India's citizenship bill fuels anti-Muslim prejudice fears

Indian Home Minister Amit Shah discussing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 at the Indian Rajya Sabha. Screenshot from YouTube video by Rajya Sabha TV.

On 11 December 2019, the Rajya Sabha, India's upper house of Parliament, passed legislation by 125-99 votes that offered citizenship rights to refugees and immigrants from neighbouring countries Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. However, this move came with a caveat that is stoking paranoia throughout the country's 200 million Muslims and minorities — it will only allow non-Muslim immigrants to seek Indian citizenship.

Earlier this week, India's lower house of Parliament approved the bill which drew stark comparisons to Nazi Germany and Hitler from Indian Parliamentarians opposed to the bill.

The bill advocated by right-wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is being argued against by opposition parties including Indian National Congress (INC), Trinamool Congress (TMC), and former Modi ally Shiv Sena.

Former opposition leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted that the bill was against the Indian Constitution's ethos of secularism:

Human Rights Watch mentioned:

“The Indian government is creating legal grounds to strip millions of Muslims of the fundamental right of equal access to citizenship.”

Reactions to the bill have been strong on social media. Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan said:

Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi said:

But, Modi, responsible for bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir and internet shutdowns in the valley since August, tweeted in favor of the bill:

The Citizen Amendment Bill (CAB) in its current form provides a pathway to citizenship for Hindus, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs facing persecution in their home countries, but excludes Muslims. This has created fear among India's already marginalized Muslims about being pushed back as second-class citizens.

“They have no place to go except India. The beneficiaries of the bill can reside in any state of the country,” Home Minister Rajnath Singh told the Parliament on Monday, following a day-long debate.

Critics have pushed back against the amendment for discriminating against Muslims terming it unconstitutional. The law in its current form prevents illegal immigrants from seeking Indian citizenship. The amendment, meanwhile, allows immigrants adhering to six different religions except for Islam from seeking citizenship.

India's constitution, which was inspired by the U.S. Constitution, guarantees everyone equal rights regardless of their religion but the bill violated this fundamental right to equality, opposition leaders said in the Parliament on Monday.

Critics say the bill violates Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, which assures equality before law stating “the state shall not deny to any person equality before the law or equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.”

Home Minister Amit Shah repeatedly announced rolling out a nationwide National Registry for Citizens and was responsible for advocating passage of the law in Parliament, leading the Foreign Affairs Committee of the United States and US Commission on International Religious Freedom to criticize the move and seek out sanctions against Shah calling the bill a ‘dangerous turn in the wrong direction that undermines most basic democratic tenet’.

In response, The Indian government said such an initiative should be welcomed and not criticized by those who are genuinely committed to religious freedom.

Meanwhile, the Assamese from India's North East are also protesting against the bill stating it would threaten the identity of local culture by legalizing Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants.

Ever since his re-election with a thumping majority in May this year, Modi has focused on executing the election issues he promised, including abrogating article 370 which ensured Kashmir's autonomy. From the internet to schools, hospitals to transport, Kashmir (India's only Muslim majority former state and now a union territory) has been under lockdown and thousands of soldiers patrol its streets and protests are silenced with violence.

Read Our Special Coverage: Inside Kashmir's crisis

Another shot in the arm for Modi was the Supreme Court verdict that critics say favoured Hindus over Muslims in the infamous 1993 Babri Masjid demolition case.

The bill, popularly known as CAB has also excluded other minorities escaping religious/political persecution including Tibetans, Tamils, and Rohingyas.

Anghshuman Choudhury writes in Mumbai Mirror:

“The CAB is another example of BJP's deeply cynical and divisive politics. It makes a mockery of India's constitution.”

Earlier this year, India's government declared 1.9 million people stateless after a citizens registry audit, mostly Muslims, forcing them into detention camps. Modi, under whose tenure, India's economy has fallen to 4.5 percent from 7 percent a year earlier has focused on ‘influx immigrants’ narrative after failed economic decisions stymied Asia's third-largest economy into a slowdown.

Modi and Shah have announced replicating the citizen's registry nationwide with a focus on removing ‘infiltrators’ by 2024 when India is ready for another general election.

Two-nation theory:

Shah also said the bill would not be necessary if Congress had not consented to partition of India on the basis of religion. But, the argument, which many parliamentarians used in the upper house is flawed as all founders of a democratic India wanted a secular India with equal protection to all citizens.

Human rights activist Harsh Mander called for a countrywide protest against the bill:

India's Economic Times noted:

The CAB ringfences Muslim identity by declaring India a welcome refuge to all other religious communities. It seeks to legally establish Muslims as second-class citizens of India by providing preferential treatment to other groups. This violates the Constitution’s Article 14, the fundamental right to equality to all persons. This basic structure of the Constitution cannot be reshaped by any Parliament. And yet, the government maintains that it does not discriminate or violate the right to equality to all persons. This basic structure of the Constitution cannot be reshaped by any Parliament. And yet, the government maintains that it does not discriminate or violate the right to equality.

As India continues to enact more policies excluding Muslims and minorities, political animosity deepens and threatens its secular credentials.

Read our special coverage: Who is paying the cost of India’s declining democracy? for more details on the protests against the citizenship laws in India.

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