Image Credit: Refugees, Climatalk/Flickr; Licence: CC BY NC 2.0

Written by Ashok Swain.

India is currently witnessing large-scale protests all over the country. While these protests are being spearheaded by the native population in the North East, in the rest of the country it is Muslims who have taken the lead.

What can be the reason for India’s Muslims, who have been subjected to various forms of increased discrimination and harassment since the Hindu chauvinist government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leader Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014, finally coming out in large numbers to protest in different parts of the country? The immediate catalyst for these protests is the changes to the citizenship law which have just been introduced by the BJP government.

On 12 December 2019, India amended its Citizenship Act of 1955. With this amendment, the Act enables Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, Jains and Parsis who have fled from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan and who arrived in India before 31 December 2014 to apply for Indian nationality. Their residency requirement in India has been reduced to six years, in contrast to the mandatory 11 years for other immigrants.

Time will tell whether or not the spirited protests by Muslims from all over India will be able to prevent Modi’s government from pursuing its blatant anti-Muslim agenda in the future

India also receives people escaping from religious persecution in Sri Lanka, China and Myanmar, but these countries are not included in the changes to the Citizenship Act. Consequently, the Amendment is extremely controversial because it limits the scope to only three Muslim countries in India’s close neighbourhood and excludes Muslims from the list of beneficiaries. This is being seen as a formal concrete step by Modi’s government to dilute India’s secular constitution and to turn India into a Hindu nation.

Since Narendra Modi was re-elected as Prime Minister in May 2019 with an increased majority, he has brought in several legislative changes which have made India’s 200 million Muslims increasingly nervous about whether their rights will be protected in an overwhelmingly Hindu-majority country.

These provocative changes include the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act 2019 and the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act 2019. Moreover, on 9 November 2019, India’s Supreme Court granted permission to use the land of the illegally demolished Babri Mosque in Ayodhya to build a temple for the Hindu god Ram, which has been a major demand of the BJP for decades.

The protest against these decisions – widely perceived as anti-Muslim – had been muted until now. However, the Amendment to the Citizenship Act seems to have shattered any remaining hope that Muslims might still have in India’s institutions and legal system.

Before the Muslim community came out onto the street to voice its opposition, there had already been violent protests by the ‘native’ population in the North-East of India, particularly in the state of Assam in anticipation of the Citizenship Amendment Bill being passed in Parliament. The fierce protests in Assam probably helped the Muslims of India to shed their hesitation and come out openly in opposition to the Hindu majoritarian regime led by Narendra Modi. But why are the Hindu Assamese protesting against these changes?

To understand this, it is necessary to examine why Modi’s government wanted to amend the Act. Since 2015, the state of Assam has been preparing a National Register of Citizens (NRC). The final list was published on 31 August 2019, and it excludes 1.9 million residents from the citizenship register. The BJP-led government now intends to conduct a similar Assam-style exercise in the rest of the country.

Furthermore, the citizenship issue is extremely volatile in Assam because the state has witnessed violent anti-immigrant protests against its Bengali-speaking residents since the early 1980s. Previous governments in Assam were reluctant to introduce a procedure for citizen identification, fearing a serious crisis of law and order. However, the Modi government went ahead and carried out this exercise in conjunction with India’s Supreme Court, since it expected to discover a large number of Muslims who did not have the necessary papers to establish their Indian citizenship.

However, contrary to the BJP’s expectations, out of the 1.9 million people listed in the non-citizen category in Assam, nearly 1.2 million of them are Hindus, while the remaining 0.7 million are Muslims. It is not difficult to conclude that the Hindu right-wing ruling party and its ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), would never allow the Modi regime to go against the Bengali-speaking Hindus of Assam, who are the party’s traditional supporters.

Therefore, to protect the Bengali-speaking Hindus of Assam who failed to have themselves listed in the state’s NRC, the government of Narendra Modi has decided to amend India’s Citizenship Act. However, given that the native Assamese are against all Bengalis living in the state irrespective of their religion, and demand that all immigrants who arrived in the state after 24 March 1971 be deported, the government finds itself in a quandary.

Opposition to the Citizenship Act amendment has engulfed Assam – a highly volatile state which has experienced decades of insurgency and ethnic riots – in extensive and violent protests, creating a serious law and order situation. Although the amended Act excludes the tribal areas of India’s North-East, several other states in that part of the country have joined Assam to protest against the decision to grant citizenship to Hindu migrants.

While the protest in the North-East is being led by the natives, in the rest of the country Muslims have started occupying the streets in large numbers. Muslims’ opposition to the Act is not limited to its dilution of the secular principles of India’s Constitution and the discriminatory treatment of Muslim immigrants; it also arises from the fear of being targeted and harassed when the regime begins to extend the NRC exercise beyond Assam and across India.

The combination of nationwide implementation of the NRC along with the amendment to the Citizenship Act has the potential to see millions of Muslims of India declared as non-citizens. This fear has forced the minority Muslims to shed their inhibitions in order to protest against the Hindu majoritarian regime of Narendra Modi.

Time will tell whether or not the spirited protests by Muslims from all over India will be able to prevent Modi’s government from pursuing its blatant anti-Muslim agenda in the future. Nonetheless, whatever the outcome of these protests, the large-scale spontaneous mobilisation of Muslims to oppose the provocative policies of a majoritarian regime augurs well for the future of democracy and secularism in India.

Ashok Swain is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden. He tweets @ashoswai.

Note- At the time of editing the article there has been a violent police crackdown of the protest in  Universities (with a substantial number of Muslim students) like Jamia Milia Islamia University in Delhi and Aligarh Muslim University in Aligarh.

*Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions.



  1. As in almost all non-theocratic, democratic countries, even the amended Indian citizenship law cannot deprive any Indian citizen professing any faith — or no faith — the protections of the Indian Constitution, regardless of the provisions of the law. Per contra, no person who is not an Indian citizen, but who is physically in India can claim the protections of the Constitution of India, regardless of whether such person is a refugee or not. Very many such — including Muslim-citizens of other countries — have applied for Indian citizenship, some from even Sweden, and almost all have been granted it, after a longish wait.
    Refugees, who are physically in India, can apply for her citizenship. It is not ultra vires of any international covenant, to which India is a party, to specify explicitly legal conditions that sieve such applicants in various ways, including by faith and country-of-origin. Theocratic countries with an Islamic Constitution do so routinely. Israel is extremely selective about which refugees professing the Muslim faith it will grant its citizenship to. The elected Parliament of India, which has Muslim members, did not think it bad policy to do likewise. Very many others in India think it is bad policy. When those others command a majority in the Indian Parliament, they can repeal this amended law.

  2. The protections of the Constitution of India (including being religion-blind) are available only to citizens of India. They are partially available to the stateless (but resident in India, by leave of the Government) only to the extent that domestic (Indian) law provides. That law needs to be congruent with the requirements of only such international covenants as India is a party to. India is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and does not have a national refugee protection framework. Yet, it continues to grant asylum to a large
    number of refugees from neighbouring States and respects UNHCR’s mandate for other nationals, mainly from
    Afghanistan and Myanmar. The CAA has a cut-off date of 31 December 2014; refugees (of any religion) who have been resident in India since before that are entitled to the protections of the Constitution of India, and the laws made there-under. Those laws include several that respect the beliefs and customs of Muslims exclusively, even those who convert to Islam in order to secure the benefits of those exclusive laws.

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