kerala challenge

Indian fishermen arrange their nets at Mappila beach in Kannur, Kerala. (Xavier Galiana/AFP via Getty Images)

NEW DELHI — The southern Indian state of Kerala Jan. 14 became the first to legally challenge a new citizenship law that has triggered nationwide demonstrations.

In a petition to the Supreme Court, the state government said the law violates the secular nature of India’s Constitution, and accused the government of dividing the nation along communal lines.

The citizenship law backed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party provides a path to naturalization for people from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, unless they’re Muslim. It has triggered nationwide protests and clashes with police, leading to 23 deaths.

The rallies have slowly morphed into much wider anti-government protests.

Critics say the law, which was passed by Parliament on Dec. 11, will be used in conjunction with a citizenship registry that could require all Indians to produce documents proving their origins, a challenge in a country where many people lack official records including birth certificates.

Kerala, a state ruled by a communist party, has strongly opposed the law and passed a resolution against in early January. The state government criticized the law in front-page advertisements in at least three national newspapers on Jan. 10, saying the state is “leading the efforts to protect constitutional values.”

Modi’s BJP said the move by the state was political.

Pinarayi Vijayan, chief minister of the state, has also written to the heads of 11 other states not ruled by Modi’s party, urging them to unite in their fight against the law.

Political challenges for Modi over the law are mounting, setting the stage for a wider confrontation between the federal government and some states that have said they will not implement it.

West Bengal state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, a staunch Modi critic, has led several rallies in her state against the law. Punjab, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh states, which are governed by the opposition Congress party, have also announced they will not implement the legislation.

The law has also been rejected in the western state of Maharashtra, where Congress is part of a coalition government.

Modi’s government insists that the law is needed to help persecuted non-Muslim minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who came to India before 2015 by giving them Indian citizenship.

Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad says state governments have the “constitutional duty” to implement the law.

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