India introduces controversial citizenship law deemed anti-Muslim by critics

Government accused of officially launching law, which led to widespread rioting in 2019, for political reasons ahead of elections

Comments by the United States expressing concern about India’s implementation of a contentious citizenship law based on religion are “misplaced, misinformed, and unwarranted”, the Indian foreign ministry said on Friday.

India’s move this week sparked sporadic protests, with critics, including Muslim groups and opposition parties, saying the law was discriminatory and undermined the country’s secular constitution.

In a statement, the US state department said it was “concerned” about the notification of the law, citing “respect for religious freedom and equal treatment” as a fundamental democratic principle.

“We are of the view that it is misplaced, misinformed, and unwarranted,” Mr Jaiswal, a spokesperson for India’s foreign ministry, said on Friday, in response to the US statement.


“Lectures by those who have a limited understanding of India’s pluralistic traditions and the region’s post-partition history are best not attempted,” he added.

The reference was to the colonial-era division of the subcontinent at the time of independence from Britain in 1947.

There were no grounds for concern about the treatment of minorities, Mr Jaiswal said, adding, “Votebank politics should not determine views about a laudable initiative to help those in distress.”

Prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government formally enacted a controversial five-year-old citizenship law this week.

The Citizenship Amendment Act, legislated in 2019, offers Indian citizenship to Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsees and Jains who fled to Hindu-majority India before the end of 2014, reportedly to escape religious persecution in neighbouring Islamic countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The Act does not apply to Muslim victims of persecution who have fled to India.

The passing of the law in 2019 led to widespread rioting, in which scores of people died and hundreds were arrested.

India’s federal home ministry said earlier this week that the Act was intended for those who had “suffered persecution for years in these countries, and had no other shelter in the world, except India”. By removing legal barriers for citizenship rights, the Act ensured a “dignified life” for those who had “suffered” for decades in these adjoining countries, its statement added.

India’s opposition parties accused the government of enacting the Act five years after it was passed to influence the majority Hindu vote days before the schedule for the upcoming general elections is due to be announced - most likely on Saturday.

The BJP is seeking a third consecutive five-year term in office in elections that need to be concluded before the end of May by wooing the majority-Hindu community that comprises more than 80 per cent of the country’s 1.4 billion population.

“The timing [for applying the Act] right before the polls is evidently designed to polarise the elections, especially in [the border states of] Bengal and Assam,” opposition Congress Party spokesman Jairam Ramesh posted on X.

Bengal and Assam, bordering Bangladesh, are home to large Muslim populations that illegally migrated over the past five decades. Many fear that, with the Act’s enactment, millions of them will be deemed illegal and possibly deported under the law’s stringent provisions. However, senior Indian officials have not provided details of proposed deportations.

Mamata Banerjee, leader of the opposition All India Trinamool Congress, said the Act’s implementation so close to the election announcement indicated that it was being officially launched for “political reasons”. Assasuddin Owasi of the All India Council for Unity of Muslims said the Act targeted Muslims.

The government has dismissed such assertions, and said there were many “misconceptions’ regarding the Act, but did not elaborate. It said the law’s formal notification had been delayed since 2019 by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International expressed concern over the Act.

The US state department had also expressed misgivings, saying it was closely monitoring how the Act would be implemented. “The respect for religious freedom and equal treatment under the law for all communities are fundamental democratic principles,” it said.

Rahul Bedi

Rahul Bedi

Rahul Bedi is a contributor to The Irish Times based in New Delhi