Bill to give migrants Indian nationality on basis of religion draws ire

Move’s exclusion of undocumented Muslim immigrants angers Opposition leaders

Indian opposition leaders strongly criticised prime minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government on Thursday over its approval of a controversial Bill seeking to grant nationality to illegal immigrants on the basis of their religion.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill, likely to be tabled in parliament early next week, aims to grant citizenship to all undocumented non-Muslim immigrants who came to India from neighbouring Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, before the end of December in 2014.

Approved by the BJP’s federal cabinet on Wednesday, the Bill applies exclusively to minorities in neighbouring countries including Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Parsis and members of the ancient ascetic Jain community, all of whom may have clandestinely entered India from Muslim-majority states before the stipulated date.

The governing Hindu nationalists have pointedly excluded all Muslims from the Bill’s provisions.


Persecuted minorities

"If religious minorities are being persecuted in those countries, it is our duty to deliver justice to them" federal defence minister Rajnath Singh told a meeting of BJP MPs on Thursday. The move should not be linked to any religion, he added.

The Bill’s provisions were part of the BJP’s manifesto before India’s 2014 general election, which the party won with a comfortable majority.

The BJP subsequently debated the Bill in 2016, but abandoned it after an alliance partner objected and protests erupted against it in several of India's remote northeastern states bordering Myanmar and Bangladesh, where the party was trying to secure a political foothold.

The Bill featured once more in the BJP’s manifesto ahead of the 2019 general election in May, which the party also won, securing even more parliamentary seats than it did in 2014.

Opposition leaders have criticised the Bill as anti-Muslim and many said they would vote against it in the Rajya Sabha, or upper house, where the BJP is not in a majority and could face defeat. But senior BJP leaders were confident of victory, having succeeded in securing sufficient opposition support in the past to get controversial legislation adopted.

Tenets of secularism

The Bill is certain to sail through the Lok Sabha or Lower House of parliament where the BJP enjoys a comfortable majority, but needs ratification by both houses before it becomes law.

"Citizenship cannot be determined by or linked to religion," said Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Marxist Party. He said the Bill violated India's basic tenets of secularism. Opposition Congress Party MP Shashi Tharoor said religion could not determine nationhood.

BJP spokesman GVL Narsimha Rao, however, argued the Bill was in “consonance with the spirit and soul of the Indian constitution and in no way discriminated against any native citizen”.

The Bill does not apply to select tribal zones in India’s seven northeastern states where many Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh live. The BJP is reluctant to politically alienate the region.

Rahul Bedi

Rahul Bedi

Rahul Bedi is a contributor to The Irish Times based in New Delhi