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Modi's religion-based citizenship bill triggers outrage

Non-Muslims from neighboring countries would gain from Indian legislation

Protesters in Kolkata burn Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in effigy on Dec. 5 over a bill that would grant citizenship to religious minorities facing persectution in neighboring Muslim countries.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- The Indian government's controversial proposal to grant citizenship to religious minorities in three neighboring countries has sparked outrage, with critics warning it will marginalize India's roughly 195 million Muslims.

The lower house of parliament on Monday approved a bill that would grant citizenship to Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and members of three other minority religious groups who have fled to India to escape persecution in Muslim-majority Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

On Wednesday, the upper house too passed the bill despite protests from opposition parties.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed delight at the legislation's passage in the lower house. "This Bill is in line with India's centuries old ethos of assimilation and belief in humanitarian values," Modi said in a tweet.

India's population of 1.3 billion is around 80% Hindu and 15% Muslim, with other faiths making up the rest. The country has a tradition of secularism and the constitution guarantees fundamental equality to all people.

"It is well known that those minorities who chose to make Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan their home had to constantly live in the fear of extinction. This amended legislation by [the] Modi [government] will allow India to extend them dignity and an opportunity to rebuild their lives," tweeted Home Minister Amit Shah, who presented the bill in both houses of parliament, on Monday. On Wednesday he told the upper house that it is "a bitter truth" that the rights of the minorities have not been protected in the three countries.

However, many see the latest move by Modi, whose Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party leads the government, as a violation of the constitution.

"It's not [part of] India's culture, ethos and political ethics to enact such a law," said Narayan Bareth, a political analyst based in India's northwestern state of Rajasthan, which borders Pakistan. "It is not according to the spirit of our constitution."

"The country has the right to deny [or grant] citizenship to anybody, but it has now been underlined that [decisions will be on the basis of] religion, which is unfortunate," he said.

Bareth dismissed the bill as an electoral ploy aimed at keeping Hindus loyal to the BJP. The ruling party was returned to power for another five-year term in May. "The BJP [wants] to create a gulf between Muslims and other religions in the country," Bareth said.

Demonstrators display placards protesting the legislation in Ahmedabad, India, on Dec. 9.   © Reuters

Members of the Muslim community also voiced concerns. Wasfia Jalali, a public relations professional based in the northern city of Lucknow, called the bill "worrisome" because it makes religion the basis of naturalization in India for the first time.

"As a country we can either have a policy of giving citizenship to persecuted minorities from other countries, or not have such a policy at all. However, delineating them on the basis of religion is discriminatory, and it threatens to damage the fabric of the country," she said.

The BJP says its plans were part of its campaign manifesto, which it ran on to a landslide victory in the general election. But critics say the bill will further strain relations between Hindus and Muslims.

It is "very clear" that the bill has not been brought about with "a very open mind," because it offers citizenship to all religious minorities, but not Muslims, according to Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

India's northeast, in particular Assam State, which borders Bangladesh, has seen massive protests against the proposed law since Monday. TV stations showed footage of people taking to streets, shouting slogans against the bill and burning tires.

"We have a huge number of [illegal] Bangladeshi Hindu [migrants] in Assam who will become citizens," said Enaxi Saikia Barua, a resident of the city of Guwahati. "The Assamese [fear] that their existence, including their culture and language, will disappear or become extinct [if Bengali-speaking Hindus from Bangladesh] get citizenship."

Barua said the government's plan to grant citizenship to illegal migrants could also open doors for more Bangladeshis to enter India, even though the bill would grant citizenship only to those who entered the country before 2015.

"There are about 18 million Hindus in Bangladesh. If they [feel] persecuted they will come to Assam only, as that is the nearest state. So who will the burden fall on? On us Assamese only. The rest of India will not take this burden," she said. "This is an emotional issue for us. Once [citizenship is granted] they will keep coming in and settle in Assam only."

Analysts say the BJP is angling for electoral gains in the 2021 state polls in Assam, where it is currently in government, and in opposition-controlled West Bengal next door.

"Electorally, the BJP stands to gain," Kumar said, pointing out that the party performed well in the two states in the general elections, and "there's a scope to improve its tally" in the 2021 polls.

Barua agreed that the BJP is fishing for the votes of illegal migrants. "All this is with an eye on elections," she said. "They have realized their popularity among the Assamese is waning and need that population" of migrants.

If the bill passes in the upper house, as is likely, "there'll be big trouble in Assam," Barua said. The state will host the annual summit between Modi and his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, during Abe's Dec. 15-17 India visit.

Meanwhile, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, reacting to the bill, said any religious test for citizenship undermines the most basic tenet of democratic values. Human Rights Watch, a lobby group, stated that the bill discriminates against Muslims.

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