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E.g., 06/05/2023
A Proxy War on Minorities? India Crafts Citizenship and Refugee Policies through the Lens of Religion

A Proxy War on Minorities? India Crafts Citizenship and Refugee Policies through the Lens of Religion

Photo of India gate in Delhi, India featuring names of protestors killed in anti-Citizenship Act demonstrations

India gate in Shaheen Bagh featuring the names of those killed in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. (Photo: DTM/Wikimedia Commons)

On December 15, 2019, several hundred Muslim women began a sit-in blocking a major highway in Shaheen Bagh, a predominantly Muslim neighborhood on the outskirts of South Delhi. They were protesting brutality by police in crushing student demonstrations against India's newly enacted Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The CAA, which amended the 1955 citizenship law, arguably violates India's secular constitution by putting non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh on a fast track to Indian citizenship while denying this privilege to Muslim refugees. Together with the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) that would allow for the identification of unauthorized immigrants, and their possible detention and deportation, the CAA has sent a chilling message to India's 200 million Muslims. Many dread that these policies are part of a larger agenda of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to relegate Muslims to second-class citizenship, push many into statelessness, and establish a Hindu raj.

Inspired by the Shaheen Bagh protestors, Muslim women set aside their traditional reluctance to engage publicly and led similar protests in scores of cities across India. In Shaheen Bagh, the blockade ended on March 24 when Modi imposed a nationwide lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic and Delhi police vacated the site. BJP supporters called the women of Shaheen Bagh traitors, criminals, and terrorists. Visitors to the blockade might have come away with a different view. Far from being anti-India, the Shaheen Bagh women sang patriotic songs, wore "I love India" hairbands, and swore to uphold the Indian constitution. When asked what they hoped to accomplish, the women had a single response: "A change in Prime Minister Modi's heart that will lead him to abandon the CAA."

Have the women of Shaheen Bagh been successful? Yes, to a limited extent. One outcome of these protests is that Modi gave public assurance in January that no decision had been taken on carrying out a nationwide register of citizens, even as other senior members in his party, including Home Minister Amit Shah, continue to promise the opposite. Strong public opposition to the CAA has given political parties that sat by quietly as the BJP pushed the law through Parliament, the nerve and verve to staunchly oppose the register. As of March 2020, 11 state governments across the country had passed resolutions opposing the CAA and/or any form of NRC. In the state of Bihar, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar received the unanimous support of all parties, including the BJP, for a resolution promising not to implement the NRC in his state. This could not have happened without Modi's explicit green light and is a clear sign that the Amit Shah line on the controversial registry may be modified or shelved.

Yet, the BJP rank and file remains committed to both the CAA and NRC. Party members have responded with rallies of their own, often violent, fully supporting the Modi immigration agenda and vilifying the Shaheen Bagh protestors. In a few instances, these rallies have escalated into full-scale communal riots between Hindus and Muslims. Hundreds of shops and houses, a majority of which were Muslim-owned, were burned during riots in Delhi and the adjoining state of Uttar Pradesh in February, killing at least 50 people.

The fate of the citizenship law is now with the Indian Supreme Court, which has received more than 140 petitions challenging it, including one from the United Nations Human Rights Commission. While critics argue the Supreme Court is biased in favor of the BJP, its history offers a more mixed assessment: the justices have given verdicts that have not all been in favor of the ruling party.

For the more extreme elements in the BJP, the CAA and NRC are part of a larger agenda to openly suppress and even coerce Muslims, and to energize the party’s electoral base among Hindus. In effect, BJP is using immigrant and refugee policies in a proxy war on Muslims.

This article will examine the origins and historical context for the actions taken by the Modi government; the significance of Bangladeshi illegal migration as a driver to enact political change; and the fiscal, economic, and social impacts that would result if a nationwide register of citizens is carried out, based on the experience of what occurred with an earlier registry in Assam that has disenfranchised nearly 2 million residents.

The Long Shadow of Partition Stretches On

For Indian Muslims, the CAA, NRC, and recent riots have reopened the wounds of the 1947 partition that divided British India into two independent nations: a secular, Hindu-majority India and an Islamic Pakistan. To escape the communal carnage that followed, millions of Hindus fled from the Pakistan side of the subcontinent to India and millions of Muslims from the Indian side to Pakistan. In the mindless fury and rage of the partition, both sides resorted to large-scale ethnic cleansing, with more than 1 million people killed and 17 million displaced. In 1947, secular India kept open its doors to people of all religions, including Muslims. 

In 1971, a wave of 10 million refugees arrived in India, fleeing armed conflict and genocide in East Pakistan during the Bangladesh war of independence. After the war, most of the refugees returned to Bangladesh, but an estimated 1.5 million settled in West Bengal and the northeastern states of Assam and Tripura. Illegal immigration from majority-Muslim Bangladesh, mostly of oppressed Hindus, continued for several decades. At the time of Bangladesh's creation, in 1971, 23 percent of its population was Hindu. By 2001, the Hindu share had fallen to 9 percent and has remained largely static since then.

Amid Rising Nationalism, a Renewed Focus on Immigration

Anti-immigration policies have yielded dividends for nationalist political parties in Europe, North America, and beyond in recent years. The irony in India’s case, where Modi has been prime minister since 2014, is that less than 0.5 percent of its 1.3 billion people are foreign born, and their numbers have fallen since 1990. If illegal immigration is a problem, official population statistics suggest that the issue may be resolving itself without any government intervention. Yet the amended citizenship law and the National Register of Citizens are near the top of the BJP's social agenda and are shaking Indian democracy.

BJP's grudge is that the Indian National Congress party that ruled the country for a majority of the period since India's independence appeased Muslims for electoral gain, whereas Hindus living in neighboring Bangladesh and Pakistan have been subjected to systematic persecution, including threats of forced conversion to Islam. Modi and his supporters defend the CAA as a humanitarian gesture towards non-Muslim minorities who have fled Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh on account of religious persecution. While there is substance in its approach, the BJP is also using the CAA and NRC to consolidate a Hindu vote that has historically scattered among an array of parties and to gain power in West Bengal, where until recently it had a negligible presence. In two districts of West Bengal that have a large number of immigrants from Bangladesh, Alipuduar and Cooch Behar, Home Minister Shah has promised to use both the NRC and CAA to make electoral gains. “If the BJP comes to power, we will bring in the NRC here to throw out all infiltrators and illegal immigrants. We will also ensure that the Hindu refugees are not touched. They are very much a part of our country,” Shah said at an election rally in Alipuduar in March 2019.

Figure 1. Map of India and its States and Union Territory

Note: The territory in teal represents areas long contested by India, Pakistan, and China.

In districts bordering West Bengal, where the proportion of Muslim residents is high, BJP officials believe they can get more Hindus to vote for the party by stirring communal passions. Well-known journalist and economist Prannoy Roy has argued that Hindu voters cross over to the BJP in large number when the proportion of Muslims in a district rises above 25 percent. As early as 1971, Jan Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP, was able to win Murshidabad, a district with a Muslim majority.

Beyond making electoral gains with Hindus, BJP leaders believe that the CAA and NRC are vote getters with Parsis, Buddhists, Christians, Jains, and Sikh refugees, who stand to receive citizenship under the CAA.

Implementation of a Registry of Citizens in Assam

The northeastern state of Assam, which conducted a statewide registry of citizens beginning in 2015, provides an excellent example of what will happen if the NRC is carried out nationwide. The genesis of the registry in Assam goes back to the Assam Accord, a memorandum of understanding signed in 1985 by the national government and various state student unions and political parties to end a six-year student-led agitation. The student activists opposed large-scale migration to Assam of essentially non-Assamese people, not just unauthorized immigrants from Bangladesh but also Indians of other ethnic stock, such as Bengalis, Nepalis, and tea garden workers from Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. The protestors argued that the influx impacted the economic and political wellbeing and land rights for Assamese, as well as eroded their cultural and linguistic identity. The Assam agitation led to massive disruptions and massacres in the Nellie and Khoirabari areas of Assam, killing thousands. Under the Assam Accord, the leaders of the Assam movement agreed to accept all migrants who had entered the state before January 1, 1966; for its part, the Indian government agreed to identify and deport refugees or migrants who entered Assam after March 25, 1971. This date is crucial, as millions of Bangladeshis fleeing civil war entered Assam, West Bengal, other Indian states, and Myanmar in 1971.

For three decades after the signing of the accord, the Assam Movement's supporters felt the government had failed to implement its provisions. Very few outsiders were identified or detained. In December 2013, the Supreme Court directed the Indian government to hold a registry of citizens in Assam. The registry began in 2015 and its first report was presented on December 31, 2017, rendering 3.9 million Assamese illegal. The onus of proving citizenship was on the citizens, who were required to submit documents to prove their citizenship. In a second and final report in 2017, the number of residents rendered illegal dropped to 1.9 million.

The BJP had expected that the register of citizens in Assam would detect only Muslims who were illegally present. But detailed results of the NRC show that of the 1.9 million residents listed as illegal, 1.1 million were Hindus, 600,000 were Muslim, and the remainder belonged to indigenous tribes of Assam. All political parties, including the BJP and student unions, have rejected the results of the citizen register in Assam.

For the political leaders and the people of Assam, the issue is not just about unauthorized immigrants: it is of Assamese versus non-Assamese. Residents of Assam, along with the entire northeast of India, have rejected the CAA as well, because they do not want to provide citizenship to non-Assamese living in Assam, whether Muslim or of other religion.

Bangladeshi Migrants: A Problem or Scapegoats?

Politics aside, the question remains whether Indians should be overly concerned about the presence of Bangladeshis in India. In the absence of trustworthy data on the size of the overall illegal population in India, with estimates ranging wildly from 1.5 million to 15 million, perceptions are paramount. BJP leaders have succeeded in exaggerating the presence of unauthorized Bangladeshis in the country by calling them "termites," as Shah notably has done, or ghuspatiyas (meaning intruders). Many Indians believe the BJP narrative that millions of Bangladeshis live illegally in India, that their numbers have been multiplying fast, and that they should be identified, put in detention centers, and deported to back to Bangladesh.

The official count of the foreign-born population based on Indian census data tells the opposite story. Far from rising, the number of Bangladeshis living in India has been steadily declining since 1991. Bangladeshis are the largest foreign-born group in India, but they account for a tiny 0.2 percent of the nation's population. In 1991, 4.04 million people born in Bangladesh lived in India. The number fell to 3.7 million in 2001 and to 2.7 million in 2011, the date of the most recent Indian census—in other words a one-third decline over two decades.

These data imply a net outflow, not a net inflow, of Bangladeshis from India since 1991. Critics dismiss Indian census data on Bangladeshis as gross underestimates. A web search yields a wide range of estimates from 1.5 million to 15 million. But these are guesstimates and do not specify whether they are based on surveys or projections, or how reliable the methodologies are. Skeptics argue that every census undercounts unauthorized residents since Bangladeshis, fearful of detention or deportation, lie about their birthplace. While there is, of course, some validity to that, most of the reported decline in Bangladeshis in the 2011 census occurred in West Bengal (from 3.04 million in 2001 to 2.2 million in 2011), where fears of detention and deportation are lowest.

West Bengal State Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee opposes the NRC, and in January adopted a resolution expressing opposition to implementing the CAA. An undercount of unauthorized immigrants is likely to be lower in a state where key political parties, including Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, the Indian National Congress, and the Communist Party of India, have long wooed Muslim voters, including those from Bangladesh. Undercount was also less likely in 2011, the year when the last census was conducted, as the political climate was quite placid. Even if the absolute number of unauthorized residents is questionable, the downward trend is not.

An Improving Picture in Bangladesh

In the absence of firm data on the size of the Bangladeshi unauthorized population, one way to ascertain recent emigration trends between India and Bangladesh is to examine the motivation for migration. India's per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is higher than that of Bangladesh. Being the largest economy in the subcontinent, India would arguably attract workers from neighboring countries with lagging economies. In the decade 2001-11, India experienced an 8 percent annual GDP growth rate, much higher than Bangladesh's 5.7 percent. But after 2011, Bangladesh more than caught up with India. During 2012-19, Bangladesh's GDP growth was 7 percent, slightly higher than India's 6.8 percent. Most dramatic of all, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that Bangladesh’s GDP growth in 2020 will well outpace India’s: 8.1 percent versus 4.8 percent. While economic performance is only one of the factors that determines migration, Bangladesh suddenly looks more of a magnet for workers.

The Modi government has failed to create the jobs it promised six years ago, even as the employment scenario in Bangladesh is much better. Bangladesh has benefitted from the U.S.-China trade war. To escape higher tariffs on Chinese goods, American retailers are shifting orders to Bangladesh, which has as a result gained an increasing share of U.S. trade. Bangladesh's merchandise exports grew at double digits in fiscal year 2019, even as India’s remained basically stagnant.

Demographic trends in the two countries also suggest that the push factors for Bangladeshis to emigrate to India are weak. Demographers have demonstrated that the emigrant flow is generally from high-fertility to low-fertility countries. In 1981, Bangladesh’s total fertility rate was 6.2 births per women, way above India's 4.8. But over the years Bangladesh’s fertility has fallen phenomenally. In 2017, its fertility rate was down to 2.06 births per women, well below India's 2.24.

On social indicators, Bangladesh has been outperforming India for some time. Bangladeshis enjoy a life expectancy of 72 years; Indians on average live four years less. In 1971, at the time of the birth of Bangladesh, life expectancy was one year higher in India. Bangladesh has forged ahead and India had lagged behind. In 2017, infant mortality in India was 32 deaths per 1,000 live births; in Bangladesh, it was 27; the mortality rate for those under age 5 was 39 deaths per 1,000 live births in India, as compared to 23 in Bangladesh, according to the estimates by the United Nations Inter-Agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation. Fifty years ago, for many of these indicators the two countries were at par or India was slightly ahead.

Bangladesh remains ahead of India on women's empowerment and gender equality: 71 percent of women, ages 15 or higher, in Bangladesh are literate, compared to 66 percent in India. In India and Bangladesh, as elsewhere in south Asia, women's labor force participation is low. But it is rising in Bangladesh as it falls in India. The World Economic Forum ranks Bangladesh higher than India not only on the economic participation and opportunity index for women, but also on women's political empowerment. In most of these indicators Bangladesh is often at par with West Bengal, the state where most Bangladeshis have migrated in India, and much better than Assam, which is among the poorest and least economically dynamic of Indian states.  

In short, India might have been an economic magnet for many Bangladeshis a few decades ago, but recent economic, demographic, and social trends suggest the case for Bangladeshis to emigrate to India might be weakening.

Does India Need a Citizenship Amendment Act?

BJP supporters portray the CAA as a humanitarian gesture that fast-tracks citizenship to certain persecuted minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The issue is: Could the BJP government have avoided a debate that has roiled the country and provoked international consternation by using existing policies to grant fast-track citizenship to certain refugees or unauthorized immigrants if that were its sole objective? The answer is yes. In fact, during the first year of the Modi government, citizenship was granted to 4,300 refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan of various religious backgrounds. Certainly, many more could be granted (or denied) citizenship using the same rules. Rather than a new law, increased administrative and judicial capacity to review and adjudicate pending cases for asylum and citizenship are needed.

India does not have a refugee policy. But it has a long history of giving shelter to populations escaping civil war or persecution from neighboring countries, irrespective of their religion. It needs a refugee policy, but not one designed under a religious lens to benefit the BJP during elections.


Will a register of citizens carried out at the national level actually reveal unauthorized immigrants? Assam's experience, which ensnared far more Hindus than Bangladeshi Muslims, is not very encouraging. Until recently, Indians did not have a tradition of documentation. In many states, a vast proportion of the births are not registered even today and birth registration has been very low historically. On account of high illiteracy or functional illiteracy, valid documents to prove citizenship are frequently lacking. India is also a country where it is not difficult to purchase documents. People routinely bribe government officials to get ration cards, driver's licenses, and other forms of identity. Those who really want to have an ID can buy it. Those without documents are typically the poorest and most ignorant, or those without the savvy and cash to get documents.

The National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act controversy has scared the public so much that surveyors or enumerators who are out asking questions even on innocuous topics such as sanitation have found themselves physically attacked and chased away. It is also questionable whether the national register can be implemented when many state governments have passed legislation voicing their opposition to the CAA and have announced that they will not carry out the NRC. The fate of the CAA now lies with the Supreme Court, which could strike it down on the grounds that it violates India's secular constitution.


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