‘Selective Citizenship’ Opposed Everywhere: Protests Against the Citizenship Act

A detailed report on the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act across India


Busi Prafula Grace


Shouts of "Awaaz do, hum ek hain!" and "CAA go back!" rang through the air at Bangalore's Sir Puttanna Chetty Town Hall on December 15, 2019. Close to 2,000 people from all walks of life gathered to protest against the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in Parliament on December 11.

Now known as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (CAA), it is an amendment to the Citizenship Act of 1955, which provides Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian minorities fleeing religious persecution, a path to Indian citizenship.

Under this amendment, migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, who entered India before December 31, 2014, will be eligible for naturalisation. It has also relaxed the residency requirements, reducing the term to six years instead of the previously stated 11.

However, it has been widely criticised for being discriminatory, since Muslim migrants and other minorities from regions such as Tibet, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar have been excluded. This is the first time religion has been used as an overt criterion for citizenship in India.

The CAA has stirred up unrest across the northeastern states, which quickly swept across the country. Protests turned violent in the state of Assam, the epicentre of the agitation against the Act. As of December 15, five protestors in the state had died as a result of police firing.

In Bangalore, the majority of protestors at Town Hall comprised students of Assamese origin. For these students, the fight is for their cultural identity. "We do not care about religion," said a student from Gauhati. "This Act is going to hamper the entire state. We do not want it in Assam at all," he added.

Such sentiments were not uncommon amongst the northeastern participants, many of whom believe that the CAA will motivate further immigration from Bangladesh into the northeast.

Assam, they say, will have to bear the brunt of this inevitable influx of migrants. "This is against the Assam Accord and everything we fought for," said another protestor.

Some raised concerns over the growing violence against protestors and the Internet shutdown imposed in the states of Assam and Tripura since December 11. "This is a new freedom struggle to be fought by us for our Constitutional rights," said a young Assamese woman.

What is the Citizenship Act?

The Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) 2019 is an amendment to the 1955 legislation that governs matters of Indian citizenship. Under the provisions of the Act, Indian citizenship could be acquired by birth, descent, registration, and naturalisation. The Act was first amended in 1986, following the large-scale immigration from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) into the northeastern states of India, particularly Assam. Further amendments in 1992, 2003, 2005, and 2015 sought to restrict and regulate citizenship.

The amendment of 1986, for example, stated that citizenship by birth could be acquired if at least one parent was an Indian citizen. The 2003 amendment introduced and defined the notion of ‘illegal immigrants’ as opposed to a bona fide refugee.

“We always say that a person who has to flee because of religious persecution is a refugee, bona fide refugee, and he cannot be regarded on par with the illegal immigrant who may have come for any reason, even for economic reasons. If he is an illegal immigrant, he is an illegal immigrant,” said then Home Minister L. K. Advani during a session in the Rajya Sabha.

India does not have a discernible refugee policy- the country is not a signatory to both the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention or the 1967 UN Protocol on Refugees. Since there is neither international obligation, nor an established national policy, the legislation that applies to asylum-seekers is the Foreigner’s Act of 1946. A foreigner is defined simply as an individual who is “not a citizen of India,” while differences between temporary residents, travelers, economic migrants, and refugees, are described vaguely at best.

Refugee or Migrant?

As of 2017, 110,000 Tibetans and 102,000 Sri Lankans were recognised as refugees by the Indian government. While Tibetans are provided assistance, education, and identifying documentation, Sri Lankans generally prefer voluntary repatriation.

Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals, on the other hand, are commonly regarded as economic migrants by the government. For instance, groups fleeing East Pakistan during the India-Pakistan War of 1971 were not formally recognised as refugees despite receiving considerable assistance from the government. Commentators say this may have played a part in ensuring their return at the conclusion of the war.

While India has traditionally provided assistance to Bangladeshi and Afghan nationals fleeing persecution over the years, the country has continually created deterrents for these groups to seek permanent residence.

An argument presented by critics of the amendment is that it is in violation of the Assam Accord of 1986; the government had agreed to the identification and deportation of all refugees and migrants after March 25, 1971. While Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal said indigenous people would not be affected by a “small number of persecuted people” being granted Indian citizenship, the local people are not so sure. “The reason the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) was voted into power in our state was because they gave us an assurance that the NRC (National Register of Citizens) would be implemented by removing any illegal immigrants from Assam,” said an Assamese protester in Bangalore, noting that the introduction of the CAA has felt like “a stab in the backs” of the people of Assam.

“There is so much unemployment already, our state has been neglected through the years. How are they going to provide these people a place to stay, and whose jobs will they be given?” another angry protestor said.

The exclusionary language of the amendment has also widely drawn criticism from several factions. The amendment makes no mention of Muslim migrants from the mentioned countries or Sri Lankan Tamils who currently reside in India as refugees. (UNHCR records as of 2017 state that over 67,000 Sri Lankan refugees remain in Indian camps, and a further 35,000 reside elsewhere within the country.)

On December 17, the Home Ministry released a statement saying the amended Act would not affect Indian citizens “including Muslims.” However, many have voiced their fear, pointing out the failings of the implementation of the NRC in Assam.


Assam’s relationship with immigration

“Probably the most important event in the province during the last 25 years- an event, moreover, which seems likely to alter permanently the whole feature of Assam and to destroy the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilization has been the invasion of a vast horde of land-hungry immigrants, mostly Muslims, from the districts of East Bengal.” - C.S. Mullan, Census Superintendent, 1931

Anti-Bengali sentiments took root in the state of Assam largely during the British Raj. The communal rift that polarises the state even today began with the meddling of colonial authorities that routinely encouraged peasants from Bengal to migrate to Assam in search of fertile lands.

“Following Partition and communal riots in the subcontinent, Assam initially saw an influx of refugees and other migrants from East Pakistan. The number of such migrants other than refugees was initially reported by the State Government to be between 1,50,000 and 2,00,000 but later estimated to be around 5,00,000.” - The White Papers on Foreigner’s Issue 2012

There was an upsurge in these numbers when many Bengali Hindus fled from East Pakistan, both during Partition and the war to liberate East Pakistan. This continued even after the formation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Fierce protests broke out in the state in 1979, with a group of student leaders at the helm. Fearing the loss of their culture as well as political and land rights, protestors demanded the ‘detention, disenfranchisement, and deportation’ of illegal immigrants in the state.

The protests stemmed from the unexplained surge in voter lists for Legislative Assembly constituencies in pockets such as the Darrang district and in lower and central Assam. This was suspected to be a result of a large-scale entry of the names of foreigners or illegal migrants. This developed into a mass movement known as the Assam Agitation or Assam Movement, led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP). It culminated six years later with the signing of the landmark Assam Accord of 1985.

As per the accord, illegal immigrants who settled within the state borders between January1, 1966 and March 24, 1971 would be identified and deported.

What is the NRC?

The National Register of Citizens is a registry that contains the names and relevant identifying information of ‘genuine’ Indian citizens. Made specifically for the Northeastern state of Assam, it was implemented in 2013-14 following a Supreme Court directive, and is maintained by the Indian government.

The first registry compiled during the Census of India in 1951 after the enforcement of the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act of 1950 was not updated until recently. Implementation proved difficult and largely ineffective owing to the open borders between the two countries. The report on the Census of 1961 assessed 2,20,691 infiltrators to have entered the state.

The Centre also took up with the government of Assam to expedite the completion of the registry and issue National Identity Cards in 1965. However, this too was found to be impractical and was dropped within a year. Many migrants also enjoyed political patronage, exacerbating the issue. Angry students in Bangalore called this ‘blatant vote bank politics.’

In addition to the failures in implementing the registry and the Immigrants Act, the Centre issued a notification in 1976, instructing the state government not to deport Bangladeshi nationals who migrated to India prior to March 1971, leading to an accumulation of Bengali migrants in the state.

The NRC for the state of Assam was finally taken up in 2013, following a Supreme Court order. This list was to be made in accordance with the Citizenship Act 1955, along with its 2003 amendment. The mechanism and methodology for the NRC Update had to be developed from ground-up, as the task of identification and detection has never been carried out at such a magnitude in India or elsewhere. Over three crore people and 6.6 crore documents were screened before the publication of the final list. The final NRC was published on August 31, 2019. As per a press release by the SCNRC, a total of 3,30,27,661 people applied through 68,37,660 application forms and 3,11,21,004 people were found eligible for inclusion. The remaining 19,06,657 individuals had to appeal to Foreigners’ Tribunals.


The final NRC set off several controversies almost immediately after its publication. Lawmakers, journalists, and even veterans of the Indian Army were left out of the list. For instance, Ananta Kumar Malo, an MLA of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) found himself excluded from the list. Malo’s family, however, has been included. “Thousands of genuine Indians, especially Bengali Hindus, have been left out of it, and so many illegal foreigners have made it,” he said, speaking to the Indian Express.

Several legislators from Assamese-speaking upper Assam have said that exclusions in their constituencies were comparatively lower to those in Bengali-speaking areas. A large majority of those excluded are Bengali Hindus. “Hindu Bengalis with genuine pre-1971 papers have been left out,” BJP MLA Shiladitya Dev told the Express. “Moreover, there are several cases of discrepancy including cases such as parents are in and children are out,” he added.

The original petitioner in the NRC case in the Supreme Court, the NGO Assam Public Works (APW) believes that “the coveted dream of the mass people of Assam to live in an illegal foreigner-free land is an impossibility.”

Meanwhile, AASU threatened to move the apex court saying they believed the number of excluded should have been higher. “The state and the Centre have failed in contributing towards an error-free NRC,” AASU general secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi told The Sunday Express.

On May 23, 2019, Kargil war veteran Mohammad Sanaullah was declared a foreigner by a tribunal and sent to a detention camp by Assam Border Police. Sanaullah, a resident of Assam’s Boko area, was serving as a sub-inspector in the Assam Border Police after his retirement from the armed forces in 2017. Assam’s Directorate of Sainik Welfare (DSW) wrote to the Kendriya Sainik Board stating that the tribunal had not taken into account the ex-serviceman’s service documents during the hearing. The tribunal refused to re-evaluate its order, citing discrepancies in Sanaullah’s documents relating to his age and name. In an order dated June 7, the Gauhati High Court granted Sanaullah interim bail. The veteran’s brothers and other family members were cleared by the NRC as genuine citizens.

“Don’t cut short the hearing. There are disturbing reports in the media. Media is always not wrong. Please ensure proper hearing,” a vacation bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Aniruddha Bose told NRC Assam state coordinator Prateek Hajela and other officials during a brief hearing.

Ground Realities

Prove you are an Indian

In November 2019, journalist Rohini Mohan spoke at the Banglore International Centre, presenting a detailed report on her findings regarding NRC procedures in Assam and how the list had affected the people in the state. Mohan says the probe by VICE News and Type Investigations revealed the Foreigners’ Tribunals to be “rife with bias, inconsistency, and error.”

While the NRC has targeted both Bengali Hindus as well as Muslims, Ms Mohan stresses that it is largely anti-poor. “Many whose citizenship is under scrutiny are poor and illiterate, unprepared to deal with the tribunals’ opaque legal process,” she writes.

The Assamese continue to regard Bengali speakers as outsiders who continue to drain the limited local resources. Politicians at local and national levels have contributed to this othering; in 2014, candidate for Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, targeted Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh during a speech in West Bengal saying “These Bangladeshis better be prepared with their bags packed.”

With the passage of the CAA, similar comments made by ministers who now hold leadership positions at the Centre have been brought back into the public conscience. One such example is current Home Minister Amit Shah’s comments, referring to Bangladeshis as ‘ghuspetiyan’ (infiltrators), and ‘termites…eating [our] foodgrains that should go to the poor.’

As for the tribunals, Mohan describes them as “barely resembling India’s traditional legal system.” According to her report, only five of the state’s 100 tribunals complied by supplying the judgements issued in latter half of 2018. Four of these tribunals are based in Kamrup, one of the two districts where the government had initiated a Pilot Project prior to statewide implementation. Further, an average of nine out of ten cases were against Muslims. “Almost 90% of those Muslims were declared illegal immigrants- as compared with 40% of Hindus tried.” “Every person VICE NEWS met…belonged to [the Bengali-speaking community],” Mohan claims.

“The tribunal system confounds most people. One tribunal analyzed accepted a card issued by the income tax department as evidence, while another considered that suspicious. One tribunal considered an ancestor’s name in the NRC from 1951 valid, while another said a census document was not legal evidence.” -Rohini Mohan, ‘Inside India’s Sham Trials…’ Vice News DISSENT ACROSS INDIA

Current Political Climate

The passage of the CAA brought the Northeast and the NRC back into the mainland’s attention, leading to nationwide opposition. As Assam was put on lockdown, protests erupted in Tripura, West Bengal, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and Karnataka, many turning violent as police used force water cannons, lathi charges, etc, against protestors.

The northeast

Assam and Tripura

Unhappy with the state of affairs caused by the implementation of the NRC, the states of Assam and Tripura witnessed a series of agitations once the 2019 amendment was passed. Reports of Assam ‘boiling’ took over the news, as agitators took to arson and vandalism. On December 12, the government of Assam sent in troops and imposed a statewide shutdown of Internet services to rein in the situation. The government’s reasoning behind the shutdown was to deter any misinformation and the incitement of further violence. Peasant leader Akhil Gogoi was taken into preventive custody on the same day.

Communication shutdowns have been condemned in the past by the United Nations, calling it a violation of human rights. Across the country, citizens opposed the week-long shutdown, drawing parallels to the situation in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. By December 15, the death toll in Assam had risen to five, four of which were caused by police firing.

A curfew and a clamp on communication were imposed in Tripura, similar to Assam. While Assam was stripped of Internet services, citizens of Tripura found themselves without basic text messaging services as well. According a BBC report, armed forces were deployed in the state on December 12, and close to 1800 people were arrested.

West Bengal

Violence engulfed the state of West Bengal on December 14 and 15: buses, trains, and even entire railway stations were set ablaze by the mobs. Most of the violence was reported from the districts of Murshidabad and Howrah. As protestors burnt tyres on the road, National Highway 34 remained blocked for three hours. As violence peaked, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee called for peace and ‘democratic’ methods of dissent. She went on to warn dissenters that there would be consequences if they were to take the law into their hands. The BJP in Bengal blamed ‘Bengali Muslim infiltrators,’ threatening to move the Centre to impose President’s Rule in the State if the violence continued. The scale of violence led to a halt in railway services on December 16. The Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress took to the streets as part of a peaceful protest on the same day. The CM headed a second peaceful rally on the 19th, declaring that the CAA would not be implemented in West Bengal. A day earlier, a group of men wearing lungis and skullcaps were seen throwing stones at a train engine. They were later identified as party workers for the BJP.

Uttar Pradesh

Aligarh Muslim University

The first wave of protests in Uttar Pradesh was held outside the campus of the Aligarh Muslim University on December 15. The same evening, police officers entered the campus forcibly and assaulted the students. According to reports, at least 60 students were injured. Internet access was shut in the area around the university. A report by activist-lawyers stated that the police had resorted to firing explosives camouflaged as tear gas shells, or ‘deceptive shelling.’

Activists Yogendra Yadav, Harsh Mander, and Kavita Krishnan released a report alleging that police officers had called the students ‘terrorists’ and chanted religiously charged slogans such as ‘Jai Shri Ram.’

On December 24, 1000-1200 protestors were booked for organising a candlelight march within the AMU campus despite the imposition of Section 144 across the state.

Nadwa University, Lucknow

About 300 students had a peaceful protest march in solidarity with the students in Aligarh. The police prevented the march by forcing students to return to campus and locking the campus gates from outside. This led to a clash between the police and the students locked inside. Footage of police officers beating students with sticks was telecast across several news channels. Close to 20 students were injured, while 30 were charged for attempt to murder and rioting. The students have refuted any involvement in violence, instead alleging that the police attacked unarmed students.

Both AMU and Nadwa University remained closed till January 5, 2020. On December 17, students of the Banaras Hindu University staged a protest to show their solidarity towards both AMU and Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi.

Apart from Aligarh and Lucknow, protests were held in Kanpur, Bareilly, and Varanasi. The state administration banned public assembly on December 19, as Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said the authorities would seize and auction the properties of those involved in violence. By December 28, 1246 people had been arrested on the basis of 372 FIRs, while the death toll climbed to 19. An eight-year-old boy was among the casualties. Police and paramilitary forces began using security drones to monitor and dispel people gathering to protest. Video footage from Meerut shows an officer telling a group of Muslim men, “Pakistan chale jao,” (“Go to Pakistan.”)

At the time of writing, UP was the worst-affected state in the police crackdown against anti-CAA protests. Karnataka

Protests were held in different parts of Bangalore city from December 15. Students from Indian Institute of Science organised a silent protest within the college campus in solidarity with AMU and Jamia. On December 16, hundreds took to the streets in Mysore, in the form of bike rallies and raised slogans. Police banned public assembly. Protests also took place in Bellary, Bidar, Gulbarga, Kodagu, and Udupi. In Shimoga, police detained former MLA K. B. Prasanna Kumar, claiming that the protest had turned violent. In Raichur, protestors voiced concerns that nearly 5,000 of the 20,000 Bangladeshi immigrants in the Bangla camp at Sindhanur would get citizenship. As protests continued in Bangalore, hundreds of protestors were detained in front of the Town Hall on December 19. Historian Ramachandra Guha was among the detainees. On the same day, the city of Mangalore witnessed the worst violence in the state as two men succumbed to gunshot wounds. CCTV footage shows police dressed in riot gear entering the hospital the victims were brought to and banging against the doors of the ICU.


Jamia Millia Islamia University

A students-led march on December 13 was prevented when police used batons and tear gas to disperse the protestors. Police detained 50 students; while police claim that the students turned violent when they were prevented from marching any further, students alleged that they were attacked by the police with sticks and stones.

On December 15, more than 2000 Jamia students joined the protests against the CAA in the capital. Students, along with the Teachers’ Association, condemned the violence. At 6:46pm that day, hundreds of police officers entered the university campus by force. Footage of students being dragged and assaulted by police was broadcast on television and widely shared across social media. Nearly 100 students were detained, while 200 people were injured. The detainees were released only at 3:30am the next morning. On December 16, two more students were admitted in a different hospital, having suffered bullet injuries the day before. One of the victims claimed he was not involved in the protests. The student, M. Tamin, was passing through on his motorcycle when police began caning protestors; Tamin was shot in the leg at point blank range. Students inside campus on December 15 and 16 documented the assault on social media.

Tear gas was allegedly thrown into the university’s library and female students have alleged that male police officers forcibly entered the women’s washroom and assaulted students.

As with AMU and Nadwa University, JMIU remained shut until January 5 2020.

Jamia Millia was not the only point of protest in the capital- thousands of agitators gathered on Jantar Mantar Road on December 14, as multiple demonstrations occurred at the same time. The violence began the next day when three Delhi Transport Corporation buses were burnt near the residential New Friends Colony. On the 17th, residents of Seelampur clashed with police, leaving many protestors and police officers injured. According to reports from the police, buses in the areas were vandalised.

Section 144 was imposed in the city on the 19th, banning public gatherings. Twenty metro stations across the city were closed, while 700 flights were delayed and 20 cancelled due to heavy police barricades in order to stifle any protests.

On December 27, the Delhi Police used facial recognition software to identify protestors.

To voice their opposition against the CAA, NRC, and ‘police brutality,’ hundreds of people took to the streets in Delhi. Shaheen Bagh is one such.

Shaheen Bagh

Amidst all the violence, the residents of Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim dominated area in the capital, staged a peaceful sit-in protest. Led by the women of Shaheen Bagh, protestors have occupied a crucial part of the highway that connects the capital to the satellite city, Noida. At the time of writing, the protest had continued for 16 days, in spite of the cold wave that hit the capital city in full force. This protest, on the fringes of the capital, is a far cry from the English-speaking crowds gathering around Central Delhi.

Social media users across the city pitched in by volunteering or contributing food items and blankets to those who keep the vigil at nighttime. The protests were unlike any other; spirited sloganeering, and speeches were punctuated by boisterous singing. “We sing songs of Inquilaab (revolution),” a young protestor said.

Dissent on Social Media

The movement against the CAA and NRC has gained traction across the country at surprising speeds. This is largely owing to active networking on various social media platforms. Young people have taken to sharing live updates about protests, creating art and even mobilising student-led protests through their social media handles. Students such as Bangalore-based Teresa, have been using Instagram, posting hourly updates regarding protest locations, police permissions, detentions, etc. In Delhi, photographers, influencers, and others with a large number of followers are playing a major role in the flow of information: they have, along with several others, have spoken to protestors at locations such as Jamia Millia and Shaheen Bagh, using eyewitness accounts of the events to tackle speculations and fake information.

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