Has India’s Narendra Modi gone too far with controversial new citizenship law?

CNN  — 

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Indian government has stripped the country’s only Muslim-majority state of autonomy and rolled out a citizenship check in the northeastern state of Assam that effectively left nearly 2 million people stateless, many of them Muslims.

And when Modi backed the passage of a controversial new citizenship law, which prioritizes immigrants from three Muslim-majority countries of virtually every religious stripe over Islam, protests broke out across India.

The Prime Minister, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was re-elected in a landslide victory earlier this year, has dominated Indian politics since first sweeping to power in 2014. While he has been hailed for his efforts to bring prosperity to poorer regions and root out corruption, his emphasis on empowering India’s Hindu majority has raised concerns among its Muslim minority.

To Modi’s critics, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – which fast-tracks applications for immigrants, including Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who arrived in India before 2015 – has become the most brazen example of a Hindu nationalist agenda aimed at marginalizing Indian Muslims. Opponents say it is part of an effort to tear at the fabric of India’s secular identity.

Since the law passed through both houses of Parliament last week, demonstrations have swept university campuses in at least nine states. Protesters have taken to the streets across Assam and Tripura over fears that large numbers of Hindus, who migrated to the region in the past few decades, will now be able to get their citizenship fast-tracked. Many there fear it will dramatically recast the religious and ethnic makeup of the northeastern states – home to 200 distinct indigenous groups.

“In the north, they believe the bill has gone too far and the amnesty will allow too much immigration,” Milan Vaishnav, director and senior fellow of the South Asia Program in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told CNN.

The new law will make it more difficult for Muslim migrants to get Indian citizenship. And critics are worried it might pave the way for nationwide citizenship tests, stripping the rights of Muslims who have lived in India for generations but cannot prove their family’s lineage – turning countless people stateless.

Home Minister Amit Shah has repeatedly said that the government will roll out a national citizenship registry.

Modi tried to reassure the public on Monday, saying on Twitter that the new law “does not affect any citizen of India of any religion.” And that “no Indian has anything to worry” about.

But when a citizenship registry took place in Assam earlier this year it left 1.9 million people off a list of Indian citizens. The government said at the time that no one would be declared a foreigner if they are not on the list, but that failed to temper concerns.

What is at stake is “the future of liberal democracy in India,” Vaishnav said. “And it looks like a side, which has been asleep or at least silent, has really woken up and made sure that their voices are being heard.”

The backlash

The protests are sure to have caught Modi – who has developed a reputation for being a Teflon premier – somewhat off guard. The leader has enjoyed widespread support, even when his public initiatives have hurt citizens – and the economy.

Buoyed by a strong grip on power and a faithful Hindu base, Modi’s BJP has doubled down on what critics call the party’s nationalist agenda, known as Hindutva.

Critics are worried the party is using its stronger mandate to redefine India – home to the world’s second largest Muslim population – as a religious state and a Hindu homeland.

Progressive Indians watched in horror as Modi stripped Jammu and Kashmir – India’s only Muslim-majority state – of its partial autonomy in August. Yet “very few people stormed the streets,” Vaishnav said.

This, in part, may explain why the government failed to anticipate the potential backlash to the citizenship bill. As protests roiled the country over the weekend, the government shut down the internet in several affected states in a bid to maintain law and order.

“The BJP have been adept at using their grassroots presence to build support for their policies and have been effective at sidelining institutions such as parts of the media,” Champa Patel, head of the Asia-Pacific program at the UK-based Chatham House think tank, told CNN.

But they “have been backfooted by the scale of resistance to (the law),” Patel said. “The question now is how will they respond because it’s the first real test that they have faced.”

Protests broke out at university campuses in at least nine states against the BJP's nationalist agenda.

World is watching

India’s government says the law is a humanitarian measure to help persecuted religious minorities from its three neighbouring countries – Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

And as protests continued in the capital New Delhi on Tuesday, Modi accused political rivals of fomenting dissent and encouraging the discontent.

Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, told CNN that the government needs to “understand that a Hindu majoritarian ideology may not be acceptable to a large number of Indian citizens.” That is a view shared by more than 500 jurists, lawyers, academics and actors, who have condemned the legislation in a statement seen by Indian media.

But in spite of mounting grievances, analysts think it is unlikely that the BJP will scrap the law. “Modi still remains, head and shoulders, the most popular politician in India,” Vaishnav said.

The BJP has a wide mandate since their second consecutive win in the general election, a race fought on a cultural agenda that appealed to their hard-line base. “And I don’t think they are going to deviate from it,” Vaishnav added.

In the meantime, India lacks a foreplan for what comes next. Its detention centers do not have the capacity needed to house “millions of people that could potentially be caught up,” if a nationwide citizenship check is rolled out, Vaishnav said.

And there appears to be no existing talks with neighboring countries, like Bangladesh, on the issue of deportation, Patel, from Chatham House, added.

As concerns mount, India watchers say Western governments have taken too soft a touch with the country – widely seen as a potential democratic counterpoint to neighboring China.

“I think what that does is turn a blind eye to just how authoritarian the BJP has been within India,” Patel said.

The foreign community “is waiting and watching to see how the (law) will be implemented,” Vaishnav added.

“Are you going to see large numbers of Muslims detained or lose their citizenship? It is a game of wait and see.”