What has Modi done for the Tamils

India's struggle for citizenship

The controversy over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the creation of a nationwide national register of citizens has sparked a wave of protests against the Modi government in India. There were demonstrations and sometimes violent clashes with the police in many cities. In Hyderabad, for example, over 100,000 people protested in January 2020; in Mangaluru there were around 200,000. The vehemence of the protests can be explained by the fact that the two projects mean that a previously unknown number of people living in India may not be eligible for Indian citizenship could do.

The ideological basis

Based on its absolute majority in parliament, the Modi government has been pushing its Hindu nationalist Hindutva agenda (Hindutum) in its second term since May 2019. This is primarily directed against the Muslim minority. According to the 2011 census, Muslims are the largest minority in India with more than 170 million people and 14.2 percent of the population. The most important milestones in recent months have been the demotion of the Muslim state of Jammu and Kashmir to two centrally administered union territories and the publication of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. The Supreme Court ruling in favor of the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a mosque in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya has given further impetus to the Hindu nationalist agenda.

The foundations of the Hindutva ideology were developed in the 1920s and 1930s by V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar formulates. For Golwalkar, the Hindu nation is constituted by the unity of geography, race, religion, culture and language. The decline of the once glorious Hindu nation began in his eyes with the conquest of India by the Muslims and later by the British. These ideas are still having an impact today in a modernized form in parts of the BJP and related groups such as the National Volunteer Organization (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, RSS). Prime Minister Modi and Interior Minister Shah started their political careers on RSS. Golwalkar is considered one of Modi's mentors.

The idea of ​​Hindutva aims to restore the unity and greatness of India as a nation of Hindus. This goes hand in hand with the idea of ​​a predominance of the Hindu majority and a dismantling of privileges for minorities. Hindutva is therefore less a religious project than a variety of ethnic nationalism.

The national register of citizens

The dispute over a nationwide national register of citizens is another central aspect in the dispute over the reform of the citizenship law.

The current starting point is the conflict in the northeastern state of Assam. There has been a conflict there for decades over the issue of illegal immigration from neighboring Bangladesh. In 1985, as part of the settlement of this conflict, the Congress government agreed with Assamese parties to update the Assam National Citizens Register in order to take action against illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. This process took on a new dynamic when the Supreme Court asked for an update to the NRC in 2013. In the 2019 election campaign, Interior Minister Shah compared the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh to "termites" and called for their expulsion. The NRC for Assam, published at the end of August 2019, declared around 1.9 million people stateless. Shah reiterated that other states could also set up their own registers and repeatedly called for a nationwide civil register.

The BJP had already decided in 2003 to create such a nationwide National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC). The data required for this should be recorded via a national population register (NPR). Among other things, this also includes information about the parents' dates of birth. The background to this are changes in citizenship law, through which the place of birth principle (ius soli) has been successively replaced by the principle of descent (ius sanguinis).

The political explosiveness of a nationwide national register of citizens is that many people are unlikely to be able to provide complete information. Official IDs such as the existing Aadhar card have an average error rate of 8.8 percent. If this error rate is transferred to a nationwide national register of citizens, this would affect around 120 million people with a population of around 1.35 billion people. Even with an error rate of only one percent, this would still be 13.5 million people. The collection of personal data, such as dates of birth, is often incomplete and many local administrations are considered inefficient and prone to corruption and patronage. This would primarily affect lower caste and tribal groups in rural regions.

A nationwide national register of citizens would also be an administrative and financial feat. It is also estimated that around 40 percent of all civil servants would be involved in the creation of a national civil register. The cost of the venture could be up to 50 billion euros.

The reform of citizenship law

The political thrust of the NRC in Assam was aimed primarily at illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. However, there are also many Hindus among the 1.9 million who have since been considered stateless. In order to exclude these from the negative consequences of the NRC, the Indian parliament passed a reform of the citizenship law in December 2019. This provides for simplified naturalization for religiously persecuted Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Parsees and Jains who came to India from the Muslim states of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan before December 31, 2014. Interior Minister Shah himself has made the connection of the reform with the NRC and the national register of citizens clear.

The reform includes multiple forms of discrimination: on the one hand, against Muslim minorities such as the Ahmadiyya or the Shiites, who are repeatedly the target of attacks in Pakistan, for example; on the other hand, Hindu Tamils ​​from Sri Lanka are also exempt from the legislation. BJP ministers explained this blatant discrimination by saying that Muslims have other countries where they can apply for citizenship if they are persecuted. The nationwide protests in India are therefore supported by a broad spectrum of the population. The Muslims are demonstrating against the threat of discrimination which, even if they do not become stateless, would make them second-class citizens in an increasingly Hindu-nationalist India. The lower caste and tribal groups protest against the threat of discrimination should they not be able to present their parents' birth documents. Finally, representatives of a liberal India also oppose the new legislation. For them, the reform violates the unchangeable basic structure of the constitution by including religion as a criterion for citizenship and the associated discrimination. And finally, all those who oppose the increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the press also take part in the protests. In 2018 and 2019, India was the country with the highest number of Internet shutdowns. A number of states have also announced their opposition to the reform and related bills.

The international dimension

The domestic political reforms of recent months, especially the restrictions on human rights in Kashmir, have already garnered a great deal of international criticism from India. The American government has expressed concern about the situation in Kashmir on several occasions. Chancellor Merkel also criticized Indian Kashmiri policy during her visit to New Delhi in November 2019. The European Union demands unhindered access to the region in order to be able to get an idea of ​​the situation on the ground.

The consequences of the national civil register and the new citizenship law are not limited to India. In the regional context, relations with Bangladesh, in which there has been the greatest progress in recent years, are particularly stressed. The government in Dhaka has already made it clear that it is only willing to take back people whose Bangladeshi citizenship has been clearly established. The Malaysian President Mahathir has been critical of the treatment of Kashmir and the plans for citizenship. India then stopped its imports of Malaysian palm oil.

Due to the ongoing protests, the government had to cancel a high-level meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Abe in Assam. India has also received a lot of criticism internationally. The International Legal Commission criticized the NRC in Assam. The United Nations Office for Human Rights (OHCHR) condemned the new citizenship law as discriminatory, as did the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

A nationwide civil register could also do considerable damage to India's international image. Even if only a number of people on the scale as in Assam were denied citizenship once the process is over, the political and humanitarian question arises as to how India intends to deal with this population group in the long term. People who are not granted Indian citizenship will most likely not be able to claim it for another country either. The state government in Assam has already set up camps for people who have been declared stateless. In addition to the criticism of Western states about their dealings with these people, a number of states from the Near and Middle East will presumably also criticize India's policy towards its Muslims more than they did towards China, for example, because of its treatment of the Uyghurs.


The forced implementation of Hindu nationalist projects is happening in a time of economic downturn in India. Economic growth slipped below 5 percent at the end of 2019. One might see the BJP politics as an attempt to divert attention from the economic problems with a nationalist agenda. But it should not be overlooked that the BJP primarily implements its election program.

In the face of the protests, Prime Minister Modi said there were no plans for a nationwide civil register at the moment. Even BJP ministers have admitted that they would not be able to provide complete information for such a civil register.

The discussion about the civil register and citizenship rights are building blocks on the way to transform India into a Hindu nation. Interior Minister Shah wants to open the bureaucracy to lateral entrants, which paves the way not only for experts, but also for party-political nominations. Furthermore, he wants to promote the use of Hindi in India and expand the Western concept of human rights to include traditional elements.

India's domestic political developments will also occupy German and European politics, at the latest when talks about a trade agreement are resumed. India's Foreign Minister Jaishankar himself defended the reform plans with reference to China's handling of its domestic political problems. Should India actually see China's approach as a model for its future development and dealings with minorities, this will also trigger a debate about whether and to what extent an increasingly Hindu-nationalist India is still a value partner of the West.

Dr. habil. Christian Wagner is a Senior Fellow in the Asia Research Group.
Richa Arora is an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in the Asia Research Group.

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doi: 10.18449 / 2020A02