India grants first citizenships under new law criticised for discriminating against Muslims

India granted citizenship to the first batch of people under a contentious new law that has been criticised for being discriminatory against Muslims.

The citizenship was granted to 14 people on Wednesday amid the ongoing general elections, even as anxious people living in Bangladesh-bordering states continued to protest the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

Implementing the CAA had been one of the key manifesto promises of prime minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) before the last general elections in 2019.

The government said federal home secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla handed over the Indian citizenship certificates as recipients gave an oath of allegiance, after their documents were verified. The home ministry did not provide any details regarding their identities.

The law, implemented in March, grants the right to apply for Indian citizenship to refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan who arrived in India before 31 December 2014 – but only if they belong to minority religious groups in these Muslim-majority countries, namely Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Christians.

The Modi government claims the law, which was enacted in 2019 but not immediately implemented due to violent protests at the time, to be "pro-refugee". The government faced massive backlash and sectarian violence in Delhi and other cities that resulted in the deaths of scores of people.

Mr Modi’s critics say the law violates India's secular constitution. They have accused the right-wing government of targeting the Muslim community and systematically discriminating against them to further the party's Hindu-first agenda.

"This is like being reborn," Harish Kumar, a Hindu refugee from Pakistan who has been living in Delhi for over a decade, told news agency ANI. "If a person doesn't have rights then what is the point, (now) we can go forward in education, jobs."

Since its implementation this year, the country has witnessed sporadic violence in states bordering Bangladesh, where people fear that the CAA, combined with a proposed pan-India national register of citizens (NRC), could lead to discrimination against and the possible deportation of Muslims and those belonging to Tribal communities.

The northeastern state of Assam has been facing unrest since a national register of citizens was imposed, supposedly to weed out people who came to India illegally, defined as anyone who migrated across the border into Assam after 1971. The law puts the burden on residents to show documents proving their citizenship or else risk deportation.

Speculation about a similar rule led to protests in the picturesque state of Meghalaya last month, where a 35-year-old and a 24-year-old man were found dead following demonstrations by the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) which opposes the implementation of CAA.

“The situation has been tense here for a very long time. People might not say it out loud but everyone is afraid of a possible violent dispute,” a resident of Ichamati, located 30 km from Cherrapunjee town, told The Independent.

Violence spread to other parts of the state when KSU members staged a demonstration outside a local police station demanding the release of their members arrested following the killings. In the state capital Shillong, police claimed five people, wearing masks and helmets, hurled a petrol bomb toward the Mawlai police station and set a police vehicle ablaze.

Police in Meghalaya maintain that there was no correlation between the anti-CAA protests and the deaths. “The situation is calm. We have asked all groups to maintain peace. The additional police presence for the ongoing election has also helped,” Rituraj Ravi, the superintendent of police for East Khasi Hills, said.

Meghalaya has witnessed multiple killings and incidents of violence against non-Tribals since the citizenship law was cleared by the parliament in 2019.

In West Bengal, where state chief minister Mamata Banerjee has vehemently opposed the law, a 31-year-old man died by suicide shortly after the implementation of CAA in March.

Debashish Sengupta “died by suicide over panic due to the CAA”, police claimed, citing his family members. The victim's father Tapan Sengupta told reporters his son was worried about how "he would prove his citizenship and would often ask what he would do if his citizenship was revoked".

Ms Banerjee claims her government would steadfastly oppose "anything that discriminates (against) people", but so far neither the state nor the central government has done much to allay public fears.

Analysts say that the law was proposed at least in part to win the support of a migrant community living in West Bengal from the erstwhile state of East Pakistan. Many members of this Matua community, spread across the state, shifted their allegiance to the BJP in 2019 banking on the promise of being granted citizenship.

However, the community now finds itself at a crossroads after leaders of the group advised its members to abstain from submitting citizenship applications due to the lack of necessary documents proving their previous residential address in present-day Bangladesh.

Federal home minister Amit Shah on Wednesday assured the people of the Matua community that they would be granted citizenship.

The community of 18 million people in West Bengal hold the power to sway votes in nearly half a dozen Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) seats in the state.

India began voting on 19 April in the seven-phase election for which Mr Modi launched his campaign by showcasing his economic record, governance and popularity. But after lower the expected turnout in the first phase he has notably changed tack, instead using rally speeches to accuse the main opposition Congress party of being pro-Muslim.