Updated: Apr 26, 2020
India maintains a secular constitution as it is home to hundreds of different ethinic groups as well as many religious groups. Hindus make up the majority of the population of India with Muslims as the largest minority group.
Religion, especially Hinduism and Islam, has significantly influenced the cultural landscape of India. However, the people of these two religions also have a centuries-long conflict in India that was only recently amplified during the 1947 Partition in which India was split into India and East and West Pakistan (later, a war broke out and East Pakistan became Bangladesh while West Pakistan became simply Pakistan). The most important feature of the Partition was that India was divided on the basis of religion. Rapidly after the partition, relations between Muslims and Hindus deteriorated, leading to the present-day animosity between India and Pakistan. While less amongst the young, maybe in part due to the internet, there is still a deep-seated animosity between these two groups. This is important to understand how quickly events can escalate into protests and create change within Indian society.
THE PROTESTS: WHY DID THEY OCCUR?:
On August 31st 2019, the NRC or National Register of Citizens was recorded in Assam (a state in India that shares a border with Bangladesh). Officials went all around the state and asked everybody to produce documents to prove they are citizens. While it is unclear whether it is easy to produce documents or not, over 1 900 000 people were found to be illegal immigrants. After this, many Indians wanted the NRC to be expanded nationwide to expose all illegal immigrants in India.
Soon after, the CAB or Citizenship Amendment Bill was proposed. This bill lowered the number of years required to reside in India to become a citizen from eleven to five years for illegal immigrants entering India before December 31st 2014. More specifically, this bill only applied to Hindus, Buddhists, Parsis, Jains, Christians, or Sikhs escaping religious persecution in either Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Bangladesh. Before this bill, illegal immigrants would either be deported or sent to jail if caught. Now, many of those illegal immigrants that were found during the NRC, have a newfound path to citizenship of which they didn’t before. This bill was a specific point of contention for different reasons.
DIFFERENT REASONS FOR PROTEST:
This bill sparked a series of protests which first started in Assam on December 4th 2019. Assam is in the northeast of India where many people feel persecuted for their ethnicity and culture. These protests have started because they feel their ethnicity and culture are under threat if more immigrants swell Assam's population. This concept is also known as “sons of the soil” and is common in other parts of the world. The main idea is that a conflict “develops between members of a regional ethnic group that considers itself to be the indigenous ‘sons of the soil’ and recent migrants… The migrants are typically members of the dominant ethnic group”. Many immigrants come from the neighbouring muslim-majority country of Bangladesh. The divisions between the natives of the area, represented by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), and the muslim immigrants from Bangladesh gave rise to a full out “silent war” until 2011. Today, many Assamese even oppose Bangladeshi Hindus as a threat to their culture and ethnicity.
The other reason, and reason that is most prominent in the media around the world, is the fact that the bill does not include Muslims. The most prominent argument is that the bill, supposedly, infringes on India’s secular constitution by granting an easier path to citizenship on the basis of religion. Many people were angry that this bill does not include Muslims as they make up a significant proportion of India’s population. The government Home Minister Amit Shah, on the other hand, denies that this bill is anti-muslim, but instead says that it is “anti-infiltrator”. The government’s main defence for the bill is that the religious groups mentioned (Hindus, Buddhists, Parsis, Jains, Christians, or Sikhs) that face religious persecution in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Banglandesh, are fleeing Muslim-majority countries in which Muslims, more than likely, wouldn’t face religious persecution. Some wonder why the Rohingya in Myanmar or other examples of Muslim minorities in other countries weren’t included, but that is unclear as it could be that most of the illegal immigrants aren’t from non-muslim majority countries, however, this is unknown.
Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and also Prime Minister of India, has been accused of being a Hindu nationalist by people globally. The students that run the protests around India as well as academics that support them, accuse Modi of trying to create a majoritarian state in which Hindus enjoy a dominant role in society for being a part of the majority.
On December 11th 2019, the Citizenship Amendment Bill became Act and protests intensified. Students were at the center and leaders of protests, a prominent example at Jamia Millia Islamia University. Elsewhere, buses were lit on fire and reports of police violence spread. Tens of people have died in the protests since they first started in December.
Protests have historically been an important stand against injustice throughout recent Indian history with arguably the most significant stand being led by Gandhi. Therefore it will be interesting to see where these protests will lead in the future.
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