NEW YORK – India’s discriminatory new citizenship law and policies have spurred violence against Muslims, Human Rights Watch said in a report recently released. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in December 2019 adopted the Citizenship Amendment Act, which for the first time makes religion a basis for citizenship. The act, together with a planned nationwide verification process to identify “illegal migrants,” can threaten the citizenship rights of millions of Indian Muslims.
The 82-page report, “‘Shoot the Traitors’: Discrimination Against Muslims Under India’s New Citizenship Policy,” says the police and other officials have repeatedly failed to intervene when government supporters attacked those protesting the new citizenship policies. The police, however, have been quick to arrest critics of the policy and disperse their peaceful demonstrations, including by using excessive and lethal force.
“India’s prime minister has appealed for a united fight against COVID-19, but has yet to call for unity in the fight against anti-Muslim violence and discrimination,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Government policies have opened the door for mob violence and police inaction that have instilled fear among Muslims and other minority communities throughout the country.”
The report is based on more than 100 interviews with victims of abuse and their families from Delhi and the states of Assam and Uttar Pradesh, as well as with legal experts, academics, activists, and police officials.
The new amended citizenship law fast-tracks asylum claims of irregular immigrants from the neighboring Muslim-majority countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, but excludes Muslims. It was enacted amid the BJP government’s push for a nationwide citizenship verification process, through a National Population Register (NPR) and a National Register of Citizens (NRC), aimed at screening out “illegal migrants.” While work on the population register has been deferred to prevent the spread of COVID-19, statements from the home minister and other BJP leaders have raised fears that millions of Indian Muslims, including many whose families have lived in the country for generations, could be stripped of their citizenship rights and disenfranchised.
The United Nations and a number of governments have publicly criticized the citizenship law as discriminatory on the basis of religion. But BJP officials have mocked and threatened protesters, while some of their supporters have engaged in mob attacks on critics and anti-government protesters. Some BJP leaders called for the protesters, whom they described as “traitors,” to be shot.
In February 2020 in Delhi, communal clashes and Hindu mob attacks on Muslims resulted in more than 50 deaths. Witness accounts and video evidence show police complicity in the violence. In one incident, police officers beat a group of five Muslim men injured in the mob attacks, taunting them, and ordered them to sing the national anthem as a form of humiliation. One of these men later died.
At least 30 people, mostly Muslims, were killed during protests in BJP-governed states, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. During other protests, including by students, the police failed to intervene when government supporters attacked protesters. “The police were present in the campus when the violence broke out,” said a student at a university in Delhi who was injured when a pro-BJP group attacked protesting students. “We sought help from them and then we ran to flee the attackers, but the police never came to our aid.”
The National Register of Citizens has already left nearly two million people at risk of arbitrary detention and statelessness in India’s northeast state of Assam. In August 2019, Assam became the first state to complete the register. Human Rights Watch found that the process in Assam lacked standardization, leading to arbitrary and discriminatory decisions by officials, and put undue hardship on poorer residents who do not have access to identity documentation – dating back for decades – to establish citizenship claims. Women, who are more likely than men to lack access to documentation, were disproportionately affected. The process in Assam has heightened fears over a nationwide citizenship registry.
The Foreigners Tribunals, which decide citizenship in Assam, lack transparency and uniform procedures, Human Rights Watch said. Rights groups and the media reported that significantly more Muslims were being tried and a much greater proportion were declared foreigners as compared with Hindus, because of apparent political pressure. Even some government officials and military personnel have been declared irregular immigrants.
“We sold two cows, chickens, and goats,” said a woman whose family could not afford the legal and document fees to establish their citizenship claims at a Foreigners Tribunal. “Now we do not have anything to sell.”
The Citizenship Amendment Act violates India’s international obligations to prevent deprivation of citizenship on the basis of race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin. The Indian government should repeal the amendment and ensure that any future national asylum and refugee policy does not discriminate on any grounds, including religion, and complies with international legal standards. It should also discard any plan for a nationwide citizenship verification project until there are public consultations to establish standardized procedures and due process protections to ensure that it does not impose undue hardship on the poor, minority communities, migrant or internally displaced populations, and women, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Indian government has tried to delink the citizenship law from the citizenship verification processes, but it has failed to reassure minority communities because of contradictory, discriminatory, and hate-filled claims by BJP leaders,” Ganguly said. “The government should immediately reverse policies that violate India’s international legal obligations, investigate alleged police abuses, and protect freedom of speech and assembly.”