The 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act in India

by Mangala Subramaniam, Purdue University

  • from CriticalMass Bulletin, Volume 45(1) Spring 2020: The newsletter of the Section on Collective Behavior and Social Movements, American Sociological Association

Past scholarship in social movements conceptualize democracies and dictatorships as a binary. This dichotomous view of political regimes limits our understanding of the ways in which states respond to challengers, and how democracies can adopt repressive measures that work to concentrate power within the government. India’s passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and its response to the resulting protests, shows the need to reconceptualize the state to consider how the concentration of power—even within multi-party democracies—can enable repression and violence of protestors.

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed by India’s parliament on December 11, 2019, will grant citizenship to persecuted Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, and Christians who were minorities in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, while excluding persecuted Muslims. Combined with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which requires people to prove they are citizens of India, the CAA has raised fears among many in India. Civil rights groups say the CAA discriminates against Muslims, but the government denies these claims and argues the CAA protects all religious minorities fleeing persecution.

The recent consolidation of power by India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) paved the way for this law. In the 2014 and 2017 national elections, the BJP garnered an overwhelming majority of seats in the Lok Sabha (House of the People or Lower House of parliament) with no official opposition party, as no single party gained the required 10% of seats (India has eight recognized national parties, including the BJP). This has allowed the government to function like a dictatorial regime rather than a democracy, passing exclusionary laws and violently repressing dissent. 

Protests by large sections of society in cities across India erupted in December 2019 and continued until India’s coronavirus-related lockdown in late March 2020. Public protests are not uncommon events in India, but the scale of this discontent is enormous. Thousands of people have come out on the streets in numerous cities, universities, public squares and maidans (or open grounds/spaces) to demand withdrawal of the CAA.

There is no doubt that the country’s Muslims, who feel most threatened by this move, are at the forefront of the protests. The protests at Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) university in Delhi were met with police brutality inside the university’s campus and library, which gave further momentum to the wave of demonstrations. The protests at JMI and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) have since developed into a much wider opposition on campuses across the country. Many of protestors are middle class university students, but they are protesting the violation of democracy rather than calling for privileges for themselves.

The protests are driven by a disquiet against attempts to define India as a Hindu nation. Protestors insist that India should not have a hierarchy of citizenship rights based only on religion. The Preamble to the Constitution has become a rallying cry at many demonstrations, as it ensures for all of India’s citizens, “Justice, social, economic and political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all; Fraternity, assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation.” Challengers also frequently use other national symbols, such as the Indian flag. Some student protestors carried placards that read, “We are not Hindus, Muslims… Christians. We are Indians.” However, these demonstrations have yet to have a tangible effect on the state that is unwilling to either listen to or talk to the protesters.

The police have used force in cities where protests have erupted. They have beaten protestors, used tear-gas shells, made arbitrary arrests, and banned assemblies. In early January 2020, a scuffle between students and masked men on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) led to a professor and a student being injured. Beyond use of police under the guise of the need for law and order, the state curtailed the flow of information by shutting down the Internet in some cities, including Delhi.

This state-led suppression of dissent using brute force prevents dialogue, blocks the flow of information, and silences the voices of large sections of people. It alters the character of the democracy. Thus, the case of India demonstrates the need to reconceptualize the state within the political process approach to account for repression that occurs within democracies.

Repression of challengers within a democracy can be influenced by the political structure: which political party is in power and the extent to which a majority held. An overwhelming majority can mean the concentration of formal political power and enforcement of an extreme ideology that deters from the broader concerns of citizens, such as exclusion by law. Moreover, if not challenged by any major opposition party, the ruling party does not feel compelled to listen to marginalized groups, limiting the space for social movements as they make demands on the state. A party’s significant majority within a democracy’s national parliament can then essentially function as a dictatorial regime.

In sum, the current view of democracies as being purely non-dictatorial does not capture the wide variation in structures and practices of democratic states. I suggest that scholars must also consider state structure and not simply rely on the binary of democracies vs. repressive (or military) regimes to explain state-movement dynamics.