Citizenship in India: An Important Bulwark Against Genocide


Women from Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim neighborhood in New Delhi, protesting against the new citizenship law [File: Sajjad Hussain/AFP]


By Laura Drysdale

Since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, he has placed the Bhartiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Hindu nationalist agenda at the forefront of state policy. Islamophobia has increasingly dominated Indian politics. The Modi government has cultivated an increasingly hostile environment for the 200 million Muslims living in India. The introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December 2019 has legally entrenched the state’s growing islamophobia. The CAA updated the terms of the 1955 Citizenship Act, which provided special allowances for migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. However, while the CAA created a fast-track for Indian citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, Jain, and Parsi migrants, it excludes Muslim migrants from obtaining citizenship. The CAA has been widely criticized as an attempt to marginalize Muslims and create a Hindu-dominated state.


The concern over the CAA is amplified with the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC). Initially introduced in the state of Assam in 2018, the NRC seeks to identify and deport any ‘illegal migrants’ who arrived after 1971. It has been criticized as a ‘mass-statelessness project’ affecting 1.9 million people. A nationwide NRC, applied in conjunction with the CAA, would disproportionately affect the citizenship status of Indian Muslims. In March 2020, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom highlighted that by denying Muslim migrants the protections associated with citizenship, the CAA exposes them to a greater risk of discrimination and persecution. Any attempts to deprive Muslims of their Indian citizenship may therefore represent an early warning of future mass atrocities.


Such was the case in Myanmar, where an exclusionary citizenship law preceded a brutal campaign of attacks and expulsions against the Rohingya population. Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law withdrew the full citizenship rights of Rohingyas, which forced them to register as Bangladeshi migrants. The classification of Rohingyas provided the legal basis for a policy of dehumanization and escalating discrimination, ultimately culminating in the genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya population. The CAA and NRC in India bear a frightening resemblance to the campaign of exclusion pursued against Jews in Nazi Germany. The 1935 Nuremberg Laws removed the citizenship rights of German Jews based on ideas of ‘racial purity,’ thus contributing to the dehumanization of Jews and polarization of German society. Revoking citizenship facilitated the radicalization of the Nazi state’s genocidal policies. Both the Holocaust and the Rohingya genocide demonstrate how the withdrawal of citizenship rights can lead to the escalation of persecution against marginalized communities.


In February 2020, peaceful protests against the CAA turned into communal violence in Delhi. The police were accused of complicity in the violence, which left 53 people dead and over 500 injured, the majority of whom were Muslim. These clashes revealed an increasingly polarized atmosphere in India, suggesting that the legislation has now entrenched existing religious divisions. State officials condemned the peaceful protests, describing those involved as ‘parasites’. The state’s rhetoric demonstrates a clear attempt to dehumanize the predominantly Muslim protestors. The CAA and other state policies have emboldened Hindu nationalists, as hate speech and anti-Muslim attacks have become increasingly common across India. In December 2021, Hindu religious leaders in Haridwar made explicit calls for genocide against India’s Muslims. Junior members of the BJP attended the event, suggesting that these extremist groups have the tacit support of the state.


State-endorsed Islamophobia has driven communal tensions to such heights that there is a serious risk of mass atrocities in India. The Early Warning Project has ranked India the second highest-risk country in the world for new mass killings in 2022. The CAA, therefore, represents an early indicator of an ongoing genocidal process in India, one that follows the patterns of previous genocides. By classifying Muslims as ‘the other’, the legislation has facilitated a process of polarization and dehumanization, leading to increasing violence against Muslims. By delegitimizing a group’s existence in a country, loss of citizenship can provide the legal justification for escalating discrimination, creating a context for mass atrocities. India is thus at an important juncture: where the rights of many Muslims hang in the balance, protecting citizenship remains a crucial bulwark against the radicalization of the state’s anti-Muslim policies.


Laura Drysdale is an Early Warning Analyst & Timestream Creator at Genocide Watch


The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Genocide Watch.


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