The Taliban’s lightning advance and capture of Afghanistan has had a curious impact on India’s domestic politics as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has highlighted the terror group’s policies to shore up support for itself.
In the spotlight has been the Citizenship Amendment Act passed by the Modi government in 2019 which, for the first time ever, introduced a religious criterion for Indian citizenship. The new law allows undocumented migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to apply for Indian citizenship, even if they had entered India illegally – just as long as they aren’t Muslims.
Moreover, only India’s Muslim-majority neighbours are included in the ambit of the law. Tamils fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka are not covered by the CAA. Neither are anti-army protestors or members of the Rohingya community from Myanmar.
The CAA had been greeted by enormous protests across India, which lasted for several weeks.
Since the Taliban victory, BJP supporters have claimed that the enactment of the CAA has been vindicated since it allows the entry to India of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus, who fear for their futures under the rule of the extremist group.
Most prominent among those making this claim was Union minister Hardeep Puri, who said in a tweet on Sunday, “Recent developments in our volatile neighbourhood & the way Sikhs and Hindus are going through a harrowing time are precisely why it was necessary to enact the Citizenship Amendment Act.”
However, far from vindicating the BJP’s decision to enact it, the law will no role to play in helping Afghan minorities who feel trapped by the crisis.
CAA still not implemented
To begin with, the CAA has not been implemented. While it was passed in 2019, the Modi government has inexplicably held back from publishing the rules to the act. Rules are guidelines on how a legislation will be implemented. Without them, an act is a dead letter.
The fact that the Modi government delayed the CAA’s implementation – even after the United States signed a deal with the Taliban in 2020 promising to exit the year after – is an action that speaks louder than words on just how useful the Modi government itself thinks the CAA is in the current crisis.
That the Modi government’s actions betray lack of confidence in the CAA is not misplaced. The very text of the CAA has a cut-off of December 31, 2014. This means the CAA – if it is eventually implemented – will not apply to anyone who entered India in 2015 and later. The act is useless for those who seek to flee the 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Notably, at the time the citizenship bill was being discussed in Parliament, observers had pointed to features such as the cut-off date, arguing that they would result in only a small number of migrants falling under the ambit of the law. The Intelligence Bureau itself had noted that only around 30,000 migrants would potentially benefit from the legislation.
Only meant for undocumented migrants
A third feature of the CAA that Puri’s statement cleanly ignores is that the CAA is meant for undocumented migrants. On the other hand, the refugees India is accepting from Afghanistan are actually coming via a legal, documented process. In fact, India has introduced a new category of electronic visa for Afghan nationals to fast-track their entry.
If anything, India’s evacuation from Afghanistan helps to back up some of the critics of the CAA: religion is not the only criteria of persecution in India’s neighbourhood. India is accepting Muslims from Afghanistan too, who feel that they could be persecuted by the Taliban.
Nor is persecution only confined to India’s Muslim-majority neighbours. Parallel to the Afghan crisis, Myanmar – a neighbour with whom India actually shares a physical border – is also in turmoil after a military coup in February. This has resulted in thousands of fearful Myanmarese crossing over into India illegally.
CAA is directed at internal politics, not Afghanistan
That the CAA is a dead letter even at this time of grave crisis in Afghanistan backs up what its critics have been pointing to for some time now: the law’s prime use is not to help migrants from other countries but to buttress the BJP’s own politics of Hindu nationalism within India.
This became clear even before the CAA was enacted, with then BJP president Amit Shah repeatedly linking the CAA to a proposed all-India National Register of Citizens in order to signal that only Indian Muslims would be subject to a citizenship test carried out on communal grounds.
Given it was Shah as home minister who later piloted the CAA through Parliament, this was a significant statement.
Even if the CAA does little to help migrants, by powerfully signally that citizenship in India has a majoritarian aspect to to it, the law helps push the BJP’s idea of an India that is a Hindu nation. This central ideological plank of the Hindutva party has earned it significant electoral support.
Rather than incorrect claims about the CAA being vindicated by the Afghan crisis, a better way to see its uses would be in helping to push the BJP’s narrative with respect to domestic politics in India.