Updated at 5:02 p.m. ET on 2019-01-08
India’s lower house of parliament passed a controversial bill Tuesday that would grant citizenship to Hindus and other non-Muslims facing faith-based persecution in Bangladesh and other Islamic majority neighboring countries.
The passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill ignited protests in northeastern India by anti-immigrant indigenous groups, which said the legislation could marginalize them. India’s political opposition also criticized the bill for being based on religion and excluding Muslims, who represent the largest religious minority in the predominantly Hindu nation.
“The burden of those persecuted migrants will be shared by the whole country,” Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh, of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said as he introduced the bill in the Lok Sabha, parliament’s lower house or the House of the People.
The bill was needed to safeguard the interests of immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who had lived in India for many years, Singh said.
The bills aims to amend the 1955 Citizenship Act so as to allow Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians, who have fled persecution and lived in India for at least six years, to become citizens.
“The bill is not against the provisions of the Constitution and will give succor to persecuted minorities in three neighboring countries as they have no place to go to, except India,” the home minister said.
Opposition parties, including the Congress party and Trinamool Congress, said the bill should be secular and country neutral. The bill violates the secular principles of the Indian constitution, as well as the charter’s Article 14, which guarantees equality to all, the bill’s opponents said.
“Make the bill secular. Apart from six communities the bill should also include persecuted Muslims. The bill is a reflection of a divisive agenda of the ruling party,” Saugata Roy, a lawmaker from the Trinamool Congress party, told parliament.
The BJP leads a coalition that controls the lower house, but the ruling bloc does not have a majority in the Raj Sabha, parliament’s upper house or Council of States. The upper house would have to approve the bill and then send it to the president for his approval before it can become law.
Political observers view this legislative push by the BJP government as a strategy to boost the party’s prospects for creating a Hindu vote bank ahead of a general election due by April 2019.
Protests in Assam
The bill’s passage in the lower house provoked a second day of related protests in Assam state, which shares a 263-km (163.4-mile) border with Bangladesh.
“Each and every Bangladeshi has to leave Assam. There cannot be a selective approach. We are committed to protect the Assam Accord, which stipulates that anyone illegally entering Assam has to be deported to the countries of origin,” Atul Bora of Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), an anti-immigrant group that quit its alliance with the BJP on Monday in protest over the bill, told BenarNews.
He was referring to both Hindu and Muslim Bangladeshis as well as a 1985 accord that deemed any person who had entered the state from Bangladesh after March 24, 1971 as illegal immigrants.
Assam also recently published a draft Citizens’ Register, by which as many as four million people could not provide documents to prove they were living there before 1971. A deadline to refile applications to be included in the National Register of Citizens expired this past New Year’s Eve. A final list is expected to be published by June this year.
A ploy ‘to dump illegal Bangladeshis in Assam’
Illegal migration is a sensitive issue in the northeast, where local tribes and ethnic groups want outsiders to keep stay away.
The North East Students' Organization (NESO) called an 11-hour strike across India’s seven northeastern states. Its members vandalized BJP party offices in several places in Assam, reports said. In Agartala, the capital of nearby Tripura state, at least five persons were injured during a clash between police and striking supporters in Khumulwng district, according to reports.
“The bill is a ploy by the BJP-led government to dump illegal Bangladeshis in Assam and the North East. Ignoring people’s sentiment, the Modi government has passed the bill. We will go to any length to safeguard the interests of indigenous people of the region,” Samujjal Bhattacharya, an adviser to the influential All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), which is spearheading the protests against the bill, told BenarNews.
According to Bora, of the anti-immigrant AGP, if the bill is enacted “it would give the right of Indian citizenship to over 150,000 Bangladeshi Hindus who are currently residing in Assam and many more that would enter without any valid documents.”
“That would mean the loss of jobs for the local Assamese population and loss of our culture to Bengali-speaking immigrants,” Bora said.
The AGP is linked to a local student group, which spearheaded anti-Bangladeshi agitation that led to the deaths of nearly 2,200 people in the early 1980s. The violence ended with the signing of the Assam Accord between the government and AASU.
“BJP is a communal party and they want to implement the notorious agenda to divide people on religious lines. Granting citizenship to only Hindus who migrated from Bangladesh is a step toward that,” Hafiz Ahmed, president of the Char Chapori Organization, which works for the development of people living in the river-border areas, told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, Sahadev Das, president of the Assam chapter of the Nikhil Bharat Bengali Udbastu Samanay Samiti, an Assam-based organization that fights for the cause of Bangladeshi Hindus, said religious persecution in Bangladesh made it “impossible for Hindus to go back.”
“For years we have been demanding that Bangladeshi Hindus be granted not just refugee status, but Indian citizenship. By allowing Bangladeshi Hindus to continue to stay in India without valid papers, India has come half way to fulfill that demand,” Das told BenarNews.
Correction: An earlier version mischaracterized the North East Students' Organization.