The devious anti-Muslim dog whistle in India’s Citizenship Amendment Act

India moved a step closer to formalising itself as a majoritarian country with the announcement of the rules to operationalise the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which was passed back in 2019 with much controversy. This is yet another move by the Indian government led by the Hindu-supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to stir the simmering communal cauldron.

The move has reignited the debate about the objective of the Act itself. Passed in 2019, the CAA was criticised by jurists and others for being discriminatory against certain communities, mainly Muslims. The Act claims to provide a faster pathway to Indian citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Buddhists and other minorities who have come to India illegally from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. The absence of Muslims in this list has been causing outrage and communal tensions since the conception of the Act. In a clear violation of the Indian Constitution, which demands all people to be treated equally under the law, the CAA changes the very concept of Indian citizenship and makes it faith-based. It opens a new path to Indian citizenship for all, except Muslims.

The CAA is a reiteration of the ideology of the BJP, which holds that Muslims do not belong to India in the same way that Hindus do. The government claims that with this amendment it is merely seeking to help those who had to leave these three countries because of religious persecution. Muslims are not in the list, as it is assumed that Muslims cannot be religiously persecuted in Muslim-majority countries. Critics point out, however, that Muslim communities like Hazaras and Ahmadis, who undisputedly face religious persecution in their homelands, would not have been left out, if the aim was to help victims of religious persecution in these countries.

It is also intriguing that the amendment is aiming to help migrants from these three countries only and leaving out those from countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bhutan. Many Tamil Hindus, who had to leave Sri Lanka due to persecution, have been languishing in India as refugees without any state support for decades. This is because India does not have a clear policy for refugees and is not even a signatory to the International Covenant on Refugees. So the government’s talk of empathy for the persecuted people from the neighbouring countries sounds hollow.

The real aim of the CCA is to keep the focus on Muslims or Islam in the most devious and cunning way by singling out three Muslim-majority countries where religious persecution takes place. The idea is to reinforce the prejudice in Hindus that wherever Muslims are in majority, other communities are bound to suffer.

One can read between the lines what the BJP government actually wants to say. It claimed in a document it issued to explain the objective of the law that: “Due to the persecution of minorities in those three Muslim countries, the name of Islam was badly tarnished all around the world. However, Islam, being a peaceful religion, never preaches or suggests hatred/violence/any persecution on religious grounds. This Act, showing compassion and compensation for the persecution, protects Islam from being tarnished in the name of persecution.”

The government claims that CAA seeks to salvage the image of Islam which is getting tarnished due to persecution of non-Muslims in these countries. Even if we ignore the horrible wording of the text, one can see that it is nothing but a sinister act of dog-whistling. The followers of the BJP often refer to Islam mockingly as a peaceful religion and Muslims as peaceful people. But if we take this text at its face value, what the CAA does is quite contrary to this claim. It actually says that these Muslim-majority countries persecute their minorities.

There is one more thing. Defending the CAA, the leaders of the BJP, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, have been saying that it is also to complete the unfinished business of the partition of India in 1947. What could that be? According to them, the creation of Pakistan implied a complete transfer of population. Which means all Muslims needed to move to “their” designated country, Pakistan, and all Hindus to India. Since millions of Muslims remained in India, what needs to be done is to make India a Hindu-first country by placing Muslims on an inferior plane. This is what this Act does ideologically. Muslims cannot attain citizenship through this law, but Hindus can.

This Act should be seen as part of the ideological design of the BJP which has enacted other laws restricting the lives of Muslims like the religious freedom laws, anti-cow slaughter laws, and anti-triple talaq law, which put restrictions on Muslims in ways which Hindus would never be. In India, Muslims can be converted, but they cannot convert; Muslim men deserting their wives without a process would be jailed but not Hindus. Muslims cannot have their food choices, but there is no such restriction on Hindus. The CAA is yet another way to legalise religious inequality and discrimination, mainly against Muslims.

Muslims have reasons beyond its ideological or psychological purpose to fear this Act. The Home Minister had averred that the CAA should not be seen in isolation. It is to be seen along with the creation of a National Register of Citizens (NRC). The NRC process would identify so-called “outsiders” or “infiltrators” and weed them out. He has said repeatedly that the NRC would be applied to the entire country. It is again a dog-whistle executive exercise which tells Hindus that outsiders – who other than Muslims? – would be deprived of citizenship rights through the process of the NRC. At the same time, Hindus were also assured that those who were left out would be included using the CAA. They can get citizenship, but not the Muslims.

The NRC has been implemented in the state of Assam. It was done to appease the Assamese chauvinists who had been demanding non-Assamese outsiders to be thrown out. An accord was reached between them and the government of India after violent agitations. The government promised that those who have entered Assam after 1971 would be identified and declared “illegal”. The NRC was that process of identifying and excluding the outsiders. The NRC process created havoc in Assam. Approximately 1.9 million people could not find a place in the NRC. But contrary to the claim of the BJP, and the popular perception, more Hindus than Muslims, nearly 1.5 million, got excluded.

These are mostly Bengali Hindus. The BJP treats them as its natural constituents. It was to allay their fears that the CAA was brought: to say that the Hindus thus excluded would get in using the CAA route, but Muslims would remain out. It also changed the cut-off year. Those who have entered till 2014 were eligible to get citizenship through CAA. But Muslims cannot use this route, only Hindus can. We can see that persons in similar situations, living in India for decades or even centuries, but unable to show the required papers, are treated differently by the CAA. Hindus would be allowed to use it to naturalise themselves as citizens, but Muslims would not be able to do it.

The unsaid argument is that Muslims have these Muslim-majority countries to go to, but Hindus have only India.

There are well-meaning people in India who say that there is no need to fear the NRC outside Assam as it has not been announced. So Muslims need not be anxious. But can one take the assertion of the home minister that NRC would be implemented, and implemented in the entire country, made on the floor of the parliament, lightly?

It has also been pointed out that the claims by the government to provide succour to the persecuted people of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh are insincere as those who have entered India after 2014 are not eligible. This law was enacted in 2019. So does the government want us to believe that there has been no religious persecution in these countries after 2014? But the BJP can always assure its constituents that changes would be brought in the law to correct this anomaly.

While these questions are legitimate, one cannot underestimate the larger ideological message of this law: There are two sets of rules in India, one for Hindus and one for Muslims, and Hindus will always have more rights than Muslims. It is no surprise that Muslims understand it well.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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