On December 11, 2019, a combative Home Minister Amit Shah rose in the Rajya Sabha to pilot his government’s Citizenship Amendment Bill through Parliament. The legislation gave undocumented migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan a chance to apply for Indian citizenship – as long as they were not Muslim.

The promise to enact such a law had been a key part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s 2019 Lok Sabha campaign, where it was frequently packaged along with a proposed National Register of Citizens in order to target Indian Muslims.

The unspoken logic was simple. The combination of the two initiatives would permit any non-Muslim who had been left out of the National Register of Citizens to claim they were “refugees” and get citizenship regardless. On the other hand, the red tape involved in the register would give the state a tool to harass Muslims.

Fast forward two years: belying the fire and brimstone that characterised the BJP’s push for the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019, the law is yet to be implemented. “The persons covered under the CAA may apply for citizenship after the rules are notified under the CAA,” Shah’s home ministry tamely informed the Lok Sabha in the 2021 Winter session.

Rules are guidelines on how a legislation will be implemented and, as per Parliamentary guidelines, must be published within six months of an act coming into force. But even two years after the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed, the Modi government hasn’t published them. Result: the Citizenship Amendment Act has been a dead letter with not a single person able to apply for citizenship under it.

What explains this sudden lack of enthusiasm for an issue that was so close to the BJP’s heart?

Union Home Minister Amit Shah speaks on the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the Rajya Sabha on December 11, 2019 | Sansad TV

Spilling out onto the streets

The first reaction to the newly passed Citizenship Amendment Act was street protest. This began in the North East over fears that Bangladeshi Hindus would be able to migrate to India. The protests then spread to other states, with Indian Muslims fearful of their citizenship status given Shah’s frequent linkage of the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act.

The scale of the protest was so large that in some places this led to violence – by protestors, pro-Citizenship Amendment Act activists as well as the state. In Assam, at least five people were killed. In Bengal, protestors set fire to trains. Uttar Pradesh saw the police frequently open fire on protestors, killing around two dozen. In Mangalore, police firing killed two.

This turmoil peaked in the national capital, Delhi, which saw mass communal rioting after BJP politician Kapil Mishra delivered an ultimatum for anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protestors to clear the streets.

Fears over an impending National Register of Citizens even resulted in several instances of data enumerators facing threats and violence – with many Indians afraid that this data was being collected in order to determine citizenship. In West Bengal, things got so serious that the National Sample Survey Office wrote to the director general of the state police force and the state urban development ministry seeking protection for enumerators due to “the web of mistrust and acrimony” resulting from “NPR, CAA, NRC and the like”.

Change of plans

This widespread unrest forced an almost immediate reset by the BJP. On December 10, 2019, while debating the Citizenship Bill in Parliament, Shah forcefully stated, “There was no doubt that there will be an NRC in the country since it had been part of our [2019] manifesto.” Within 12 days, however, Prime Minister Modi addressed a public rally ostensibly washing his hands off the National Register of Citizens: “It was made during the Congress regime. We did not make it, nor did we bring it to the Parliament or announce it.”

While in 2019, Shah frequently linked the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, after the protests, the BJP backpedalled: it now argued that the two were, in fact, not linked.

Two years later, sentiment against the Citizenship Amendment Act in the North East is still strong enough for even BJP allies to demand their repeal. This is a strong factor for the Modi government to further delay CAA implementation given the sudden spurt of violence in the region. The Hindustan Times reported that China may be “plotting to foment trouble in the region amid border tensions” while Asia Times reported that Myanmar might also be involved.

Speaking in Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed his party has nothing to do with the NRC December 22, 2019. | Twitter/BJP

Attacking India’s image

The Citizenship Amendment Act did not cause trouble only on the domestic front: it led to turmoil for India in foreign affairs too, especially in relation to one of its closest allies – Bangladesh. The politics over citizenship has led to strong verbal attacks on Bangladesh by BJP politicians. Many of them alleged that India’s eastern neighbour was swamping India with migrants. In 2018, Amit Shah even went so far as to call Bangladeshis “termites”.

Unsurprisingly, this prompted a sharp reaction in Bangladesh. In 2020, as Modi visited Bangladesh, the country erupted in violent protest, leaving 13 people dead. Even Pakistan did not see any such reaction when Modi visited in 2015, marking just how negatively sections of Bangladesh now viewed India.

To make matters worse, in October, Prime Minister Hasina, otherwise a staunch ally of India, warned New Delhi over the widespread anti-Hindu riots in Bangladesh. “They [New Delhi] must make sure that nothing is done there [in India] which affects our country and hurts our Hindu community,” Hasina said in a public speech. As this piece in Foreign Policy notes, the Citizenship Amendment Act played a significant role in straining India-Bangladesh relations.

It’s not only Bangladesh. The communal aspect of the Citizenship Amendment Act has resulted in India’s image as a liberal democracy taking a beating around the world. In The Economist’s annual Democracy Index, India dropped ten places in 2020. The publication cited, among other factors, the Citizenship Amendment Act.

The next year, American think tank Freedom House downgraded India’s status from “free” to “partly free” citing “discriminatory changes to the country’s citizenship law”.

Protests in Bangladesh in March over Modi's visit to that country. Credit: Munir Uz zaman / AFP

Lose-lose situation

While one the one hand, the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act has had a host of negative effects – from domestic unrest to narrowing India’s foreing policy options – it has also had led to very few positives for the BJP.

The Citizenship Amendment Act’s focus on a pan South Asian vision of Hindutva, with Hindus across the region having a right to move to India as a version of Israel’s “law of return”, has significant resonance for the BJP’s core ideological base.

However, electorally it has been a damp squib. West Bengal – the state that should be most invested in Bangladesh – has been so lukewarm towards the Citizenship Amendment Act that the BJP all but decided to drop it as an issue in the 2021 elections, preferring instead to focus on bread and butter issues like local corruption.

Further, significant doubts exist about whether the Citizenship Amendment Act will be efficacious, even if it were to be implemented. During deliberations before the legislation was passed, the Intelligence Bureau predicted that only a very small number of migrants would benefit from the Citizenship Amendment Act – only around 30,000. The rest would have already obtained Indian citizenship through illegal means.

Indeed, the Intelligence Bureau’s predication can already be seen in the working of the Long Term Visa. Introduced by the Modi government in 2015, like the Citizenship Amendment Act, it is available for non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. However, in the five years from 2015, only 25,782 non-Muslims have availed of this visa. In November, the Economic Times even reported that Hindu and Sikh Pakistanis living in India are choosing to head back to their home country frustrated by the red tape involved in getting this type of visa.

The Citizenship Amendment Act is part of a pattern. The past two years have seen the Modi government push radical policies but with little stomach to see out their execution. The most egregious example of this is, of course, the farm laws. After large protests in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, the Modi government was forced to withdraw them in November.

Any repeal of the Citizenship Amendment Act is much tougher, given how vital the issue is for the BJP’s core Hindutva ideology. Caught between a rock and hard place, Modi has simply refused to implement it.