Parliament on Wednesday passed a bill granting citizenship to religious minorities from three Muslim-majority countries in India’s neighbourhood, as the government rushed troops to the North-east to contain protesters who went on a rampage against the controversial legislation that opposition parties called divisive and unconstitutional.
After a seven-hour debate, the Rajya Sabha passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, or CAB, 125-99. The Lok Sabha had cleared the bill shortly after midnight on Tuesday, 334-106. It will become law once President Ram Nath Kovind formally gives his assent to the bill.
“A landmark day for India and our nation’s ethos of compassion and brotherhood...this bill will alleviate the suffering of many who faced persecution for years,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said.
The CAB seeks to amend the 1955 Citizenship Act by bestowing citizenship to Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis and Jains who entered India from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan on or before December 31, 2014. This was a key election promise of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 and 2019.
“This bill is to give citizenship, not to take away citizenship; the citizenship of Indian Muslims is not being taken away,” home minister Amit Shah said in the Upper House.
He also attacked the Congress, which opposed the bill, and alleged that the principal opposition party was speaking the language of Pakistan. “Partition happened on the basis of religion. It was a blunder, which forced me to introduce this bill,” he added.
The Congress said it will continue to fight the bill. “Today marks a dark day in the constitutional history of India. The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill marks the victory of narrow-minded and bigoted forces over India’s pluralism,” said party chief Sonia Gandhi.
The passage of the bill in the Rajya Sabha is a big victory for the BJP, which doesn’t command a majority in the Upper House but cobbled together the numbers. This is the third prominent legislation – after the Jammu & Kashmir Reorganisation Act and the The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act, 2019 – where the BJP has outmanoeuvred the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha.
At least 43 amendments moved by opposition parties – including one on sending the bill to a parliamentary select panel -- were defeated.
A number of opposition leaders attacked the government over the CAB, with senior Congress leaders Kapil Sibal, Anand Sharma, and P Chidambaram claiming that it violated Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees equality before the law.
Chidambaram charged the government with “wrecking and demolishing” the Constitution and expressed confidence that the judiciary would strike down the law.
“This [bill] is a slap on the face of Parliament... I am afraid this government is ramming through this bill in order to advance its Hindutva agenda,” he said.
Sibal said that the Congress opposed the bill as religion could not be the basis for citizenship. He also said that he was disturbed by Shah’s statement in the Lok Sabha that blamed the Congress for Partition, and said he failed to understand in which history book Shah had read this. “You are going to make the two-nation theory a reality by passing this bill,” said the former Union minister.
Sharma said the proposed legislation was “divisive”, “discriminatory” and against the fundamentals of the Constitution. “Every political party has the right to have its own manifesto. But the manifesto of any political party cannot be above the Constitution,” he said.
The Congress hinted at moving the courts on the issue. “It is my considered opinion, it is a highly suspect legislation on the grounds of Articles 19, 21 and 25, basic structure and several other aspects and deserves to be challenged. I have no doubt it will be challenged,” Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi said. Article 19 deals with freedom of speech, 21 deals with the right to life and liberty and 25 pertains to the freedom of religion.
The controversial legislation has sharply polarised opinion across India, especially in the north-eastern states where tens of thousands of people marched on the streets for the third straight day.
Protesters stormed barricades, ring-fenced senior politicians, and clashed with police, plunging the state into chaos of a magnitude unseen since the violent six-year movement by students ended with the signing of the Assam accord in 1985.
Although no party or student body called a shutdown, protesters, a majority of them students, fought pitched battles with security forces across the state, including in front of the secretariat, the seat of the BJP state government. Outnumbered police personnel fired tear gas shells and baton-charged protesters, who fought back.
To contain the protests, the administration suspended internet services for 24 hours in 10 districts of Assam, including Guwahati, and also clamped prohibitory orders restricting movement of people or assembly of more than four people. There is already a 48-hour ban on mobile internet in the other hotbed of protest, Tripura.
The Centre airlifted 5,000 paramilitary troops to areas where violence has been reported or intelligence agencies suspect further disturbance in coming days.
A previous version of the bill in 2016 sparked violent clashes in the North-east, which has, for long, demanded protections for its indigenous culture and people, and asked for the expulsion of all immigrants.
To assuage these sentiments, the current bill exempts areas with inner line permit (ILP) –which mandate prior permission for non-locals and exist in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram – and regions under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution – which deals with autonomous tribal-dominated regions in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram.
But violent clashes that roiled the northeast indicated that activists and civil society were still not satisfied with the provisions.
“The people are determined and we are determined against CAB. The CAB must go,” said Samujjal Bhattacharya, the chief adviser of All Assam Students Union.
In the Rajya Sabha, a number of opposition parties termed the bill unconstitutional. Senior Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’Brien said it would be challenged in the Supreme Court. He alleged that through the CAB and National Register of Citizens (NRC), the ruling party wanted to alienate genuine Indians from their own country. “We will not let it happen anywhere in the country,” he added.
BJP leader JP Nadda said that the country was divided on religious lines and the essence of this bill was to protect minorities being persecuted in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. “When they are persecuted on the basis of their religion, then solution will be based on religion only,” he said.
In his reply, Shah said the CAB will neither do any injustice to India’s minorities not will it hurt anyone’s sentiments. He also rejected Sibal’s allegation that the bill undermines the ‘Idea of India’.
“The Idea of India is being explained to me. I have seven generations born here. I have not come from abroad. We are born in this country. We will die here,” he said.
He also rejected the accusation that the legislation violated Article 14, which guarantees equality before the law, and said the provision allowed for reasonable classification.
“We are not granting citizenship to any particular religion. We are taking them as a class consisting of people of every minority religion. We will grant citizenship to the class,” said Shah.