Why India's new citizenship law has sparked hunger strikes and effigy burning

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Why India's new citizenship law has sparked hunger strikes and effigy burning

Citizens of India’s northeastern states have been protesting vigorously against a proposed new citizenship regime that they claim will “destroy their culture” in the region. The protests have been diverse and dramatic â€" petitions, hunger strikes, effigy-burning, a rebel militant group threatening to end talks with the Indian state.

The source of their anger is the Citizenship Amendment Bill, first tabled in the lower house of the Indian parliament in 2016. It is set to change the Citizenship Act of 1955, which has formed the basis of India’s citizenship regime since it gained independence from the British Empire in 1947.

The amendment seeks to allow select “persecuted minorities” (Hindus, Christians, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhist and Jains) from the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan citizenship status in India after six years of residency. Other groups must wait 11 years to become naturalised citizens.

In the northeastern states, the fear is that this amendment would legitimise migration of Hindus from neighbouring Bangladesh in particular, potentially affecting the demographic makeup of the region.

When the bill’s parliamentary committee began touring the northeast in May, protests grew steadily larger, stronger and more widespread. As almost 99 per cent of their boundaries are international borders, the citizens of these states have been quick to point out that they would be the first “victims” of the new amendment if it makes it easier for minority immigrants to travel across the border, settle in and become full citizens.

The complaints are loudest in the state of Assam, which has waged a four decade struggle against the Indian state to prevent what some there call “unchecked infiltration” from neighbouring Bangladesh.

Hope in India's Lifeline Express

18 show all Hope in India's Lifeline Express

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Patients cover their eyes as they wait before their cataract surgery on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India. REUTERS

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Bhawri Devi, 41, travels home on a train after her middle ear surgery on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built in side a seven-coach train, in Jalore, India. REUTERS

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Movan, 77, is helped by her relatives as she gets ready to leave for her cataract surgery on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, in Jalore, India. REUTERS

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A doctor performs middle ear surgery inside an operating theatre on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India. REUTERS

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Patients and their relatives wait before the start of a cataract surgery on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India. REUTERS

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Doctors perform middle ear surgery inside an operating theatre on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India. REUTERS

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The Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, is seen parked at a railway station in Jalore, India. REUTERS

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Employees eat their lunch during a break on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India. REUTERS

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Patients with their eyes bandaged leave an operation theatre after their cataract surgery, on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India. REUTERS

10/18

Patients wait for their dental checkup on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India. REUTERS

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A television screen is seen in the staff resting area on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India. REUTERS

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A man milks goats in a village in Jalore, India. REUTERS

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A woman speaks on the phone outside her house in a village in Jalore, India. REUTERS

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Patients rest inside a recovery room after their middle ear surgery on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India. REUTERS

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Bhawri Devi (L), 41, watches as her husband and son push an auto-rickshaw which got stuck in the sand on the way home, in a village in Jalore, India. REUTERS

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Patients register to be screened for cataract surgery by doctors from the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a hospital in Jalore, India. REUTERS

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People wait for transport on a hot afternoon outside a village in Jalore India. REUTERS

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A patient walks past the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, parked at a railway station in Jalore, India,. Photography by Danish Siddiqui

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Patients cover their eyes as they wait before their cataract surgery on the Lif eline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India. REUTERS

2/18

Bhawri Devi, 41, travels home on a train after her middle ear surgery on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, in Jalore, India. REUTERS

3/18

Movan, 77, is helped by her relatives as she gets ready to leave for her cataract surgery on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, in Jalore, India. REUTERS

4/18

A doctor performs middle ear surgery inside an operating theatre on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India. REUTERS

5/18

Patients and their relatives wait before the start of a cataract surgery on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India. REUTERS

6/18

Doctors perform middle ear surgery inside an operating theatre on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India. REUTERS

7/18

The Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, is seen parked at a railway station in Jalore, India. REUTERS

8/18

Employees eat their lunch during a break on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India. REUTERS

9/18

Patients with their eyes bandaged leave an operation theatre after their cataract surgery, on the Lifeline Ex press, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India. REUTERS

10/18

Patients wait for their dental checkup on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India. REUTERS

11/18

A television screen is seen in the staff resting area on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India. REUTERS

12/18

A man milks goats in a village in Jalore, India. REUTERS

13/18

A woman speaks on the phone outside her house in a village in Jalore, India. REUTERS

14/18

Patients rest inside a recovery room after their middle ear surgery on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India. REUTERS

15/18

Bhawri Devi (L), 41, watches as her husband and son push an auto-rickshaw which got stuck in the sand on the way home, in a village in Jalore, India. REUTERS

16/18

Patients register to be screened for cataract surgery by doctors from the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a hospital in Jalore, India. REUTERS

17/18

People wait for transport on a hot afternoon outside a village in Jalore India. REUTERS

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A patient walks past the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, parked at a railway station in Jalore, India,. Photography by Danish Siddiqui

The committee’s decision to visit the northeast â€" and the media coverage of the protests â€" have framed this as a northeastern issue, not a national concern. But in fact, the Citizenship Amendment Bill will change the character of citizenship not just for this region, but for India as a whole.

Birthright and blood

When India ach ieved independence, its citizenship regime was established on the basis of jus soli (birth within a territory), meaning that people were members of the political community regardless of their religion or ethnicity. While mistrust of Muslims has persisted into present-day India, particularly in recent years with growing Hindu right-wing populism, the law has so far upheld the secular, non-religious character of the Indian state. The Citizenship Amendment Bill would fundamentally alter this basic tenet, shifting the basis of citizenship towards jus sanguinis (by right of blood).

But, as historians such as Joya Chatterji and Ornit Shani have documented, there have been frequent challenges to the principle of citizenship by birth â€" especially in the period immediately after th e partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

Protests have been focused in the northeast (EPA)

In contrast to Muslims, Hindus were from the start considered “natural citizens” of India. Muslim citizens of pre-independence India were ostensibly given a choice between the two countries, but in practice they were subjected to arbitrary processes to “prove” their loyalty to the Indian state. Similar demands were not made of Hindu citizens crossing the border from the newly-formed Pakistan back into India.

Regardless of which states or regions would be most affect ed by a sizeable influx of migrants, the bill changes the character of Indian citizenship and the basis on which it is granted, moving from secular to overtly favouring specific groups â€" particularly Hindus. It opens the door for the creation of second-class citizenship for non-Hindus and most of all Muslims â€" not just in the extra-legal practices of discrimination and violence that exist today, but in the law.

Slipping away

Given that India repeatedly fails its own minorities, perhaps it’s not surprising that it is only prepared to offer refuge and asylum on the basis of ethnicity, not hu manitarian need. It’s no coincidence that this amendment was introduced by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, which has an abysmal track record in protecting India’s minorities, whether they are Muslims, Christians or Dalits. Nor has it shown any inclination to help rehabilitate south Asia’s largest persecuted minority, the Rohingya.

Furthermore, the bill also leaves out Muslim minorities in Pakistan, such as Shias and Ahmadis. There is also speculation about whether the bill is a means to appease India’s Hindu diaspora abroad â€" an important funding base for the ruling party.

Even the relatively hardline BJP is not immune to public resistance. The protests in the northeast prompted India’s government to backtrack and table discussions to address what it euphemistically referred to as “people’s concerns”. But by framing the amendment as a regional issue, the government has managed to confine public opposition to the people of the northeast. Because the region is already marginalised in Indian politics, the rest of the country is often apathetic about its concerns, which rarely become pan-Indian ones.

Still, that the citizens of the northeast are protesting so vehemently â€" whatever their precise grievances â€" is currently the only sign of dissent. Unless it feels the heat of visible and vocal public outrage, the Indian state is likely to continue its slide towards becoming a very different, less inclusive, and increasingly more unjust country.

Saba Sharma is a PhD candidate in geography at the University of Cambridge. This article first appeared on The Conversation

Source: Google News India | Netizen 24 India

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