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Five things to know about India's revised citizenship law

Prime Minister Modi appeals for calm as protesters take to streets nationwide

A protester holds a placard during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the police crackdown on Jamia students, outside Jamia Millia Islamia University, on Dec. 16 in Chennai, India.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- India's contentious new citizenship law, which was approved by parliament last week, has sparked large-scale protests across the country, as it is seen by many as anti-Muslim and a violation of the country's constitutional guarantees of equality for all.

The law fast-tracks the process of granting citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from the neighboring Muslim-majority countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, enabling those migrants to become citizens after residing in India for five years, versus 11 years under the old rules.

What is the Citizenship (Amendment) Act?

The act benefits Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Parsees who fled religious persecution in the three countries and took shelter in India by Dec. 31, 2014.

The government reacted to claims that the rules are discriminatory by arguing that Muslims who seek Indian citizenship will still be able to apply. Home Minister Amit Shah told lawmakers last week that 566 Muslims have been granted citizenship by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government over the last five years.

The bill to amend India's citizenship act was part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's manifesto, which it campaigned on in the general elections of 2014 and 2019. It had landslide victories in both contests.

In July 2016, the amended citizenship rules were first introduced in the lower house of parliament, which passed the bill in January this year. However, the earlier bill lapsed after the house was dissolved for the April-May general election. Both houses of parliament have now passed the legislation after it was reintroduced last week.

It is not yet clear how many people will benefit, though Shah said the law will be a ray of hope for millions.

What are the protests all about?

Thousands of people, most of them university students, have taken to streets across the country since the law was passed, though the demonstrations in India's northeast differ from those in the rest of the country.

People in the northeast, in particular the state of Assam, which borders Bangladesh, feel that granting citizenship to Bengali-speaking illegal migrants threatens their culture and language which, they fear could be wiped out by a flood of new arrivals.

A man runs past a burning bus that was set on fire by demonstrators during a protest against a new citizenship law, in New Delhi on Dec. 15.   © Reuters

In the rest of India, protesters say the new law marginalizes the country's Muslims, who make up about 15% of the population of 1.3 billion. They say it damages the fabric of the country, which has a tradition of secularism, and undermines constitutional guarantees of equal treatment for all citizens.

In New Delhi, student demonstrations turned violent on Sunday following clashes between police and protesters. TV networks showed footage of burned out buses and motorbikes.

"Violent protests on the Citizenship Amendment Act are unfortunate and deeply distressing," Modi tweeted on Monday. "I want to unequivocally assure my fellow Indians that CAA does not affect any citizen of India of any religion." He called for peace, unity and brotherhood to be maintained.

How does the law advance the BJP's agenda?

Some see the new citizenship rules as part of the BJP's efforts to keep its traditional Hindu nationalist constituency loyal to the ruling party, whose ideological parent is the right-wing activist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party campaigned on a promise to amend the country's citizenship law in general elections in 2014 and in 2019. (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)

With the citizenship amendment, the RSS family "has used the majority they enjoy in the parliament to uproot the bedrock of Indian democracy & Constitution," tweeted Pinarayi Vijayan, chief minister of the southern state of Kerala. "[The] BJP has made it clear that their main political plank is communalism."

Rahul Gandhi, leader of the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, called the new citizenship law and National Register of Citizens "weapons of mass polarization unleashed by fascists on India."

With the aim of verifying residents' citizenship, the government updated the NRC in Assam, providing legal grounds for deporting illegal migrants in the state. The final list published in August excluded nearly 2 million people, including Hindus, from the citizenship rolls. But the new law would ensure that Hindus are not affected.

How has the international community reacted?

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan has condemned the law, accusing Modi of moving forward systematically with a "Hindu supremacist agenda," starting with the government's decision in August to scrap the semiautonomous status of the disputed, Muslim-majority region of Kashmir.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has also been critical, saying the law "is fundamentally discriminatory in nature," as it does not extend the same protection to Muslims as it does to other religious minorities.

The protests have forced Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to postpone their annual summit, which was scheduled to be held in Guwahati, Assam, from Dec. 15 to 17. The U.S., the U.K. and others have advised their citizens to exercise caution while traveling to India's northeast.

"This has certainly dented India's peaceful image at the international level," said Shamshad Ahmad Khan, a visiting associate fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies in Delhi.

What comes next?

Tensions are likely to continue as the NRC could be rolled out across the country. "The next controversial step the BJP is going to take is pan-India NRC, where Indians [will] have to present credentials to prove their Indian citizenship," Khan said.

"[The] Assam experience, where the NRC has recently been [updated], suggests that citizens have to present various documents as proof of their citizenship, failing which they would be labeled as illegal migrants."

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