Lawmakers of the lower house of parliament passed the bill that excludes Muslims and contradicts an anti-immigrant accord, despite protests in three northeastern states.
India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which formed its first state government in the northeastern state of Assam on May 24, 2016, is looking to consolidate its position even further in the general election later this year by converting the anti-immigrant sentiment there into votes. But by introducing the controversial Citizenship Amendment bill and pushing it through using its majority in the lower house of parliament, the party seems to have antagonised not just Muslims but also indigenous people and parties that are its new-found electoral allies in the region.
The right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP and its ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have long furthered the argument that India is a nation for Hindus alone. Since the BJP came to power in 2014 under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Hindu supremacists and vigilante mobs have had it good. Lawmakers who rejected the bill on Tuesday described it as “divisive” and “discriminatory”.
Independent observers say the bill violates the secular framework of the constitution and could fail the test of judicial scrutiny.
The Bill amends the Citizenship Act, 1955, to make illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and who arrived in India on or before December 31, 2014, eligible for Indian citizenship.
Until now, only those who arrived in India's northeastern Assam state before 1971 and their descendants were accorded the status of citizens. The proposed shift in the cut-off date has those opposing immigrants now protesting the BJP’s new bill.
Since Monday there have been violent protests in Assam and at least two other border states of the northeast against the proposed legislation. The BJP’s ally in the state government -- the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) -- has walked out on its partner and quit the government. In neighbouring Meghalaya, where the BJP managed to cobble together a coalition and form its first state government in March 2018, its ally the National People’s Party (NPP) is unhappy over the legislation.
Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, who belongs to the NPP, told journalists on Tuesday evening, just hours after the bill was passed in one of the houses: “Well, it is very unfortunate that this bill has been passed as this is something which we have opposed vehemently.”
The local assembly in Meghalaya earlier passed a resolution against the bill making its intent and opposition clear. Tripura, where the BJP formed a government in 2018, has also seen protests.
The BJP’s northeast dream -- where it was hoping to consolidate its gains at the time of the national election with the help of allies -- could come undone due to the bill.
The original act defines who may get Indian citizenship and on what grounds. The party faced stiff opposition even in Parliament with most parties terming the bill as a violation of the constitution for making religion the basis for providing citizenship.
This, experts say, violates article 14 of the constitution, which guarantees the right to equality. “The bill abandons Jus soli and like theocratic countries, makes religion the central issue for giving citizenship,” said Faizan Mustafa, constitutional expert and vice-chancellor of the Hyderabad-based NALSAR University of Law. “This bill is an acceptance of the RSS argument that India is for Hindus,” Mustafa added.
On Tuesday, the sentiment expressed by Mustafa had resonated in the house as members discussed the bill and the BJP’s intentions in bringing it. Trinamool Congress, which rules the eastern state of West Bengal, described the bill as “insidious and divisive”. The principal opposition party, the Congress, demanded that the bill be referred to a select committee because it was being opposed by many states. It finally walked out of the house. The BJP was only able to pass the bill due to its absolute majority in the lower house.
But it is concerned over the turn of events and the opposition to the bill. “There have been efforts to create confusion over the issue,” Home Minister Rajnath Singh said in the upper house on Wednesday, after the bill -- passed by the house of the people or Lok Sabha on the previous day -- was tabled. He said the government’s intention was to provide shelter to minorities fleeing religious persecution in India’s neighbourhood.
For the BJP’s allies and others opposed to the bill in the northeast, the contentious parts of the legislation violate the Assam accord that dates back to 1985. The tripartite agreement -- between the Union government, the state government and the All Assam Students’ Union that had led a six-year violent agitation demanding the ousting of illegal immigrants -- aimed to detect and deport illegal immigrants who settled in the state after March 24, 1971: a day before Bangladesh Liberation War began.
By giving illegal immigration a religious hue and according citizenship status to those who are non-Muslims, these parties and their supporters fear the proposed law will not tackle the original problem for which the Assam accord was signed: keeping all illegal immigrants, irrespective of their faith, out.