India’s government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP),has tabled a bill in parliament which offers amnesty and citizenship to non-Muslim illegal immigrants from three neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
While the government says this will give sanctuary to people fleeing religious persecution, critics say the bill is part of a BJP agenda to marginalise Muslims.
The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) will be a test for the ruling party, which commands a majority in the lower house but is short of numbers in the upper house of parliament. A bill needs to be ratified by both houses to become a law.
The bill has already prompted widespread protests in the north-east of the country which borders Bangladesh, as people there feel that they will be “overrun” by immigrants from across the border.
The CAB amends the 64-year-old Indian Citizenship law, which currently prohibits illegal migrants from becoming Indian citizens.
It defines illegal immigrants as foreigners who enter India without a valid passport or travel documents, or stay beyond the permitted time. Illegal immigrants can be deported or jailed.
The new bill also amends a provision which says a person must have lived in India or worked for the federal government for at least 11 years before they can apply for citizenship.
Now, there will be an exception for members of six religious minority communities – Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian – if they can prove that they are from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh. They will only have to live or work in India for six years to be eligible for citizenship by naturalisation.
Opponents of the bill say it is exclusionary and violates the secular principles enshrined in the constitution. They say faith cannot be made a condition of citizenship.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination against its citizens, and guarantees all persons equality before the law and equal protection of the law.
Delhi-based lawyer Gautam Bhatia says that by dividing alleged migrants into Muslims and non-Muslims, the bill “explicitly and blatantly, seeks to enshrine religious discrimination into law, contrary to our long-standing, secular constitutional ethos”.
Critics say that if it is genuinely aimed at protecting minorities, the bill should have have included Muslim religious minorities who have faced persecution in their own countries – Ahmadis in Pakistan and Rohingyas in Myanmar, for example. (The government has gone to the Supreme Court seeking deportation of Rohingya refugees from India.)
Defending the bill, senior BJP leader Ram Madhav said, “no country in the world accepts illegal migration.For all others about whom the bleeding hearts’ are complaining, Indian citizenship laws are there. Naturalised citizenship is an option for others who legally claim Indian citizenship. All other illegal [immigrants]will be infiltrators,” he added.
Also defending the bill earlier this year, RJagannathan, editorial director of Swarajya magazine, wrote that “the exclusion of Muslims from the ambit of the Bill’s coverage flows from the obvious reality that the three countries are Islamist ones, either as stated in their own constitutions, or because of the actions of militant Islamists, who target the minorities for conversion or harassment”.
The Citizen Amendment Bill was first introduced in parliament in July 2016.
The legislation cleared parliament’s lower house where the BJP has a large majority, but it did not pass the upper house, after violent anti-migrant protests in north eastern India. (Source: BBC)