Aseema Sinha on India’s Citizenship Amendment Act

Dr. Aseema Sinha is the Wagener Chair of South Asian Politics and George R. Roberts Fellow at Claremont McKenna College’s Government department. She was previously an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Professor Sinha received her B.A. from Lady Shri Ram College. Dr. Sinha received her M.A. and M.Phil. from Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi, India). She received an M.A. and Ph.D. from Cornell University. Her research interests relate to political economy of India, India-China comparisons, international organizations, and the rise of India as an emerging power.
Salonee Goel CMC '20 interviewed Dr. Aseema Sinha on Feb 17, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Sinha on behalf of Claremont McKenna College.

On December 9, 2019, India’s parliament passed the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which grants citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from the neighboring countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. How has this bill inflamed tensions between India and other countries in the region?  

Ostensibly, the amendment bill is aimed towards immigrants from three neighboring countries but the underlying purpose of the amendment is aimed towards India’s domestic population. The government wanted to signal to its largely Hindu base that it was creating a supportive environment for other religions but not Muslims. To address your question, it has affected India’s foreign relations mostly in terms of goodwill and discursive alienation.  In the short-run, it has affected India’s improving relations with some neighboring countries in a negative way. India’s relationship with Afghanistan and Bangladesh are good and those relationships may be hurt. Bangladesh’s many ministers and the Prime Minister have expressed skepticism about why this bill was necessary. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, was mobilized against the so-called “Bangladeshi migrants” in Assam, so India’s relationship with Bangladesh is directly affected. The Foreign Minister from Bangladesh cancelled his trip to India and other leaders have challenged the claim that people from India are now going back to Bangladesh because CAA will not allow them to stay. Officials from India’s foreign ministry maintain that this is an internal matter, which is paradoxically true in that it is a mobilizational tool deployed by the BJP to signal to their own support base and target Muslims. In terms of Afghanistan, President Ghani has expressed some skepticism about the need for this bill.  If tensions continue, this might affect India’s neighborhood first policy, which was the Modi government’s effort to establish closer relationships with neighboring countries. India’s relationship with Pakistan is already so bad that this did not make it much worse, but it gave Imran Khan ammunition to assert that India is prosecuting Muslims more than other religions. The government is trying to manage the foreign policy fallout. Some of the normal relations with Bangladesh are proceeding, but the fact that the visits were cancelled is significant. Interestingly, Bangladesh is a success story by now. Its growth rates are higher than India’s. Its infant mortality and quality of life indicators are better than most of India, so migration from Bangladesh to India has declined. This indicates that the bill is a political issue that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s government wants to use to mobilize its own population. At the least, it has affected the atmospherics of relations with Bangladesh and Afghanistan, if not the actual policy. 

When combined with the National Register of Citizens, what does the Citizenship Amendment Act mean for India’s Muslim population? 

For India’s Muslim population, this means that they are at a minimum irrelevant, and in the worst case, they are the target of animus by the government. It challenges Modi’s claims that his government wants to bring everyone together and that they are being generous towards people who want to come to India. Consider the effect of the National Population Register (NPR), combined with NRC which will begin in a few months. In the NPR, the officials will ask questions about where your parents were born and your ancestry. Next, would be the NRC followed by CAA. It is like a filtering machine. Let’s say there are a 100 people who don’t have papers to prove where their parents were born. Out of the 100, if you are a Muslim, you could be asked to demonstrate your bona fides. Even if these initiatives do not intend to target Muslims, it has created a fear amongst all Muslim people that they could be targeted.  This undermines the feeling of inclusion of all religious groups in India. Interestingly it has also created fear among people of all faiths that they will have to “prove” their citizenship. A large number of people in India do not have even minimal documents, which has united all kinds of people against the CAA. This is the reason we are witnessing a broader coalition against the CAA.  

Does this bill have historic precedent? Or does it call for a reimagining of India’s constitutional benchmarks? 

The most important thing to understand about this bill is not only what the government does but underlying societal changes over the last five to seven years. Hindus, especially middle-class Hindus, have become extremely conscious of their Hindu identity and have begun to articulate anti-Muslim feelings. This translates into tangible and subtle support for this bill. There are lots of societal changes at a micro level that have created implicit support both for the Article 370 abolition and for this bill. 

In terms of historical precedent more generally, the mid 70s saw an attempt to re-order the constitutional principles towards secularism and socialism under Indira Gandhi. At that time, the democratic structure was also disrupted for two years (1975-1977). However, this is a more serious attack on democratic principles because both group rights and individual rights are being undermined. Thus, in terms of structures of government, the mid 70s could be considered a historical precedent for a unilateral effort to reorder the constitutional principles of democracy. 

In terms of India’s current constitution, do you think this bill is in line with it? 

It undermines very crucial principles related to fundamental rights, group-based protections and certainly the spirt of the constitution in terms of protecting diversity.  Article 14 and 15 of the constitution are directly implicated. Article 14 states that "The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.” Article 15 of the constitution states that the state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, caste, race, sex, and place of birth. Since many religious minorities, and some countries (Sri Lanka and Myanmar for example) are excluded from the purview of the amendment, it could be challenged. 

India’s constitution has a unique and powerful fundamental rights section. It took that from the Irish Constitution and Bill of Rights in the United States. The CAA undermines that. Also, India is a unique democracy in giving recognition to ethnic and group rights. For example, all religious groups have equal recognition. You may be a Muslim or a Hindu but you also get recognition as part of a member of a community. This is in keeping with India’s multicultural diversity. India multinational diversity is not a separate issue but linked to its democratic future and present. India’s democracy has survived because each sub-national grouping within it, whether it be religious or regional, have gotten representation and recognition. CAA and the NRC undermine that constitutional principle of multinational diversity. In the 1950s, it used to be called “unity in diversity.” While that was an informal principle, it has been incorporated in the actual constitution through various articles, such as article 370, which accords regionally based rights not only to Jammu and Kashmir but also to many other states such as the states in the Northeast. Group rights guarantee that power cannot be taken away by a majority. In my view, both individual rights, equality before the law and group rights, all of which are important for India’s democracy, are being undermined. In other words, Indian democracy is backsliding. 

The passing of this bill has led to widespread protests, especially in the northeastern parts of India. How has the state responded to this opposition?  

First, the state was completely caught off guard because it didn’t expect the protest to happen. In the initial phase, the state launched a policy of pressure and coercion by arresting people and using police violence, which we saw in universities such as Jamia Milia and other universities. Then, it realized that its violence was creating very bad publicity and the protest was spreading like wildfire through every city in India. Once it realized that the protest was larger than it had anticipated, the government retreated and acknowledged that NRC need not be implemented throughout the country. However, some ministers and Modi maintain that the CAA will be implemented. It is the NRC that they are doubting. Their intention is to continue implementing the CAA, hoping that the protest will die down. Right now, I don’t see a turnaround in their policies but strategic hedging. The current strategy also relies on a policy of pressure, and police brutality when nobody is looking. 

Does this response set a precedent for future protests or political resistance in India?

India’s police force have always been used to oppress civil society but India’s civil society is very strong. This police action will deter some people but it has also mobilized some of the middle class as they see their children being beaten. Some people who were somewhat neutral about CAA are now opposed to it although others have become stronger supporters of the BJP. Civil society has been mobilized by the police action. Many people in the southern states have become aware of the threat that it poses. Another interesting aspect is that the opposition political parties who were earlier on the fence, such as the governing party in Andhra (YSR Congress), Nitish Kumar (Janata Dal in Bihar) and Naveen Patnaik (Biju Janata Dal in Odisha), are less certain about supporting CAA as a result of the protests across many cities. They were willing to implement the CAA earlier, but these protests have given them a reason to rethink their support. Now, they are trying to preempt mobilization in their states. In addition, civil society groups have become aware of unilateral state action and police brutality, which are nothing new in India. 

What is unique about the current protests against the CAA as compared to Indian protests in the past?

The role of women in the protest is unique. In Shaheen Bhag, for example, women have been at the forefront. The initial reason for their participation was based on Indian police practice, which states that if there are women protesters, there have to be women police officers to handle them. Women, from students to the middle class, have been very proactive in the protests, some even bringing their children. They have become the face of these protests. There is an underlying social churning of women in terms of their political participation and politicians have recognized this. These protests have given a different role to women making them the face of protests. They were previously considered a passive vote bank, but now they may have become more active. They are independent political actors autonomous of their families and feeling empowered by their participation. This may be a subtle effect but may endure. Politicians and civil society actors will have to figure out how to respond to this upsurge of women. 

How will the BJP’s popularity be affected by this bill? Will this mobilize the base of opposition parties? 

The BJP’s base has already grown in Delhi. In 2015, the BJP’s vote share was about 32.3%, now it is 38.51%, even though it lost the just concluded Delhi elections, winning only 8/70 seats. People may think that their loss was about the CAA, but I don’t think so. The people who support the BJP on the grounds of their anti-Muslim policies are more strongly with them. But importantly, young people, who voted for the BJP in large numbers in 2014 and 2019, are now a little wary of the BJP. Support for the BJP has increased as a result of the CAA among many except the young people. This is why in the Delhi election campaign, the BJP did not withdraw its claims and tried to make it a Hindu-Muslim election. They didn’t succeed because the Aam Aadmi Party did not fall into their trap. The movement of the vote share shows that their supporters may become more mobilized, which is their electoral strategy. The BJP is trying to create a post-caste Hindu bloc. The one caveat is that it may succeed in the Northern states but not in the Southern states. In the Southern states, such as Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and maybe Bihar and Orissa, there may be greater support for regional parties. People are realizing that if they don’t support their regional parties, the BJP may take over. The real election to watch is in West Bengal, which is going to happen next year in 2021. If the BJP manages to get more seats or vote share in that election, then we will know that CAA has actually increased the support for BJP.

This bill has come on the heels of the BJP’s repeal of Article 370 regarding Kashmir and a Supreme Court decision that allowed the construction of a Hindu temple over the site of a desecrated mosque. Do these events together suggest that India’s secularism is under threat?

There is not only an attack on Indian secularism but an attack on Indian federalism and Indian democracy. People think that Kashmir was the only state that had an article like Article 370, but other states, such as Himanchal Pradesh, have similar specific provisions to protect the regional culture of the region. If an executive order can undermine those, then it begins to affect federalism. In terms of secularism, it definitely attacks it. Kashmiri Muslims had reasons not to think of themselves as Muslim. Many of them thought of themselves as Kashmiri first. Over the years, their support for any form of secessionism or for Pakistan had dwindled. The latest survey showed that only about 5 -7% of Kashmir’s population supported independent Kashmir. That is going to increase after the current changes. The government action in abolishing Article 370 will have the paradoxical effect of increasing Kashmir’s alienation from the Indian Union. Importantly, democracy in Kashmir has backslided. Politicians have been being arrested, there is a clampdown on the media, students aren’t allowed to do anything online. There is a direct attack on democracy in Kashmir, indirectly it also affects democracy on the national level too. Also, multiple-layered identities gave a lot of strength to India’s democracy. India was celebrated as an exception to democratic theory as nobody expected their democracy to survive. Now, with this backsliding, a question has come up about India’s democratic future. There is still hope that the protests will check the government but they will need to sustain and become a wider coalition for that to happen.  In conclusion, international relations and political science perspectives can tell us a lot about what’s happening in the world’s largest democracy.

Salonee Goel CMC '20Student Journalist


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