India's push for religion-based citizenship bill causes protests to erupt

  • 9 Dec 2019

Protesters flocked to the streets in Assam to demonstrate against the bill that would create a legal pathway to grant Indian nationality on the basis of religion.

Demonstrators protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, in Ahmedabad, December 9, 2019. ( Amit Dave / Reuters )

Protesters took to the streets in India as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government offered a controversial bill in parliament that would give citizenship to non-Muslim minorities who came to India from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Home Minister Amit Shah introduced the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in India’s lower house amid raucous debate. Opposition parties stood against the proposed law that would, for the first time, create a legal pathway to grant Indian nationality on the basis of religion.

The bill was originally introduced in 2016 during the Modi government’s first term but lapsed after protests and an alliance partner’s withdrawal. It proposes to grant Indian citizenship to non-Muslims who came to India from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan before 2015.

Oppositions politicians inside parliament, and protesters in several Indian cities, said the bill discriminated against Muslims and violated India’s secular constitution.

Shah and Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which had included the CAB as part of its manifesto in the last general election, insists that it is necessary.

“In these three countries, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Christians, followers of these six religions have been tormented,” Shah said before the bill was tabled after a vote.

Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill and National Register of Citizens, in Kolkata(Reuters)

'Last drop of blood'

But protesters returned to the streets in Assam - one of India’s remote northeastern states that had previously opposed the bill — and blocked roads, burnt tyres and painted walls with slogans against the new proposal.

Student groups called for a dawn-to-dusk shutdown in four districts of the state. Shops, businesses, educational and financial institutions remained shut and public transport stayed off the roads.

“We will fight and oppose the bill till the last drop of our blood,” All Assam Students’ Union adviser Samujjal Bhattacharya said, underlining the region’s resistance against migrants amid fears that tens of thousands of settlers from neighbouring Bangladesh would gain citizenship.

In Modi’s home state of Gujarat and the eastern city of Kolkata, hundreds of people staged protests and marched against the proposed law.

In a statement issued on Monday, a group of more than 1,000 Indian scientists and scholars also called for the immediate withdrawal of the bill.

“We fear, in particular, that the careful exclusion of Muslims from the ambit of the bill will greatly strain the pluralistic fabric of the country,” the statement said.

After going through the lower house of parliament, where BJP has a majority, the bill has to be passed by the upper house, where the ruling party has to get enough votes. Any bill needs to be ratified by both houses of India’s Parliament to become law.

“Please save this country from this law and save the home minister,” Asaduddin Owaisi, an opposition MP from the All India Majlis e Ittehadul Muslimeen party, told parliament.