Religion and Citizenship in India

March 9, 2020

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Indian flag flies on top of the Red Fort in Delhi, India

Protests have swept much of India since December 2019, when the country’s parliament passed a new citizenship law, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The law amended the Citizenship Act of 1955 by providing an easier pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants from select religious groups. Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian migrants will now face fewer restrictions if able to prove they moved from Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Bangladesh before 2014. No similar accommodation is provided for Muslim immigrants from those countries, where Islam is the most widely practiced religion. The new law continues to incite unrest among people of various faiths.

Indian Muslims, in particular, have protested en masse against the CAA and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government introduced the bill. Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim-majority neighborhood in New Delhi, has emerged as a key site for the protests. There, hundreds of women from various religious backgrounds—Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and Hindus alike—continue to stand together in opposition to the new law despite acts of violence. Prime Minister Modi, however, defends the citizenship amendment. “We passed this bill to help the persecuted,” he said at a December 2019 rally. “We need to respect India’s MPs and its parliament.” 

Unrest over the CAA is just one episode in a longer history of controversy sparked by BJP policies related to religion. In October 2019, for example, the Modi administration officially ended the autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, the Muslim-majority region responsible for much animosity between India and Pakistan. The unilateral decision to suspend the special status was met by protests and mass arrests in the region. BJP policy on Kashmir and citizenship have been analyzed as part of a broader political project: Hindutva, a strand of Hindu nationalism. As Prime Minister Modi finishes the first year of a five-year term, such initiatives will continue to raise broader questions as to the complexities of India as a “secular state” and the relationship between religion and nationalism in the country. 

This week the Berkley Forum asks: What does the CAA mean for the future of Indian democracy? What role does religion play in Indian policymaking? Why is Hindu nationalism on the rise in India now? What are the implications of Hindutva for other states in South Asia, such as Bangladesh and Pakistan? Is there a relationship between the rise of Hindu nationalism in India and religious populism worldwide, such as Christian nationalism in the United States and Western Europe? If so, what factors might explain the global rise of religious nationalism?

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