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Modi refuses to back down over India's contentious citizenship law

Protests continue over what critics decry as a threat to secular values

Students demonstrate against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Kolkata, India on Dec. 24. Protests have intensified amid claims of police brutality in different parts of the country.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- India's controversial new citizenship law is not likely to be rolled back by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, despite ongoing protests against what critics claim is the law's anti-Muslim tone.

The Citizenship Amendment Act came into force earlier this month, prompting nationwide protests that led to the deaths of more than 20 people. Widespread property damage was also reported while police were accused of excess force against demonstrators. The escalating violence caused the government to shut down the internet in certain parts of the country.

Sources within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh -- the Hindu nationalist group -- are firm in their belief that the government would not rescind the CAA. "There is no question of it," one of them said. "This law benefits those who fled torture in three countries, and has nothing to do with Indian citizens."

"This [law] has taken the humanitarian approach ... Why do people here want the same criteria for Muslim [migrants], who are the majority in their countries?" asked Ashwani Mahajan, chief of the economic wing of the RSS, in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review.

Riot police fire tear gas against protesters in Delhi on Dec. 17.   © Reuters

The CAA expedites the granting of citizenship to six religious minorities -- including Hindus, Christians and Sikhs -- who fled persecution in neighboring Muslim-majority Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and arrived in India before 2015.

Most parts of India view the CAA as discriminatory against Muslims, who comprise 15% of India's population. People in the northeast bordering Bangladesh fear it will alter the region's demographics and marginalize their language and culture.

Amid the strongest dissent against the government since becoming prime minister in 2014, Modi assured the country that the new law had nothing to do with Indians. "This Citizenship Amendment Act is not applicable to any Indian, whether that person is Hindu or Muslim," he told a crowd at a rally in New Delhi on Sunday.

The CAA followed the August move by Modi to strip the state of Jammu and Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status. This was followed in November by a ruling from the country's top court that cleared the way for construction of a Hindu temple at a site where a 16th-century mosque was demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992.

Muslims fear these moves are aimed at cementing the ruling party's hold over the Hindu vote.

Home Minister Amit Shah said earlier this month that the next priority will be to implement a national register of citizens, or NRC. This would be modeled after a policy in the northeastern state of Assam, where nearly two million people had been excluded from a list of citizens released in August.

An NRC could require all Indians to show proof of citizenship, ostensibly to stifle the flow of illegal immigrants, many of whom are Muslim.

Police officers restrain a demonstrator during a protest in Lucknow, India on Dec. 19.   © Reuters

But Modi's Sunday speech seemed to refute Shah's claim. "Lies are being spread by opposition parties about the NRC," Modi said. "There are no rules framing [nationwide implementation], and nothing has been introduced in parliament," he told the rally, signaling that his government may be retreating in the face of the protests.

Nikkei sources cited earlier, however, said the NRC would eventually be a reality, if not now, then perhaps in the next five or ten years. "This has to happen, though it may take time," one source said.

When India gained independence from Britain in 1947, it chose a secular path. However, the CAA, makes religion a criteria for citizenship, which critics say goes against the constitution.

"The CAA will lead to polarization in India while protests against it will continue," said Duru Arun Kumar, professor of sociology at a New Delhi-based university. "All this will also hit the already-slowing economy."

Amid the uproar over the new law, Modi's BJP lost the majority in recent elections in Jharkhand State. Though local issues dominated the poll, the win could bolster opposition against Modi's policies at the national level.

While the BJP might not have suffered in Jharkhand because of the CAA, "the fallout over government policies is expected to carry over into future elections, where the government may face further blowback," Kumar said.

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