When India’s contentious new citizenship law passed easily through parliament, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has a strong majority, few in his government anticipated a violent backlash to it.
In the week since its passage, protests have raged through the country, vehicles have been torched, thousands of students from some of the country’s most prestigious universities have marched in the streets, and opposition leaders have joined growing calls to scrap the law.
The protests pose the most serious opposition that Modi has confronted since he took power six years ago riding a wave of popularity.
The law has brought to the forefront worries long voiced by the prime minister’s opponents and critics that his government’s policies will relegate some 200 million Muslims -- the country’s largest minority -- to second class citizens as it pursues a Hindu nationalist agenda. It was passed five months after his government scrapped the autonomy of Kashmir, India's only Muslim majority state.
The new law will fast track citizenship for six non-Muslim religious minorities -- Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Buddhists, and Jains -- who fled religious persecution from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. However it excludes Islam, a major religious group in South Asia.
“Our refugee policy cannot be on religious grounds because our constitution does not allow it,” said Rahul Kapoor, a research scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, echoing the voices of Hindu and Muslim students at a protest. “It can be on humanitarian grounds. There can be no religious profiling.”
The government has denied criticism that the law is anti-Muslim and says Muslims have been excluded because they are not minorities in the three countries from which refugees have fled persecution.
Prime Minister Modi has called the new law a humanitarian measure for those who have faced years of persecution and have no place to go except India. He says that no Indian Muslim risks losing his citizenship.
That has failed to reassure Muslim communities that are concerned the new law exposes them to the risk of being classified as illegal immigrants.
Their anxiety stems from assertions by Home Minister Amit Shah that the government will roll out a national citizenship identification exercise that was implemented in the northeastern state of Assam to root out illegal immigrants. Such an exercise would require all Indians provide documentary evidence going back decades proving they or their ancestors resided in the country – a huge challenge for poor people who often do not have documents such as birth records or land records.
Harsh Mander, who heads the Center for Equity Studies and works among homeless people, says he has been receiving frantic calls from many poor Muslims asking how they should access such documents.
In Assam, the exercise identified nearly two million people as illegal settlers, but the new law will likely protect Hindus while exposing Muslims on the list to the risk of being declared stateless.
“This law effectively creates a hierarchy of citizenship based on religious identity putting Muslims on one side and people of every other major religious identity on the other in terms of their access to citizenship rights, is a terrifying idea,” according to Mander.
The government’s critics have also questioned why it does not include groups like the Rohingyas, the Muslim minority in Myanmar that also faces persecution. An estimated 40,000 live in India and Indian authorities have vowed to deport them.
The new measure has been slammed as deeply divisive. “It undoes what was intended by the Indian constitution in terms of its secular fabric but it does not redo it in terms of anything else,” says Neelanjan Sircar, senior visiting fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. “This largely is a destructive set of laws, not a constructive set of laws.”
For Modi, who won a second term with a huge majority in May, the test will be to ensure that the law does not erode his popularity or become a lightning rod for anger, especially among young people, on issues such as an ailing economy and unemployment.
College students have been at the forefront of opposition to the law, galvanized after police entered two campuses in Delhi and Aligarh and allegedly attacked them, injuring dozens.
Some see the backlash to the law as the beginning of a large social protest.
Not everyone however is opposing the citizenship measure – it appeals to Modi’s large Hindu base that supports a majoritarian agenda and criticizes the Congress Party that ruled the country for what they see as more than five decades of “pandering” to Muslims to win their votes.
The Indian leader has blamed opposition parties for fueling the protests and has accused them of spreading “lies and rumors.” He has said that it will not be rolled back.
But even as the government stands firm, political analysts warn that the new law could hurt the country’s image overseas. United Nations human rights officials have called it discriminatory and the U.S. State Department has urged India to “protect the rights of its religious minorities in keeping with India's Constitution and democratic values."
“I do think this government will be branded as one that is seen as Hindu nationalist, anti-Muslim. Does it change its domestic politics, in the short term? Probably not,” says Sircar. “But don’t forget that having international acceptance for a developing country like India matters a lot for its larger international goals.”
Legal challenges to the new law have already been mounted in India’s Supreme Court, which has refused to stay the law but will hear the dozens of petitions against it next month.
But the bigger challenge will be to tackle the groundswell of anger against it, particularly among students.
“This is the agenda of creating barricade between Hindus and Muslims and basically distracting us from real issues, that is economic crisis,” said Geet Bindra, an undergraduate student at Delhi University, as she joined a protest against the law.