India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA): Citizenship and Belonging in India

By Syantani Chatterjee and Natasha Raheja

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A protest march against the Indian government’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), in Kolkata on December 16, 2019. Photo by DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP via Getty Images.

The controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was signed into law by the Hindu nationalist BJP-led Government of India on December 12, 2019 amid nationwide protests opposing the act. The CAA, the sixth amendment to the 1955 Citizenship Act, expedites Indian citizenship for Hindus and other non-Muslim minorities (Parsi, Sikh, Jain, Christian, and Buddhist) from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Hailing these minorities from the neighboring Muslim-majority countries as persecuted religious minorities, the act enables access to Indian citizenship on religious grounds. While the bill passed both houses of the Parliament with a clear majority, protests against the CAA had begun well before this bill was passed. Neither the CAA nor its opposition can be seen in isolation. Local and Indigenous forms of resistance have had long roots in Kashmir and the Northeast in the face of sustained Indian occupation, which intensified with the revocation of Article 370 and the administration of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. The sustained #NoCAA protests are part of a complex movement soldering different sections of the Indian civil society into a movement of resistance in the face of a seemingly unfazed governmental crackdown, police brutality against students, and state-sanctioned, anti-Muslim violence.

The Indian state’s histories of divisive colonial logics, brutal oppression, and gradual contraction of citizenship criteria under multiple ruling parties are well-documented. Indeed, the series of amendments, court decisions, and policies related to India’s 1955 Citizenship Act all  converge to restrict enfranchisement and harden the boundary between citizen and foreigner. In this context, it is notable that a 2005 Supreme Court decision shifted the burden of proof of citizenship onto an individual in question. While the present moment of fearmongering and austerity under the Hindu nationalist government is a rupture in many ways in the trajectory of the Indian state, it also represents a perfected consolidation of state power and policing (Jauregui). It is apposite then that the spring of protests that have erupted are nationwide and enduring. Notably, twelve states and Union Territories have refused to implement the NRC, citing the CAA’s violation of the secular principles of the Indian Constitution, and Article 14, that guarantee the right to equality and non-discriminatory treatment. #NoCAA mobilizations challenge the long series of violent attacks and disenfranchising legislation targeting historically marginalized groups across  the country.

Many commentators have noted that in the last decade, there has been an intensification of civilian anti-government protests all over the world. In 2019, there were protests on every continent spread across 114 countries. Think tanks have even named this decade the “Age of mass protests,” stating that we are currently living in a time of mass mobilizations that are “unprecedented in frequency, scope, and size.” Thinking of both the developments that led to the CAA and the resistance to it, we cannot help but think of them in the context of flourishing resistance movements in different parts of the world. Taking seriously MacIntyre’s (1971) warning not to produce “a general theory of holes”, we suggest instead that the spring of mass mobilizations across the world are undeniably particular to their contexts and histories, but which nonetheless, share institutional, structural, and cultural links with those in different parts of the world. In 2019, while triggers have been diverse, several mass mobilizations have frequently escalated and transformed into more far-reaching demands for inclusion—for instance, in Hong Kong protests escalated from a refusal to extradite residents to the mainland for trials to opposing Chinese influence; in Chile what began as an objection to a hike in subway fares turned into a demand for a national revolution; in Lebanon, what began as civil resistance against planned taxes on gasoline, tobacco and WhatsApp calls expanded into nationwide protests against the government’s corruption and inability to provide basic amenities; in Algeria, demonstrators’ call for the removal of the president from his announced fifth term quickly became a demand for democracy. These mass mobilizations signal a demand for a reconfiguration of power, whereby citizens across distinct political regions are demanding more participation in governance.

In this series, we emphasize disjuncture to collectively ask how citizenship persists as both an ideal of formal equality as well as a mechanism for the elaboration of social inequity. Although the concept of citizenship is premised on liberal ideals of enfranchisement, the rise of xenophobic nationalisms globally has revealed the very notion of citizenship to be an exclusionary category of belonging. Scholars have thus theorized citizenship as inherent with risk and fault lines (Petryna and Follis 2015), hinging on precarious claims to relative belonging (Geschiere et al 2006). In the context of India, contributors examine both the contradictions in the theoretical underpinnings of citizenship that set up binaries of citizen/non-citizen and insider/outsider, as well as the proliferation of documentary regimes that try to identify who is NOT a citizen. In conversation with scholarship that questions universal conceptualizations of citizenship which foreground the individual as the locus of rights and recognition (Chatterjee 2004), essays engage anthropological approaches to understanding how people struggle for legal recognition and social belonging as members of larger collectivities (Jayal 2013). If citizenship is a set of practices that shape and define membership in a given political community (Lazar 2013), the  series asks, what practices and modes of association are taken up by people who are excluded from recognition?

We argue that as the CAA seeks to cohere Indian citizenship around an idealized Hindu identity, mobilizations addressing the inequity of lived realities in India resist the Hindutva state’s classificatory projects, but in ways that are not categorically emancipatory. A multiplication of enumerative registers (Nair) and clashes of belonging in contemporary India challenge a crystallization of religious national identity, but dominant state forms of recognition limit the imagination of alternative modes of belonging.

Despite the work of Hindutva in making Indian citizenship appear to be achievable only for a selective population, the recognition of Hindu migrants cannot actually be taken for granted (Asif and Raheja, Ghosh, Sinharay). Furthermore, the CAA’s emphasis on religious minorities also obscures other axes of oppression and exclusion. Attention to populations at the margins and peripheries of caste, tribal, ethnic, national, and sexual borders expose the fissures of the CAA that extend beyond and through its anti-Muslim framing (Bhattacharyya, Hasan, Horton, Mihai, Yengde). While opposition to the CAA has engendered creative modes of protest and collective action (Ratnam, Chacko, and Bagchi, Desai), it can also mean solidifying ways of belonging and assembling claims in ways that may not be emancipatory (Hasan, Kanth). Ethnographic attention to struggles for recognition reveal compromised alliances and reassertions of dominance even among communities in opposition to the CAA. In particular, agitations in borderland regions reveal the gaps in secular-liberal promises of citizenship for populations whose difference comprises inclusion in a wider national body-politic (Sharma and Saraf, Mihai). Together, the essays in this series interrogate liberal citizenship as a site of selective enfranchisement in the context of the shifting contours of Indian citizenship law.

More specifically, contributors investigate the manner in which documentary regimes delineate a range of affective responses (Chatterjee, Ghosh, Horton, Sinharay).  Probing the performative power of fear, suspicion, disgust, and hope, contributors offer a framework for understanding how discourses and semiotic material shape and promote particular worldviews that further pigeonhole the already marginalized. Chatterjee argues that while suspicion has been endemic to the governance of the urban and migrant poor in cities like Mumbai, the CAA and the NRC together enshrine suspicion as a legitimate framework for the structural discrimination of the Muslim urban poor in India. Ghosh draws attention to the manner in which Hindu migrants to India’s borderlands from Bangladesh find their lives circumscribed by their faith in the CAA, and the panic the implementation of the NRC has stoked. For Horton, “documents haunt.” He reminds us that for queer and transgender persons, ID proofs are disturbing reminders of past lives, and deadnames. The CAA with its evidentiary demands attempts to resurrect a deadname as a means of brokering citizenship for queer/trans subjects. Sinharay explores how the specter of documentary proofs demanded by enumerative projects such as the NPR and NRC force Bengali Dalit refugees to live in a state of fear, confusion and hope. He shows that the Namasudra Bengalis who have migrated to India after 1971 and often without the requisite paperwork have mobilized to demand “unconditional citizenship rights.” While some Namasudras have joined the BJP fold, they fear that the CAA’s cutoff date stipulation puts in danger their demand for “unconditional citizenship rights.”

If current forms of state-sanctioned violence and frameworks of suspicion in India seem exceptional, essays also highlight enduring modes of creative resistance that refuse dominant state imperatives (Kanth; Mihai; Ratnam, Bagchi, and Chacko). Mihai contemplates creative resistance and symbolic aesthetics in the context of longstanding struggle for Indigenous self-determination in Mizoram that leverages the Indian and Chinese states against each other. Ratnam, Bagchi, and Chacko’s profile of Rakhial, ‘the Shaheen Bagh’ of Ahmedabad, is an appraisal of protest as a site of vibrant hospitality and experimentation to reclaim the public sphere, that nonetheless risks being marked as an identitarian struggle. Kanth’s analysis of the dual appropriation and policing of slogans and placards that demand Azaadi (Freedom) for Kashmir in anti-CAA protests reveals limits for solidarity with Kashmir. Together, Kanth; Mihai; Ratnam, Bagchi, and Chacko caution against uncritical valorization of creative resistance, especially in the context of  the #NoCAA protests’ emphasis on liberal constitutionality that has historically denied self-determination to select territories and populations.

As enduring forms of protest across India continue to engage spectacular forms of resistance, state actors also expand documentation strategies to enumerate and control populations. Contributors thus discuss questions of visuality and mediatization in the context of symbolic domination, state violence, documentary identification, and resistance (Desai, Hasan; Jauregui; Nair). Hasan argues that the CAA upends a tenuous social arrangement between tribals and non-tribals, deepening this long-standing binary distinction, and obscuring emerging economic inequities in the context of uneven infrastructural development in Meghalaya. The #noCAA protests in Meghalaya, he suggests, spring not from concerns about secularism, but from older politics of ethnic belonging and land ownership. Nair discusses how the Indian state’s proliferation of peculiar forms of cross-referential, documentary recognition make possible the speaking of India in multiple, discordant registers, in ways that both converge with and confound the logics of the CAA. Engaging the excess of the visual, Jauregui contends that technologies such as facial recognition software enable violent forms of communalist policing, carried out with, what she calls, a ‘grotesque impunity.’ On the other hand, Desai’s interlocutors produce visuals that counter state directives, as they claim an empowered womanhood through a ‘collective willfulnness’ that is amplified in the circulation of images of young Muslim women at the forefront of #NoCAA protests.

Focusing on the border and borderlands as sites of intensified scrutiny and suspicion that are central to state  formation (Das and Poole 2004), several essays (Asif and Raheja; Bhattacharyya; Chatterjee; Mihai; Sharma and Saraf) ask how people who inhabit the peripheries of nation-states, cities, linguistic and ethnic communities, among others, negotiate the sociopolitical boundaries of foreigner and citizen, legal and illegal. The manufacturing of fences and checkpoints, and the fostering of suspicion are increasingly prevalent enterprises that multiply the border (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013, Balibar 2002) and solidify the contradictions and uncertainties of citizenship. Sharma and Saraf contend that histories of belonging and claims-making in the ecological frontiers and borderlands of Kashmir and Assam center on communitarian membership, indigeneity, and land rights in ways that critique and resist liberal emancipatory citizenship. In a shared vein, Asif and Raheja contemplate fragile possibilities for cross-border solidarity in their analysis of how minority populations resist the essentialization of the cultural discourses that shape the Indian and Pakistani states’ dominant forms of minority recognition. Bhattacharyya’s account of non-Muslim minorities such as Rajbongshis and ethnic Nepalis in West Bengal, who are omitted from the CAA, reveals Hindu nationalism’s ideological fissures and documentary limits. Yengde contends that many Dalits and Adivasis, who operate on ‘the peripheries of state biopower,’ will simply be unable to meet the burdens of proof that might be demanded by the state, leading to further disenfranchisement across cross-religious caste-oppressed communities. Yengde thus argues that the CAA fundamentally targets the Dalits and Adivasis, while not ‘aiming the gun at them.’

Through an attention to exclusionary modes of scrutinization and experiences of doubt, and taken together, the essays in this series collectively consider how citizenship and concomitant ideals of equality have come under suspicion. The opposition to the CAA has simultaneously revealed entrenched fissures while opening up possibilities for solidarity and belonging, thus drawing and expanding the limits of protest. Together, shifting associations and rising polarization reveal the ways that citizenship persists as both a formal ideal of equality and mechanism for the endurance of social inequity. This series brings into conversation essays that contemplate the logics, strategies, socialities, and spaces through which people are enacting and resisting exclusionary modes of belonging and citizenship across India.

Syantani Chatterjee is an Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on urban citizenship and questions of belonging in contemporary India.

Natasha Raheja is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Cornell University. Her research and films examine citizenship claims and cross-border migration in South Asia. The working title of her book manuscript is From Minority to Majority: Pakistani Hindu Claims to Indian Citizenship.


Balibar, É., 2002. What Is a Border?. Politics and the other scene, pp.75-86.

Chatterjee, P., 2004. The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World. Columbia University Press.

Das, V. and Poole, D., 2004. “State and Its Margins: Comparative Ethnographies.” In Anthropology in the Margins of the State, pp.3-33.

Geschiere, P., Jackson, S., Marshall-Fratani, R., Socpa, A., Leonhardt, A., Landau, L.B. and Ceuppens, B., 2006. “Special Issue: Autochthony and the Crisis of Citizenship”  African Studies Review 49(2): 1-7.

Jayal, N.G., 2013. Citizenship and Its Discontents: An Indian History. Harvard University Press.

Lazar, Sian. The Anthropology of Citizenship: A Reader. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

MacIntyre, A. 1971. “Is a Science of Comparative Politics Possible?” In Against the Self-Images of the Age: Essays on Ideology and Philosophy, by Alasdair MacIntyre. London: Duckworth.

Mezzadra, S. and Neilson, B., 2013. Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor. Duke University Press.

Petryna, A. and Follis, K., 2015. “Risks of Citizenship and Fault Lines of Survival.” Annual Review of Anthropology 44: 401-417.

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