavily in these riots in the forms of displacement, loss of lives and property. Since 2014, the number of communal riots reported in the media has steadily decreased and other forms of communal violence have become more prominent (Engineer, Dabhade, Nair, & Pendke, 2019). For example, minorities are now targeted through mob lynching. Vigilante groups styled as storm troopers owing to state patronage are fearlessly lynching people to death under the pretext of cow smuggling or cow slaughter. Muslims were the target of 52 percent of violence centred on bovine issues over nearly eight years (2010 to 2017) and comprised 84 percent of 25 Indians killed in 60 incidents. As many as 97 percent of these attacks were reported after the BJP government came to power in May 2014, and half the cow-related violence – 30 of 60 cases – were from states governed by the BJP when the attacks were reported (Abraham & Rao, 2017). Cow is sacred to upper caste Hindus and the RSS has carefully constructed it as a symbol of nationalism. Another pretext of mob lynching is “love jihad”, a derogatory term given to relationships where the woman is Hindu and the man is Muslim. The violence is normalised by the state, which takes no concrete action or condemnations to bring the culprits of these hate crimes to justice.

National Register of Citizens: The real intent and miseries in Assam

Apart from physical violence, the ruling dispensation is encouraging violence in the symbolic and structural forms. Structural violence entails policies, which discriminate against the minorities. The CAA is one such policy. It seeks to grant accelerated citizenship of India to migrants – Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who have entered into India on or before 31 December, 2014. As it is clear, the Muslims are notably excluded in this Act. The Act is based on the premise that the above mentioned groups are persecuted minorities in the three countries, which give special status to Islam. Though one recognises persecution of minorities in these countries, it is noteworthy that these very countries have other persecuted groups too. For example, the Shias and Ahmediyas in Pakistan, the Hazaras in Afghanistan and Rohingya Muslims settled in Bangladesh have been arguably the worst persecuted communities. Ideally, all those are persecuted anywhere in the world should be granted refuge and citizenship in India on humanitarian grounds. Discriminating on the grounds of religion defeats the very logic of such an Act. It is also in violation of the Indian Constitution, which in Article 14, provides for equality before law. It is clear that India needs a comprehensive legislation regarding refugees and the CAA is not the solution.

Furthermore, the CAA cannot be viewed in isolation. It assumes significance in the light of the imminent National Register of Citizens (NRC), which the government has repeatedly warned will be implemented throughout India. The CAA is a knee jerk reaction of the BJP to the devastating experience of NRC in Assam, which rendered 1.9 million citizens, mostly Hindus, stateless. The CAA is a tool devised to grant citizenship to the Hindus excluded from the NRC in Assam who constitute the support base of BJP. The NRC process would require each resident in India to produce documents proving that they are citizens of India. Central to these documents are those, which prove legacy or that their ancestors were Indian citizens dating back to 1950. The tedious and complex process of NRC so far carried out in the state of Assam has brought the state on the verge of a humanitarian crisis.

The roots of NRC in Assam can be traced to the British who encouraged migration to Assam from Bengal and other places in India for cultivation in order to augment their revenue from agricultural produce. The influx of migrants, mainly Bengali speaking Hindus and Muslims, was perceived as a threat to the identity and resources of the indigenous groups in Assam. There was a persistent demand to restrict this migration in Assam. This anti-migration movement intensified post the formation of Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, in 1971 when migrants from Bangladesh crossed into the North East India through the porous border owing to political unrest and violence in East Pakistan. The BJP has steadily added fuel to this fire by giving unsubstantiated exaggerated figures of Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam to gain political acceptance in Assam. The BJP made no distinction in the immigrants on the basis of religion and portrayed as if all immigrants were Muslims. They termed them as infiltrators – illegal migrants coming with the intent to create unrest. The BJP added to the intense hatred and hysteria against Bengali Hindu and Muslim migrants and steadily turned it into an anti-Muslim movement. This movement resulted into the Assam Accord of 1985 provided citizenship for foreigners coming into Assam before March 24, 1971.

The process costing a massive Rs. 16,000 million has rendered 1.9 million residents, mostly Hindus, stateless and stripped them off their citizenship. The NRC updation, which took over a decade in Assam, created an unforgivable scramble and paranoia to gather documents to prove that one’s ancestors were Indian citizens. In this routinely flood ravaged state, where, like most of India, hospitals and schools are still a dream in remote areas, it is impossible to get documents to prove birth or ancestry. This unrealistic requirement cost the unlettered and the poor, across religious lines, their citizenship. The fate of spending the rest of their lives in detention camps awaits them. Many in Assam committed suicides only in anticipation of being excluded from the NRC and being torn apart from their loved ones and family. Many have died in the inhumane conditions that describe the detention centres. One can only imagine the mammoth task involving incredible financial and human resource required in replicating this exercise throughout India, which might exclude so many million more innocent citizens.

Political and constitutional crisis

The CAA has triggered a constitutional crisis in India. The Constitution and the Citizenship Act 1955 govern citizenship in India. Citizenship in India is determined on the principle of jus soli. It means that in order to be an Indian citizen, one must be born in the territory of India or his/ her parents should be born in India. There is no barrier of religion. However, the CAA marks a shift from this principle to the principle of jus sanguinis, which is based on bloodline. The CAA is modeled on the ‘law of return’ as is prevalent in Israel, which believes Israel is the natural home for Jews from anywhere in the world. The BJP time and again has reiterated its political position that India is the natural home of Hindus around the world including in its election manifesto of 2019 (BJP.ORG, 2019). This position and the subsequent Act, which determines citizenship on the basis of religion, go against the foundational principle of the Constitution and constitutional morality. This Act will render Muslims in India as second class citizens and result in endless anxiety not only for Muslims but all other citizens especially the dispossessed poor who will find it impossible to produce such a labyrinth of documents. This will put millions of citizens at the risk of being stateless. The CAA may bring some succour to the followers of the six religions mentioned in the Act but they will have to first lie that they are not Indian citizens but have migrated from the three countries.

A step towards Hindu Rashtra

Arguably this is a decisive step towards establishment of a Hindu Rashtra. After the abrogation of Article 370, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir, the CAA indicates the aggressive shift to the Right and majoritarianism. This Act is a grim reminder of the Nuremberg Laws, which discriminated against the Jews. This Act also institutionalises and legitimises discrimination against Muslims in India. Seeking to introduce ethno-nationalism, the Act spells a death knell to a multicultural society.

Diplomatic fallout

The Act has attracted international attention and concern. The brute and violent manner in which the government handled widespread protests led by students and youth against the Act has been invoked great concern and even condemnation worldwide. Students on campuses of prestigious universities like Oxford, Harvard, MIT and Yale have staged protests in solidarity of the students targeted by police brutally. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cancelled his visit to India due to the ongoing protests in Guwahati. Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen too cancelled his visit to India to demonstrate that Bangladesh was not happy with the accusations made by Indian Home Minister Amit Shah that Bangladesh persecutes its minorities. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet has urged the government to respect the citizens’ right to protest peacefully.


The CAA coupled with the NRC dents constitutional morality and betrays the very idea of India, which was founded on composite nationalism and shared identity. India was envisaged as a secular country, home to followers of all religions and also atheists. But the ruling dispensation, by hastily getting this Act passed without democratic consultation, has undermined democratic institutions in India. It is reimagining India as a Hindu Rashtra with citizenship defined along lines of ethno-nationalism. This Act is not the first and by no means will be the last attempt to further the agenda of Hindu Rashtra. One can anticipate many such moves meant to keep the hatred against Muslims simmering. The ruling dispensation will be reinventing tools to keep the xenophobia brewing. However, this divisive politics will only hurtle India onto the treacherous road of relentless anxiety, uncertainty and injustice. It will expose million of its own citizens against the vagaries of statelessness. The pressure it will exert on the seams of the already existing fault lines in India might result into spiraling violence and unrest for decades to come.

Disclaimer: This article was prepared with the support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung India. The views and analysis contained in the publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.


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