Home Governance

Is India's Citizenship Amendment Act Eroding the Nation's Secular Fabric?

Amidst Rising Tensions and Protests, Questions Arise Over the Citizenship Amendment Act's Impact on India's Secular Ethos and Constitutional Values

By Varghese George
New Update
Citizenship Amendment Act

Citizenship Amendment Act | Representative Image | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Listen to this article
0.75x 1x 1.5x
00:00 / 00:00

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has, in recent years, emerged as a lightning rod for debates and discussions, piercing through the very heart of India's collective conscience. At the crux of these discussions lies a critical concern: the potential impact of the CAA on India's secular ethos. The Act has simmered in the national discourse since its parliamentary approval in 2019, only to have its flames rekindled by the Union Home Ministry's recent announcement on March 11, notifying the implementation of Citizenship Amendment rules enabling the controversial implementation of the CAA. This also serves as a critical juncture for the country to introspect on its foundational values and the path forward in safeguarding them amidst what many perceive as an assault on the very secular fabric of the nation.

Read More: India's Democracy at a Crossroads: Unmasking Institutional Vulnerabilities

The Citizenship Amendment Act delineates a path to grant Indian citizenship to six religious communities—Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians, and Parsis—originating from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. It extends citizenship to both legal and illegal immigrants from these groups who came to India before December 31, 2014. Under the CAA, those who have stayed in the country for a minimum of five years are eligible for citizenship without having a valid passport of these countries or a valid Indian visa. The mode of application will be online, for which a web portal has been created.

The CAA announcement has sparked a huge controversy and debate, primarily due to its exclusion of Muslims from the list of religious minorities from neighbouring countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan) eligible for expedited citizenship. The exclusion of Muslims, has led to widespread protests and criticism, both domestically and internationally. Critics argue that the Citizenship Amendment Act undermines India's secular constitution by linking citizenship with religious identity for the first time. This move has been seen as discriminatory against Muslims, sending a message that they are less valued or not fully part of the Indian polity. 

Many critics and human rights organisations have been labeling the law as "anti-Muslim" for its exclusionary provisions. This critique hinges on the shift the CAA represents from India's traditionally secular approach to citizenship, which previously did not consider religion as a criterion for eligibility. Prior to the CAA, the way to acquire an Indian citizenship through naturalisation was uniformly applied, requiring all applicants to legally reside in India for 11 years, irrespective of their religious affiliation. However, all of this now changes with the implementation of CAA which is primarily based on the religious background of the applicants from the respective nations.

The timing and context of the Centre's decision to implement the Citizenship Amendment Act have also attracted widespread criticism. The announcement came very close to the heels of the impending Lok Sabha elections. The decision also came right after the Supreme Court's rejection of the State Bank of India's (SBI) request to postpone the disclosure of details concerning electoral bonds—a development that cast the government in an unfavourable light and served as a considerable source of embarrassment. Critics argue that the timing of the CAA's notification was strategically chosen to deflect public attention from the contentious issue of electoral bonds. Adding another layer was that the announcement was made during the holy month of Ramadan, which has drawn huge criticism from muslim religious influencers and organisations. 

Read More: Controversy and Clout: The Journey of Patanjali and Baba Ramdev

The CAA has also drawn a torrent of questions. Critics point out a conspicuous gap in the Act's provisions for refugees fleeing persecution from non-Muslim majority countries, notably the Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, raising questions about the underlying criteria for eligibility. Similarly, the exclusion of Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar, as well as Muslim groups facing persecution within Muslim-majority countries—such as the Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan and the Hazaras in Afghanistan—shows a seeming inconsistency in the humanitarian rationale presented for the Act. These groups are left to navigate the long path to citizenship that requires an 11-year wait, in stark contrast to the expedited timeline offered to six designated religious communities.

Moreover, the requirement for these excluded groups to possess valid documentation to justify their presence in India adds another layer of complexity and challenge, especially for those who have fled dire circumstances. Human rights advocates argue that this differential treatment not only undermines the secular foundations of India's democracy but also contravenes Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, which mandates equality before the law and equal protection of the laws to all individuals within its territory. 

The Union Home Minister's portrayal of CAA in one of his recent tweets paints a picture of a legislative effort aimed at providing refuge to minorities facing religious persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. However, a closer examination of the CAA shows that the law itself does not explicitly limit its applicability to individuals who have directly suffered persecution, nor do the implementing rules demand any proof of such persecution from applicants, which means that basically any person from the specified six religious communities, who arrived in India before the cut-off date of December 31, 2014, and has resided in the country for five years, can seek citizenship if the individual has the requisite documentation in place. 

Read More: Surrogacy in India: The Fight for Inclusivity and Fundamental Rights in Parenthood

The union government has been quite vocally defending the CAA. Even in states like in Assam, for instance, Chief Minister Hemanta Biswa Sarma's stark warning to political parties protesting against the CAA—threatening the cancellation of their registration—shows the heightened stakes and the government's resolve to quash dissent at any cost. The controversy surrounding the CAA has also fueled apprehensions about the BJP's intentions to roll out the National Register of Citizens (NRC) nationwide, following its contentious implementation in Assam. The NRC's objective to identify and deport undocumented immigrants has raised concerns, especially when viewed in tandem with the CAA. Critics argue that the conjunction of these two measures could create a framework that discriminately targets Muslim individuals by excluding them from the protections and creating pathways to citizenship to members of other specified religious communities.

This perspective posits the CAA and NRC not as isolated policies but as components of a broader strategy that could potentially alter the demographic and political landscape of India. The fear is that, collectively, these measures could be wielded to disenfranchise and discriminate against Muslims, marking them as "illegal" migrants without the possibility of recourse available to others. Such concerns have sparked widespread protests and drawn criticism from various quarters, including opposition parties, which contend that the timing of the CAA's introduction—just before elections—was strategically chosen to sow division and polarise the electorate along religious lines.Citizenship Amendment Act | Representative Image | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement


Unlock this story for free.

Simply log in with your email ID and immerse yourself in a world where exclusive insights and compelling narratives come alive.