Does Religion Define a Citizen?

This reading list assesses the ramifications of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016.


The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which was recently passed in the Lok Sabha updates the existing Citizenship Act, 1955, to provide Indian citizenship to minority communities fleeing persecution from neighbouring countries. Specifically, the amended bill states that Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis, and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan shall not be treated as illegal immigrants.  

The bill has been heavily criticised not only by opposition parties who decry the amendment as discriminatory towards Muslims, but also from the ruling party’s allies in the Northeast, who consider the bill “dangerous” for the region.

Should a “secular” nation grant citizenship on the basis of religion? This reading list looks at the government’s attempt to redefine what it means to be Indian.

1) Who is a Citizen of India?

Apurva Thakur writes that neither the Constitution nor the Citizenship Act, 1955, clearly spell out what citizenship entails and instead, only state criteria for a “natural” person to acquire Indian citizenship.  

Citizenship is a complex term, enshrined within which are the ideas of nationality, assumed as ethnicity; and domicile is understood as permanent residence. In India, however, the courts are inclined towards pegging citizenship as an extended arm of domiciliation. The Supreme Court of India, in Star Trading Corporation v Commercial Tax Officer (1963), has stated, in no uncertain terms, that nationality and citizenship are not interchangeable terms.

Further, Thakur contends that classifying citizens on the basis of religious identity runs antithetical to the Constitution. The author argues that enforcing more stringent conditions on certain groups of individuals can be seen as a “targeted ousting practice” of people who do not belong to these religions.

If we test this bill on reasonable classification, it fails, as the classification sought is to differentiate between persons who will be granted relaxation in the domiciliary requirement and those who will not. Since, at present, it excludes illegal immigrants only on religious grounds, with no reasonable explanation. The next test is on object sought to be achieved. Putting a qualification based on religion has no rational nexus to achieve that object; unless the object is to project India as a Hindu state.

2) Is the Citizen in Crisis?

Gaurav Rajkhowa, Ankur Tamuliphukan and Bidyut Sagar Boruah’s article looks at the changing definition of a citizen in Assam. By elevating one religious identity over the other, they write, Hindus from Bangladesh are now “refugees” seeking refuge from persecution while Muslims are seen as foreign infiltrators which has lead to increasing insecurity by the Assamese over their cultural identity.

It is not because of the teeming migrants that citizenship is in “crisis” in Assam today—citizenship has always been precarious in its authority and whimsical in its guarantees here. Complicit in the exclusion of vast sections of the population from the substantive processes of politics, one fears the citizen becomes a figure of political dependency rather than emancipation.  

3) Is a Muslim Voter an ‘Enemy’?

Kanika Gauba and Anshuman Singh write that the bill makes no effort to explain the rationale behind excluding equally important minority communities such as the Baha’is, Ahmadis, Sufis and Shias from neighbouring countries. The authors link the 2016 bill with the Enemy Property (EP) Act, 2017, saying that while the Citizenship (Amendment ) Bill repels the “enemy”—the Muslim community—outside the nation, the EP Act expels them from within.

By making possible an enemy who is also a citizen, it [the EP Act] obfuscates both poles by decoupling them …  The ruling party’s attempts to redefine citizenship seem intent on bringing popular notions of Indianness in line with its cultural sympathies, in time for the general elections in 2019. In a post-truth age of alternate facts, it may be trite to point out that the state can change entire narratives by controlling definitions.

4) Can Religion Be Grounds for Exclusion?

M Mohsin Alam Bhat argues that minority communities in India’s neighbourhood have been persecuted not only on the basis of religion, but also on the basis of race, ethnicity and language. He writes that while equal protection—enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution—does not necessarily mean exact treatment, a law that promulgates differential treatment on the basis of religion must be based in rationality, else it will be deemed unconstitutional.

The complete absence of any factual basis behind the proposed amendment’s categorisation of migrants renders it devoid of any determining principle. This categorisation is done for its own sake, only to separate non-Muslim from Muslim illegal migrants, and not in pursuance of a principle …  There is no determining principle simply because the government intends to enact a purely religious classification. A purely religious classification, devoid of any determining principle, is also manifestly arbitrary because it violates the fundamental constitutional value of secularism.

Read More:

  1. National Register of Citizens and the Supreme Court. Alok Prasanna Kumar, 21 July 2018

  2. Citizenship Bill–Reassuring Whom? EPW, 6 December 1986

  3. Defining Citizenship: Assam on the Edge Again. Sanjoy Hazaika, 28 July 2018


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