India Passes Controversial Citizenship Bill That Would Exclude Muslims

Protesters throw stones at security officers during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Gauhati, India, on Wednesday.

Police in northeast India fired tear gas into protesters on Wednesday, as clashes escalated over a controversial citizenship bill passed by parliament.

The legislation, which the Indian president is expected to sign this week, would fast track citizenship for scores of immigrants living in the country — but not Muslims.

On Twitter, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrated passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which would create a citizenship pathway based on religion. Immigrants who came to the country from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh before 2015 and who belong to one of South Asia’s major faiths, would be eligible.

Islam is not included.

“A landmark day for India and our nation’s ethos of compassion and brotherhood,” Modi wrote. “This Bill will alleviate the suffering of many who faced persecution for years.”

Modi and his nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party have made the legislation a top priority.

“We have to distinguish between the infiltrators and genuine persecuted refugees,” said Sudhanshu Trivedi, a spokesman for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. “This is the right time for India to assert its security concerns, because we are living with neighbors which are the biggest security threats in the entire world.”

Milan Vaishnav, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s South Asia program, tells NPR the legislation is reshaping the conception of citizenship central to India’s founding.

“It was seen as a homeland really for the multiplicity of religious groups, of ethnicities that were found throughout the region,” he says in an interview.

That element of the secular democracy took shape as the subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan in 1947.

“So there was at the time, this idea of a two-nation theory, that you would have Pakistan for the Muslims, you’d have India for the Hindus,” Vaishnav says. “And India’s founders really rejected that notion, saying, ‘Well, you can go ahead and create an Islamic homeland, but we’re not going to create the mirror image on the side.”

Today, Muslims account for about 15 percent of India’s population. In fact, the country’s Muslim population is the second-largest in the world.

But with the rise of nationalism in India, Vaishnav says there’s growing support for the idea that India should be governed in a way that best represents the majority community — where “Indian culture and Hindu culture are roughly synonymous.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public rally on the outskirts of Gauhati, India in February, 2019.

“So there’s a question right now of Muslims who find themselves in India, who may have migrated from some of those other countries, who have been living in India for some time,” he says. “What is their future status?”

Vaishnav says he thinks the bill likely is supported overall in India. Modi is popular, and his party just won a second consecutive single-party majority in parliament. Plus, Vaishnav says there are many other issues, like an economic slowdown and contested foreign relations with China and Pakistan, that are more likely to keep the public’s attention.

Still, the bill has generated intense controversy.

In northeast India, authorities shut down Internet access and imposed curfews as protesters burned tires in the streets and blocked highways and rail tracks. Residents have expressed anger over immigrants gaining access to citizenship, worried they will compete for employment and corrupt the culture.

An Indian protester shouts slogans near fire set on a road during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Gauhati, India, on Wednesday.

And on the opposite end of the spectrum, opponents have criticized the bill, not for granting more people citizenship, but for excluding Muslims from that pathway. And that could have big implications.

Some important context: The Indian government recently carried out what it calls the National Register of Citizens. It’s like a census, but so far, it’s only been done in a part of India called Assam, which is heavily populated by immigrants.

As NPR’s Lauren Frayer has reported, 4 million people who thought they were Indian citizens, found themselves unable to prove their citizenship under the new program’s rules — which require documentary proof that they or their ancestors have lived in India since before 1971. Prisons have now sprung up in some regions to detain anyone determined to be an illegal immigrant.

With the new bill passed by parliament, Muslims suddenly without citizenship, many of whose families have lived in India for generations, will not have much recourse.

“In a country like India, which is a really poor country with a relatively weak state, citizenship documents that can authenticate your origins — who you are, where you live — are not ubiquitous. They’re not universal. So does this put at risk potentially a large section of India’s minority population?” Vaishnav said.

That worries many Muslims living in India, particularly in light of comments from one of Modi’s top lieutenants, who has referred to migrants as “termites” and “infiltrators.”

The bill passed Wednesday has also attracted rebuke outside of India. In a statement, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom called the legislation, “a dangerous turn in the wrong direction; it runs counter to India’s rich history of secular pluralism and the Indian Constitution, which guarantees equality before the law regardless of faith.”

Opponents say they will challenge the legislation in court, but in the past the Supreme Court in India has been hesitant to rule quickly on issues that involve the government’s top priorities.

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