‘It so clearly discriminates against Muslims’: India rolls out faith-based test for citizenship

A new law that provides refugees with a path to Indian citizenship went into effect in March. But it’s controversial because it excludes refugees who are Muslims. There were widespread protests in 2019 when it was first passed and now India’s supreme court is hearing a bunch of petitions against it.

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When Firdaus Razai arrived in New Delhi, India, from Kabul, Afghanistan, at the age of 12, he said, everything felt strange and unnerving.

“I was very scared at first,” said Razai, who is now 18.

Delhi was unbearably hot — a stark contrast from his home in Afghanistan, which was surrounded by mountains, he said. But unlike Kabul, which saw volatility with the rise of the Taliban, Delhi seemed safe.

It’s that feeling of relative security that makes India a draw for some 200,000 refugees, according to the UNHCR.

Now, at least some of those migrants could potentially see their lives transform. The Citizenship Amendment Act, which went into effect in March, expedites Indian citizenship for refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who entered India before 2015. Refugees are eligible for citizenship if they’ve stayed in the country for five years, rather than 11 as was mandated before.

But there’s another condition: faith. The fast-track citizenship can be availed if the refugee is Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Christian, Buddhist or Parsi, but not if they’re Muslim. The law leaves out Razai and most other Afghan refugees in India, in addition to tens of thousands of Muslim asylum-seekers from other countries.

It marks the first time that India — an officially secular state with a religiously diverse population — has set religious criteria for citizenship.

“It so clearly discriminates against Muslims,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy director at Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

The Indian government denies any discrimination. Its argument is that Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are Muslim nations where people of other faiths are targeted and, therefore, need protection. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government proposed the controversial law back in 2019, which sparked widespread protests. The government says that the move will end the suffering of persecuted religious minorities in South Asia.  

But Ganguly disagrees with that logic. She said that many Muslims in those countries are also persecuted. 

“If the Indian government decides that it is going to protect religious minorities from neighboring countries, that’s a good thing,” Ganguly said. “We would just not want it to be limited to a certain demographic but expand to a whole group of people that might need protection.”

The law handpicks refugees from India’s Muslim-majority neighbors but doesn’t cover countries like Sri Lanka where most people are Buddhist. Tamils from Sri Lanka are one of the largest groups of refugees in India. The Citizenship Amendment Act also overlooks South Asia’s biggest migrant crisis, the displacement of the Rohingyas of Myanmar. Indian authorities have threatened to deport Rohingyas, who are also Muslim. 

This isn’t how India used to treat refugees, Ganguly said, adding that India’s track record has been “fairly good.” India gave refuge to tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees following the Tibetan uprising in 1959 and continues to host the Dalai Lama. 

“India was considered a generous host but, unfortunately, that has changed now,” Ganguly said. “Some of it could reflect what is a global pushback [against migration] but the particular concern with India is also that it identifies Muslims as the ones that are not welcome.”

A ‘moral obligation’

Meanwhile, some of those eligible for naturalization under the new rules have already received their citizenship certificates. Pakistani refugee camps in India, home to mostly Hindus, erupted in celebration when the law went into effect. 

Hindu Singh Sodha, who came to India from Pakistan in the 1970s and became an Indian long ago, now advocates for other Pakistani refugees. He said that he welcomes the Citizenship Amendment Act. 

“This is the moral obligation of India to accommodate these people,” he said, adding that the law should be expanded to include those refugees who came to India more recently, too. 

He said that it is India’s responsibility to take in Hindus and other minorities who suffered in Pakistan after the 1947 Partition, when the Indian subcontinent was split into the Muslim state of Pakistan, and the secular nation of India with a Hindu majority. 

Sodha said that the Partition left many non-Muslim families to face discrimination in Pakistan, and the new law corrects that. 

Amit Shah, Modi’s right-hand man, echoed this rationale in parliament in 2019 when he introduced the law.

“If the country had not been divided along religious lines when it became independent, we wouldn’t have needed this law,” Shah said.

Political observers say the Citizenship Amendment Act fulfills Modi’s idea of India as a homeland for Hindus and a Hindu-first nation. But many Indians reject this vision. 

“India has always opened its doors to outsiders, but to do it on this specific basis of religion in a secular state is unacceptable,” said Deb Mukharji, a retired diplomat and one of nearly 200 petitioners who have challenged the citizenship law in India’s top court. (The case is ongoing and the last hearing was held in March.)

Petitioners argue that by leaving out Muslims and making faith a basis for citizenship, the government is acting against India’s constitution. 

“If you wish to open your doors, do so with a generosity of spirit,” Mukharji said.

Some also fear that this new law combined with the possible exclusion of Muslims from a proposed citizen registry could end up making some Indian Muslims stateless. The Indian government has insisted that would not happen. 

A tough road for refugees in India

In a south Delhi neighborhood where many Afghan refugees live, Mohammed Qais Malikzada works out of a tiny basement office as head of the Afghan Solidarity Committee. 

He sits under his country’s flag listening to the concerns of his fellow Afghan refugees who come to him for guidance. 

Mohammed Qais Malikzada, head of the Afghan Solidarity Committee, works out of a tiny basement office in Delhi where Afghan refugees come to seek his advice. Sushmita Pathak/The World

“We have engineers, doctors. They cannot find any job because they don’t have Indian documents,” Malikzada said. 

India lacks a comprehensive refugee policy and grants asylum on a case-by-case basis. The only identification many Afghan refugees in India have is a card from the UN refugee agency. 

“If [the Indian] government [provides] documents like nationality, like passports, I think there’s not any other country better for Afghan refugees than India,” Malikzada said. 

If Muslim Afghan refugees could get citizenship under the new law, he said, they wouldn’t go anywhere else. But without that, many don’t see a future in India. 

Razai, the refugee from Kabul, said that he hopes to move to Canada.

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