Citizenship Bill gets Lok Sabha nod after fierce day-long debate
The Lok Sabha passed on Tuesday a controversial bill that grants citizenship to religious minorities from three Muslim-majority countries in India’s neighbourhood after a fierce nine-hour debate in which Opposition parties alleged the draft legislation violated the Constitution by linking faith to citizenship.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) 2019 seeks to amend the 1955 Citizenship Act by granting citizenship to Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis and Jains who entered India from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan on or before December 31, 2014.
The bill passed the Lower House 311-80 at 12.04am on Tuesday after a debate that began around 4.30pm.
Watch | After heated debate, Citizenship Bill clears Lok Sabha, RS hurdle next
Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the passage of the bill. “This bill is in line with India’s centuries old ethos of assimilation and belief in humanitarian values,” he tweeted minutes after the bill cleared the Lok Sabha.
Union home minister Amit Shah introduced the bill in the Lower House after the government won the motion 293-82, and said the CAB had the endorsement of 1.3 billion Indians because the promise was a prominent part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) election manifesto in 2014 and 2019.
“If minorities are getting persecuted in neighbouring countries, we cannot be mute spectators. We have to ensure their safety and dignity,” Shah said.
“We will have to differentiate between intruders and refugees. The Citizenship amendment bill does not discriminate against anyone and does not snatch anyone’s rights,” Shah said.
The minister said that under the proposed legislation, citizenship will be granted to refugees without even documents, including ration cards, and blamed the Congress for Partition. “It was the Congress that divided the country on religious lines, not us,” he said.
But a furious Opposition blamed the government for violating the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution and said the Centre was trying to subvert the country’s secular democracy by favouring one religion over another.
Senior Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said that the bill violated the basic spirit of the Constitution and infringed on Article 14, which guarantees equality before law. “The very principle of India is that it is a country for all people of all religion. That has been violated by specifying only certain religion of people who will be eligible for citizenship.” His party colleague and fellow MP Manish Tewari said the bill was “unconstitutional”. “Equals cannot be treated as unequal. When a person comes to India, he is a refugee. You cannot discriminate against him on the basis of religion,” he said.
“The bill is against the Constitution, against the spirit of Constitution and against the ideology propounded by Babasaheb Ambedkar,” Tewari added.
Shah dismissed the criticism, noting that India has given similar rights to people in the past,
Shah said Manmohan Singh and LK Advani could become prime minister and deputy prime minister, respectively, due to such provisions after they came from present-day Pakistan.
He also pointed out that former prime minister Indira Gandhi had granted citizenship to refugees from Bangladesh in 1971, when a war of freedom had broken out in the neighbouring country. “This bill is not even .001 per cent against Muslims. It is against infiltrators,” he said.
Shah also announced that Manipur, a state that had erupted in protest against a previous version of the bill, would be brought under the inner-line permit (ILP) regime, where outsiders require prior clearance to visit an area.
Areas with ILP – which exist in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram – are exempt from the CAB. Also exempt are areas under the sixth schedule of the Constitution – which deals with autonomous tribal-dominated regions in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. Shortly after Shah’s announcement, protest and shutdown calls by local groups in Manipur were withdrawn. The minister also held out assurances for the northeast, which has been roiled by protests and shutdowns since the CAB was cleared by the Union Cabinet last week. Hundreds of men and women have spilled out on the streets in protest, burning tyres and shouting slogans saying they are opposed to the entry of any immigrants, irrespective of religion. “There is no reason to get alarmed, there is no need to protest, we want to move forward in peace,” Shah said.
The nine-hour debate revolved around three key themes.
The first was constitutional rights and provisions. The Opposition alleged that the bill violated fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution, especially Article 14 that guarantees equality of all citizens before law.
But Shah’s response was that the provision allowed for reasonable classification, which the government fulfilled by not legislating in favour of any particular faith or community but religious minorities facing persecution – which comprised six faiths.
The second was the rights of minorities in India.
The Opposition said the bill discriminated against Muslims and linked faith to citizenship. Shah responded by saying that the bill had nothing to do with Muslims who were citizens of India, and blamed the Congress for dividing India on the basis of religion. He also presented data on persecution of Hindus and other minority faiths in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
The third was the North-east.
The Opposition alleged that the National Register of Citizens exercise, aimed at detecting illegal immigrants, had failed and that protests had broken out throughout the region because the CAB favoured Hindu immigrants.
Shah said that the exemptions already ensured that most vulnerable regions of the northeast were kept out of the ambit of the bill, and added that his government was committed to the welfare of indigenous communities. “We will never touch Article 371 [which has special provisions to the region].” As the debate went on, tempers flared in the House. All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi tore a copy of the bill and called it an insult to India’s freedom fighters. “The bill is against the Constitution.... It is a conspiracy to make Muslims stateless,” Owaisi said.
Surpriya Sule of the Nationalist Congress Party said the perception was that every Muslim was feeling insecure and the largest minority community should not feel left out. The BJP’s former ally, the Shiv Sena, said that people who get Indian citizenship under the proposed law should not be granted voting rights for 25 years.
Trinamool Congress MP Abhishek Banerjee said his party’s idea of India was “inclusive”. “Our India smiles. Your idea of India is based on mob lynching,” he said.
Sukhbir Badal of the Shiromani Akali Dal, a BJP ally, suggested that the names of some Muslim sects be added to the bill. “There are cases of Muslims being persecuted within their religion,” he said. The bill now moves to the Rajya Sabha, where the government doesn’t command a majority but has been successful in piloting bills such as the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act and the The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2019.
The Opposition is likely to work on a two-pronged strategy in the Rajya Sabha against the proposed amendments to the Citizenship Act. According to people familiar with the matter, it will try to stop the passage of the bill, but in the likely situation of their numbers falling short of a majority, it will press for its review by a Select Committee. The Congress, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and the Left parties have already prepared drafts of their individual motions, the people added.