Commentary: Why India’s current political storm over citizenship law will blow over

Commentary: Why India’s current political storm over citizenship law will blow over

It is the longer-term impact of the country’s current protests against a controversial citizenship law that could be a concern for India, says one observer.

Demonstrators holding placards shout slogans as they attend a protest rally against a new citizensh
Demonstrators holding placards shout slogans as they attend a protest rally against a new citizenship law, in Hyderabad, India, January 4, 2020. REUTERS/Vinod Babu

SINGAPORE: More than a month has passed since large-scale protests erupted in the Indian state of Assam on Dec 4 against the introduction of a controversial amendment to the Citizenship Act.

The amendment, enacted into law on Dec 12, grants a preferential route to Indian citizenship to religious minorities  from neighbouring Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh – namely Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs - who had settled in India prior to 2015, discriminating against Muslims from any such privilege.

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The law sparked off large scale protests throughout the country – the first pan-Indian spontaneous mobilisation in decades. Protests, attracting crowds as large as 200,000, have stretched from Delhi and Chandigarh in the northern part of the country to Hyderabad and Bengaluru in the south. 

Violent protests have also engulfed other Indian cities like Assam, Mumbai, Kolkata with the last count stating 27 have died across the country.

The reasons behind the protests vary.

DIFFERENT CONCERNS

In the north-eastern part of the country, where the law is likely to have the largest impact, given the large influx of immigrants there from bordering Bangladesh, the amendment is seen as a way to grant Indian citizenship to a large number of Bengali-speaking Hindus.

This move could change the demographic equilibria of the area to strengthen the region’s Hindu base, which currently forms more than half its population, diluting the proportion of Muslims there from the current 25 per cent. 

Protesters in Assam, however, are against the naturalisation of all Bangladeshi immigrants, including Hindus, as they fear the dilution of the Assamese-speaking population in their state.

In the rest of India, protesters challenge the constitutionality of the law, as it introduces religious discrimination as a key principle to become an Indian citizen.

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Furthermore, many fear that the combination of the amended Citizenship Act with the proposed National Registry of Citizen (NRC) – an administrative procedure aiming at identifying who is a citizen and who is not – might lead to millions of residents to lose their citizenship and become stateless – as it has happened to about 2 million residents of Assam where the NRC was first implemented.

PROTESTS GOING STRONG

The protests are unlikely to fade away any time soon for a number of reasons.

First, instances of police brutality – which has not only costed the lives of at least 27 people so far, but left hundreds others injured – contributed to fuelling the protests. 

Police officers wield sticks against demonstrators during a protest against a new citizenship law,
Police officers wield sticks against demonstrators during a protest against a new citizenship law, in Lucknow, India, December 19, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

Second, even in parts of the country which have not seen riots, tensions remain high, which has led to an air of disquiet and dissatisfaction.

On Jan 6, for example, an armed mob, said to belong to a student group affiliated to the BJP, attacked students and faculty at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, with the police refusing to intervene. 

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While the incident is said to be unrelated to the citizenship protests, these events have contributed further to polarising opinions as students took to the streets across several Indian cities to protest inaction by the police to prevent the attack from happening.

IMPACT ON POLITICS LIMITED

However, these protests are unlikely to be a breaking point in Indian politics or for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the near-term.

For one, without some form of organisation that can sustain this long-term mobilisation and take it forward, such as political parties or civic organisations, such movements tend to fizzle out with time.

Students of Aliah University along with others hold placards and shout slogans during a protest
Students of Aliah University along with others hold placards and shout slogans during a protest against an attack on the students and teachers at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus in New Delhi two days before, in Kolkata on Jan 7, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Dibyangshu Sarkar)

For now, there is no party with national appeal willing to support the protests. (Many opposition parties had in fact supported the amendments in Parliament.)

The main contender for such a role, the Congress party, has been vague in its stance regarding the protests. It is keen not to be seen as a party that sides with the Muslims – which would give the ruling BJP ammunition and cost it valuable votes within the hard-line Hindu electorate.

STRONG SUPPPORT

The government, on the other hand, is unlikely to back down.

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First, a survey by Indian polling agency CVoter in December shows that up to 62 per cent of voters support the legislation. Most Indians believe that immigrants could become a credible security threat– a justification the BJP has been flogging to advance this policy.  

It is also reasonable to assume that most of those who took to the street are not BJP voters. The BJP has therefore calculated that the political damage for the ruling party and for Prime Minister Narendra Modi should be limited – giving it the wherewithal to stand its ground against the protests.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has accused the main opposition Congress party of
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has accused the main opposition Congress party of condoning the recent violence by not condemning it (Photo: AFP/Prakash SINGH)

Second, the Prime Minister is unlikely to concede much to the protestors because this would go against the brand he has constructed around himself. Modi built his popularity around the idea that he is a strong leader capable of taking harsh and bold decisions, even when unpopular with some segments of Indian society.

Even symbolic concessions in this instance would compromise this image of a tough, no-nonsense leader who gets things done – a perception that has underpinned his consistently high popularity.

In short, although the protests may continue for a while more, we can expect the government to remain firm on in its policy decision.

LONG-TERM IMPACT

Despite this, these protests could still create considerable repercussions for India.

First, India’s international image – which to a large extent is built around it being the largest democracy in the world and a nation founded on secular principles – is being compromised.

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The images of police brutality, particularly against the Muslim community, made it to the front pages of the world’s leading newspapers, denting India’s international standing. 

Hundreds have been injured in India during clashes between protesters and riot police wielding
Hundreds have been injured in India during clashes between protesters and riot police wielding bamboo canes, or 'lathis'. (Photo: AFP/STR)

Second, and more seriously, the amended Citizenship Act is only the most recent episode in a series of actions by the BJP aimed at marginalising the Muslim community in India.

So far, a mixture of fear and resignation have dulled an expression of resentment from the Muslim community, but the ongoing protests could fuel a more intensive animosity and trigger a militant response.

Third, though the law has been enacted, several Indian states have promised not to implement it.

This might have severe repercussions on the country’s federal structure, which is already under severe stress.

As the Indian government relies on states for policy implementation, a further deterioration of centre-state relations could reach a breaking point and have knock-on consequences for other policy areas, paralysing the Indian government bureaucracy.

This is not something that India can afford, when the economy has slowed down dramatically and unemployment remains high.

Dr Diego Maiorano is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) at the National University of Singapore.

Source: CNA/ml

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