Modi’s New India Citizenship Law Sparks Panic and Protests

Upmanyu Trivedi

(Bloomberg) -- India’s parliament is set to approve legislation preventing Muslim migrants from neighboring countries from receiving citizenship -- the next step in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hardline Hindu nationalist program and one that’s seen to go against the nation’s secular constitution.

The controversial citizenship bill has sparked protests and fear around India, with lawyers working overtime to help millions at risk of being left stateless in the world’s largest democracy.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill was introduced amid opposition protests and government cheers in the Lok Sabha or lower house of Parliament on Monday. It is listed for debate later in the day. The proposed changes will allow citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians who illegally migrated to India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.

Ahead of its introduction Shashi Tharoor of the opposition Congress party spoke against the law, calling it “an assault on the foundational values of our republic.”

”Let me tell you why the need for this bill arose,” Home Minister Amit Shah said in defense of the bill. “When the country got independence if it has not been divided on the basis of religion by the Congress party then this bill would not have been required,” he shouted in anger.

If passed as expected, the move threatens the secular foundation of the world’s second-most populous nation and its constitution that treats all religions equally. As for Modi, it’s a third major move out of his right wing playbook since retaining power earlier this year that adversely affects the country’s Muslim minority population.

On Aug. 5 India scrapped nearly seven decades of autonomy in the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir. Just three weeks later in the northeastern state of Assam some 1.9 million people, mostly Muslims, faced the risk of losing their Indian citizenship as Modi’s government seeks to enforce a National Register of Citizens to weed out illegal migrants. In November, Hindus won the Supreme Court case over a religious site disputed for centuries in northern city of Ayodhya. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party had promised a grand temple there.

“This is a clear sign that the Hindu right in India have been emboldened to push forward with their agenda,” said Katharine Adeney, director of the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute who specializes in South Asia politics and ethnic conflict. “What it will do is to contribute to a growing sense of insecurity for the Muslim populations across India,” Adeney said, noting it was “hugely symbolic and undermines the neutrality of the Indian state to its religious groups.”

Protests

Anas Tanwir is traveling across the country, organizing workshops to raise awareness to ensure people are prepared for the changes, particularly among Muslims and poor sections of society.

“The Citizenship Amendment Bill is the first step toward a change in the nature of the nation,” said Tanwir, a lawyer working against the proposed law who runs the Indian Civil Liberties Union. “This is the government of India saying that India is the custodian of all the Hindus,” he said. “People are either unaware or they are very scared. No one wants to face a this kind of situation.“

The hashtag #CitizenshipAmendmentBill2019 was trending at the top spot on Twitter in India. By late Monday afternoon more than 28,000 people had tweeted about the bill, with many supporting the government and others calling it an attack on the country’s secular constitution.

A group of 900 scientists and scholars have issued a joint statement against the proposed bill saying use of religion as a legal criterion for determining Indian citizenship is disturbing. Activists have organized protest meetings and sit-ins in various cities. If approved by the Parliament, the law is likely to be challenged in the courts.

The government says the changes are intended to protect religious minorities escaping persecution from neighboring Muslim-majority countries. Shah has defended it, saying Muslims do not face persecution in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh and therefore do not qualify. “If someone comes here to earn a livelihood or to disrupt law and order, then they are intruders,” Shah said in recent a TV interview.

Next Move

The changes in citizenship law and the National Registry of Citizens intended to expel illegal immigrants were key election promises by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Shah had clarified in election rallies that Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists don’t have to fear the changes.

When the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens is prepared, people excluded from the list will be required to prove their Indian citizenship before a tribunal or risk detention or deportation. Last month, the government informed the Parliament that 988 so-called foreigners were being held in six detention centers in Assam.

This will be the second attempt by the Modi administration to amend citizenship law. In January, the legislation was passed in the lower house of parliament but lapsed as the upper house didn’t take it up.

(Updates with quotes from the government and opposition in 4th and 5th paragraphs.)

--With assistance from Bibhudatta Pradhan.

To contact the reporter on this story: Upmanyu Trivedi in New Delhi at utrivedi2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Unni Krishnan at ukrishnan2@bloomberg.net, Ruth Pollard, Muneeza Naqvi

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