Citizenship (Amendment) Act: The Pitfalls of Homogenising Identities in Resistance Narratives

While a number of sections of the Indian citizenry have risen against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the dominant discourse of resistance is still largely framed in terms of the issues raised by the state and its agents, including Hindu upper-caste supporters of CAA. However, there is a need for greater reflection on the sociological reality of hierarchical and iniquitous social structure of the Indian subcontinent in resistance narratives. 


The Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) of 2019, passed by the Indian Parliament, has drawn sharp criticism from multiple sections of the Indian citizenry. An autonomous resistance movement has rapidly spread across the country with little support from the political opposition, which has also opposed the CAA. The pernicious, racist, and religious bigotry behind the CAA have been discussed threadbare, and elaborated with short- and long-term consequences, not just for the so-called illegal migrants from other parts of South Asia, and the areas where they are likely to be settled, but also for the polity, democratic ethos and institutions, and the idea of secularism of the Indian nation state itself. 

Parallels have already been drawn with Nazi laws and policies that resulted in the holocaust and genocide of millions in the 1930s and 1940s in German-occupied Europe. The exclusion of Muslim refugees has particularly been a point of denunciation of the new law, especially in a context where Muslims of diverse sects and ethnicities have been subjected to persecution and genocide not just in Sri Lanka, China, and Myanmar but even in Muslim majority nations of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The supporters of the law⁠, especially from the government, have frequently (and wrongly) cited these latter set of countries as safe havens for the persecuted Muslims from the region. 

Additionally, states and ethnic groups (predominantly identified as “tribal”) that inhabit territories bordering India’s northern and eastern neighbours have also been protesting against the possibility of floodgates getting opened for non-Muslim Hindu refugees who have already settled in these areas over several decades, but especially after the 1947 partition and the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War (Bhaumik 2004; Roy 2002; Hazarika 2000). It is also to be noted that the new law excludes a wide range of social groups who do not identify themselves in terms of majority and minority religious groups in the region, and instead identify with or are recognised as the variants of “tribes” who follow and practice animist and related beliefs. 

The criticism against the provisions in the CAA and resistance mobilisations have also raised other broader issues of justice, equality, and secularism. It has been argued that the CAA has the potential to dilute the secular character of the Indian Constitution, which promises the non-discrimination and equal treatment of all religious groups. Fears abound that there is a very real possibility of labelling Indian Muslim citizens as aliens, and the promotion of divisive tendencies and fissures in the Indian society that can easily play into the hands of existing ultra-nationalist mobilisations.  Such a scenario is deeply disturbing, especially in the context of majoritarian defence of the CAA and the justifications offered for its provisions. The points of condemnation have been dismissed as misinformation, and crucial arguments against the act have been simply ignored or bypassed in the official and unofficial statements of response. 

While the outcome of these struggles and the crackdown on protesters will be evident in the not-so-distant future, the Hindutva discourse appears to be already winning the battle of ideas by setting the terms of debate and channelling the discourse in specific directions. This is especially along the certain well-trodden lines of pseudo-secularism, nationalism, national security, and the narrow definitions of rights. It has been the familiar feature of authoritarian regimes, and it therefore becomes imperative for academics to ignore the jibes about their tendency to intellectualise or be pedantic. Rather, they should delve deeper into the machinations and planning that go into authoritarian projects. 

Needless to say, large sections of the citizenry who are already marginalised and subjugated are aware of the potential authoritarian directions of the CAA, even if they have not been unambiguously articulated. The largely middle-class and upper-caste, Hindu resistance to the CAA, however, with all their good intentions, has not always been alert or sensitive to the long-term strategies of the authoritarian agenda. Despite repeated references to the Constitution during protests, the reading of the Preamble as a protest strategy, and the references to the problems of civility, fraternity, and dignity, are protestors conscious of the in-built contradictions of using homogenous but multiple religious identities as a pluralist strategy of resistance? 

Homogenisation in Hierarchical South Asia 

The drive to homogenise societies and cultures in the image of the dominant elite and the suppression of pluralism are the integral aspects of the authoritarian projects, which is specially observed in multi-ethnic societies and nation states (Montuori 2005; Sarkar 1993; Conversi 2008). The trope of homogenisation, however, has to be examined carefully in the postcolonial, deeply hierarchical region of South Asia, where identities have been crafted amidst the struggles for freedom from colonial rule and the divide-and-rule policy of the imperial statecraft. 

Amidst the struggles, progressive forces of resistance that raise India’s plural polity often tend to forget that plurality in South Asia is riddled with inequalities and hierarchies that have evolved over centuries of conflict, conquest, migration, settlement patterns, and the postcolonial attempts to craft democratic alternatives as new and old elites constantly jostle for power, even as a “million mutinies” (Naipaul 1998) are launched to strive for dignity, justice, and equity for those at the margins. 

Colonial rule has homogenised bewildering diversity of castes, tribes, ethnicities, regional identities, linguistic groups, and religions into more manageable categories (Washbrook 1982; Kolsky 2005; Nair 1996). The fault lines along these homogenised categories have become the basis for political mobilisation and the state policy in postcolonial South Asia, despite the persecution of minorities within minorities and minorities within majorities along caste, ethnic, religious, regional, and linguistic lines(Brass 2005; Weiner 2015; Hasan 2011). By recognising only the broad categories of religious groups⁠—Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Parsis⁠—the CAA deploys the classic authoritarian and imperial tropes of governance and power and ignores divisions and inequalities within a group, disregarding oppression from within a group on the basis of caste, gender, race, ethnicity or sect. It refuses to acknowledge the large number of numerically small and marginalised groups that do not fit within the homogenised categories.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that the defence in favour of the CAA has come along with justifications to exclude Muslim refugees range from “no persecution of Muslims in Islamic nations” to treating Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan as safe havens for such refugees. These arguments consistently and deliberately ignore large-scale, persistent, and decades-long persecution, genocide, discrimination, and exclusion of ethnic, tribal, and religious minorities, such as Shias, Ahmadiyas, Baluchis, and Sufis in Pakistan; Hazaras in Afghanistan; Uyghurs in China, and Bihari Muslims in Bangladesh. This strategy of identifying religious groups in broad terms is not a matter of ignorance, but it serves to advance and justify specific inclusions and exclusions in the citizenship and refugee policies. It also helps to mobilise some persecuted groups in the short term against other broader groups, and also turns attention away from the oppressions within the groups, such that the authoritarian project can be advanced by oppressing, excluding, and eliminating one identified enemy at a time (Narayan 2009).  

Among the critics of the CAA, however, with some notable exceptions, the focus has tended to be more on the perceived misuse and disenfranshisement of Indian Muslim citizens rather than the persecution of minority Muslims in India’s neighbouring countries (Katatare Prajapati Collective 2020; Wire 2019; Chapparban 2020). This is understandable as a political mobilisation strategy, and in terms of standing in solidarity with one’s fellow citizens against what appears to be a blatantly discriminatory and unconstitutional act. However, this has the unintended consequence of playing into the hands of the homogenisation agenda, as the idea of a homogenous Muslim citizen and identity can be opposed through constructed notion of a homogenised Hindu collective. In the process, the dangers of ignoring the hierarchies and discriminations within and among Hindus are temporarily disregarded politically. This is done in a well-planned step-by-step process of marginalising one or a few groups at a time by co-opting currently marginalised groups into opposing and oppressing the current target of exclusion, subordination, and disenfranchisement. Thus, a whole range of inequalities, oppressions, and discriminatory practices within the Hindus, and by sections of the Hindus are marginalised in the resistance discourse, which is exactly what the ruling regime wants. The romanticised ideas of pluralism, “unity in diversity,” histories of coexistence, and shared practices become almost the norm in questioning the exclusivist and marginalisation projects. This ignores the oppression that is hidden by histories of pluralism and co-evolution of social formations in the subcontinent.

The Myth of Citizenship and the Marginalised 

That citizenship is no guarantor of rights in India has been evident from the fact that millions of Adivasis, Dalits, minorities, and ethnic groups across the country are disenfranchised, discriminated, humiliated, excluded, and adversely included. They experience murder, lynching, torture, rape, and  physical and verbal abuse on a shockingly regular basis. Identity—rooted in religion, caste, ethnicity, language and region—intersecting with gender, landholding and livelihood patterns, and vote bank politics has created a permanent environment of fear, insecurity, and violence for a large number of social groups in India. Hence, it is remarkable that we are so easily taken in by the promises of citizenship for a particular class of refugees and the denial of citizenship for others on the basis of religious identity. 

Given this everyday social reality, one wonders about the fate of the “illegal migrant,” when Hindu refugees themselves can also be a Dalit, as well as Dalit converts to Buddhism and Christianity, or Dalit Sikhs. Will they face double discrimination, owing to their caste and their status as “illegal” refugees from a different region of South Asia? Also, illegal or not, a refugee or otherwise, upper castes from India’s neighbours with citizenship granted in India are as likely to participate in caste dominance and marginalisation of lower castes as “legal” Indian citizens do. Therefore, they would use their newly acquired citizenship status to mistreat lower castes, whether these are existing citizens or those among the lower castes who acquire citizenship. 

The discrimination and periodic violence against migrants from different parts of India, especially against North East Indians in the rest of the country, are well known. Will the citizenship status to non-Muslim refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan protect them from such violence, abuse, and harassment? Or, will the CAA lead to a new assemblage of communities and hierarchies, of oppression and suppression? Ethnicity and language, beyond being the markers of identity, are also key resources upon which social groups draw for sustenance, livelihoods, laws, education, political and social powers, and myriad other opportunities. The state policy allocates resources and defines opportunities around ethnic and linguistic identities and capabilities in India (Shah and Shneiderman 2013; Weiner 2015; Hasan 2011). A mere grant of citizenship is no guarantor of a secure, safe, and upwardly mobile life for refugees and immigrants, as both state and non-state agents actively and continually work to deny these opportunities to migrants from within India on the basis of ethnic and linguistic minority status. Various chauvinist and nativist movements, as extensively documented by researchers, activists, and government reports, specifically target such ethnic and linguistic minorities through repression, violence, and discrimination (Katzenstein 1973; Weiner 2015; Heuze 2000; Sachar 2006; Engineer 2004).

The Hindutva proponents have used the “Hindu” culture line of reasoning to argue against the proposed laws on marital rape. Citizenship for non-Muslim refugees essentially means an entry into a social formation with pervasive and high levels of grotesque violence against women and children, and the same bleeding hearts that appeal for compassion for non-Muslim refugees appear to have little compunction in inviting refugees escaping traumatic situations into a society where horrific gendered violence supported by caste, religious, and ethnic customary practices and values is the norm. That India is identified as one of the dangerous places for women and young children betrays “tolerant Hindus” and India’s culture of welcoming and tolerance, which have been touted as reasons for opening the country’s doors to select refugees. 

Further, it is well-recognised that land rights and livelihood opportunities are distributed within a hierarchical landscape in India, in which Dalits, Adivasis, and women are at the margins. A legitimate fear of the CAA (experienced especially by tribal groups in the North East) is that refugees would end up getting far more access to land, education, and jobs than the native population (Hazarika 2004; Sharma 2001; Fernandes 2018; Das 2007). .  A key reason for this is that the state agencies rarely recognise commons, especially forest commons, and in a context where the implementation of the Forest Rights Act is under serious threat, citizenship and accompanying benefits to non-Muslim refugees may end up usurping existing land rights, or give them rights that the local population does not have. The duplicitous slogans of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family) and the selective call to open our hearts and hearths for select religious refugees have been called out by those who have to bear a disproportionate burden of accommodating them within their regions. 

It is more than likely that, either as a deliberate state strategy or through migration patterns, incoming refugees will end up eating into the scarce rights of those already at the margins. Middle-class and upper-caste Hindus in India have historically been at the forefront of opposition to the welfare and affirmative action policies in India, whether these relate to reservations in education and/or jobs, land reforms, state subsidies, welfare provisions, food security, health provisions, and housing (Raina 2006; Gopalakrishnan 2006; Shah 2004). It does not require much foresight to imagine a scenario where sections of the migrants will fight for scarce resources with those already bereft of citizenship rights.

Studies on targeted violence against religious and linguistic minorities in India and election-related violence and mobilisation have shown significant use of voter lists to identify and deliberately launch attacks against sections of the citizenry by majoritarian political actors (Kamalakar 1988; Wilkinson 2006; Van Dyke 1996; Times of India 2002; Human Rights Watch 2002; Engineer 2003; Jaffrelot 2003; Rashid 2017). There is a real danger that with the implementation of the CAA and the National Population Register, further ammunition would be available that will become part of the technologies of governmentality, especially as regards electoral politics. In the absence of any real strategy regarding where refugees will be resettled, there is an additional fear that resettlement will be done strategically along ethnic lines to shore up possibilities of electoral victory for some political parties, and maintain the minority status of selected religious groups across electoral constituencies.

Citizenship Denial and the Perfidious Logic of Persecution and Compassion

Dalits and Adivasis; Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist minorities; the rural and urban poor; working class and the precariat; peasants, and anyone with aspirations for a decent and dignified life are all characterised by active denial of citizenship rights (Jayal 2013). This ought to be the crux of the debate around the CAA, not just the selective grant of citizenship to people of specific religious origins from a few countries. The issue then is not only about Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, or from Mynamar and Sri Lanka where Muslims together with other ethnic groups have faced genocide. The problem with the CAA is not just about enabling Indian Muslims, Adivasis, or other discriminated groups to participate in the act of compassion to oppressed minorities from other countries. It is not even merely about constitutional provisions of equality, justice, and non-discrimination. Although these are substantive ideals of democracy and citizenship, the full scale of the horror of the CAA can only be grasped if we understand its place in a long-term strategy that is firmly embedded within upper-caste, patriarchal, and racial structures of dominance. These structures thrive on fictionalising and mythologising homogeneity; they strategically conceal or bring into the public discourse historical and contemporary persecutions and (perceived) injustices, playing up some intolerances, masking others, selectively appealing for compassion, and generating a type of resistance that with great precision play into long-term totalitarian and genocidal projects.

In a pessimistic vein, one could argue that, perhaps, it is better Muslim refugees are not allowed into India lest they meet the same fate as millions of their Muslim, Adivasi, Dalit, Sikh, Christian, and Buddhist Indian citizens, who are actively denied citizenship on an everyday basis. Despite India not being a party to the 1951 and 1967 United Nations refugee conventions and protocols, and despite the weak implementation of diverse human rights declarations and conventions, it cannot be denied that India has, in the past, had a record of tolerating, if not welcoming, refugees from different countries, especially from South Asia and East Africa (Chimni 2003; Sen 2003; Chimni 1994). For political reasons, parties in power have preferred not to formalise the de-facto state policies on refugees, or give a more substantial legal status or to formulate comprehensive refugee laws. 

Beyond (re)affirming faith in the Constitution whose promise for equal citizenship has not been delivered to a majority of the country’s citizens, the resistance to the CAA needs to envision an integration of the goals of active citizenship to India’s deprived majority. It should enable citizenship for all refugees from across borders in ways that do not deepen existing inequalities, injustice, and deprivations. This requires not just political imagination and courage, but active scholarship that is not simply derivative of political responses to authoritarianism. Rather, it should be deeply reflective of the multiple, overlapping, and intersecting hierarchies and divisions that characterise the South Asian social structure.

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