NEW DELHI – In a historic move, Parliament on Wednesday gave its assent to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 as it passed the Rajya Sabha test even as violent public protests broke out in North Eastern states particularly in Assam and Tripura over opposition to the Bill.
The controversial legislation, which has been fiercely resisted by opposition parties for being unconstitutional and discriminatory, will now need President Ram Nath Kovind’s assent for it to become a law.
During the voting in Rajya Sabha on Wednesday, 125 votes went in favour of the Bill while 105 went against out of the total 209 who were present and voting in Rajya Sabha. Despite the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) being in minority in the Upper House, the bill got passed over support by friendly parties, with the Shiv Sena walking out of the voting process.
“This bill is not to hurt anyone or person of any religion. There will be no injustice caused to the Muslims of our country. CAB will not hurt citizenship of Muslims. It is about granting citizenship and not taking away their citizenship,” Home Minister Amit Shah said in his concluding remarks.
The debate in Rajya Sabha, which lasted over seven hours, saw the Opposition and treasury benches lock horns over the constitutional validity of the proposed amendments.
Responding to the Opposition’s arguments, Shah responded saying that the Bill had been introduced to right the historic wrongs that the Partition had caused.
“When the country’s main religion is Islam, there are fewer chances of persecution of Muslims in that country. But even so, if they want to apply for citizenship citing persecution, we have the provision to grant them citizenship too. Our definition of minority is not so narrow,” Union home minister Amit Shah informed the Upper House, Wednesday evening, adding that, “We are not segregating one minority – but sections of minority where they are in danger of being persecuted. Based on a reasonable classification, this law has been proposed.”
However, hitting out at the Centre for segregating on religious lines, former Union minister and senior Congress member P. Chidambaram said, “How do you group three countries and leave out the rest? How do you categorise six religious groups and leave out the rest? Why have you excluded Sri Lankan Hindus and Bhutanese Christians? And why only religious persecution…are people not persecuted on political and linguistic grounds?”
The Bill aims to provide citizenship to those who had been forced to seek shelter in India because of religious persecution or fear of persecution in their home countries, primarily Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. This is a drastic shift from the provisions of the Citizenship Act of 1955 that labels a person an “illegal immigrant” if he or she has entered India without travel documents or has overstayed the date specified in the documents.
The bill thus amends the 1955 Act to grant exemptions to illegal migrants from these communities, who reached India on or before December 2014.
As the Upper House erupted in protests with the Opposition parties alleging that the Bill was discriminatory, Shah reiterated, earlier in the day, that the changes to India’s citizenship law will not be applicable to regions in the North East protected by the Inner Line Permit and Sixth Schedule provisions. Both regimes aim to protect the way of life of tribal communities.
India’s Muslims Need Not Worry: Amit Shah
After getting the bill passed in the Lok Sabha, Union Minister Amit Shah on Wednesday tabled the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in the Rajya Sabha and referred to the NDA’s manifesto promise before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Shah said that the manifesto of the BJP and its allies clearly mentioned the bill and the country voted for the party on the basis of the promises made in the manifesto. “The people of the country supported this decision.”
The 2019 ‘Sankalp Patra’ by the BJP said the following with respect to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill:
We are committed to the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Bill for the protection of individuals of religious minority communities from neighbouring countries escaping persecution. We will make all efforts to clarify the issues to the sections of population from the Northeastern states who have expressed apprehensions regarding the legislation. We reiterate our commitment to protect the linguistic, cultural and social identity of the people of Northeast. Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs escaping persecution from India’s neighbouring countries will be given citizenship in India.
The manifesto did not explicitly mention the neighbouring countries.
Further, the Home Minister said there’s a misconception that the bill is against the Muslim community. “No Muslim in India needs to worry about this bill,” he said while adding that there is no discussion about the Indian Muslims in this bill.
“Muslims in the country are and will remain the citizens of the country. They need not fear anything. But should we make Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Indian citizens? That’s not how the country is run. This bill is for a specific group — minorities from neighbouring nations,” he added.
Opposition parties have vociferously criticised the bill as a violation of the right to equality guaranteed India’s Constitution.
The bill was passed in the Lok Sabha around midnight on Monday with 311 members voting in favour and 80 against it.
According to the proposed legislation, members of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities, who have come from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, facing religious persecution there, will not be treated as illegal immigrants but given Indian citizenship.
While introducing the bill in the Lower House, Shah had said that the bill is “not even .001% against minorities in the country”. He added that to understand the bill, there’s a need to look carefully at the Constitutions of the three countries — Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Article 2 states in The Constitution of Afghanistan, he said, that Islam is the religion of the country and there are similar provisions in the Constitutions of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
He said that because “Muslims are in majority in these three countries, applying for citizenship on the grounds of religious persecution is out of the question.”
If a Muslim from these three countries applies for citizenship, it will be considered with an open mind, he said, while adding, “The person, however, won’t get benefit of this amendment as the person has not faced religious persecution.”
Assam Goes Up In Flames With Violent Anti-CAB Protests
Assam turned into a battleground on Wednesday with massive and violent protests across the state against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, but the government pushed the contentious legislation through Parliament overruling a vociferous Opposition that alleged it was against the idea of India as a secular nation.
As thousands of people including students hit the streets in Assam, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas shells and baton-charged the protesters leaving many of them injured, while curfew was imposed in Guwahati and a clampdown on internet services was announced across several districts of the state.
Similar protests rocked several other North-Eastern states, but the bill was passed by majority later in the evening in Rajya Sabha after a hours-long debate, two days after it was cleared in Lok Sabha. The bill now requires President’s signature to become a law.
Army deployment was announced in Tripura and Assam, where the influx of Bangladeshi immigrants has always been an emotive issue for natives of the state. The Centre also airlifted 5,000 paramilitary personnel to Northeastern states, including Assam, for maintenance of law and order duties.
Agitated students, protesting against the proposed law that seeks to grant Indian citizenship to all but Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, blocked road and rail traffic, pulled down barricades and even lobbed back the shells fired at them by the police.
A motorcycle rally was also organised against the bill, while discarded tyres, wooden logs and vehicles were set on fire as chaos prevailed on highways.
They also damaged a stage erected for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposed summit meeting with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe on Sunday, while pulling down hoardings and banners advertising the government’s welfare schemes and made a bonfire of those before the secretariat.
Though no single party or student body had officially called for a shutdown, the protesters fought pitched battles with security forces in the restive state, including in front of the secretariat, the seat of the state’s BJP government, plunging the state into chaos of a magnitude unseen since the violent 6-year movement by students that ended with the signing of the Assam accord in 1985.
Anti-CAB protests were also held in the national capital at Jantar Mantar and in several other parts of the country, even as the government strongly pushed for the bill in Rajya Sabha despite vociferous opposition by several parties who alleged the proposed law was a direct attack on the Indian Constitution and on the country’s secular character.
The RSS, meanwhile, readied plans to launch a nationwide campaign in favour of the proposed law, with a top functionary saying the bill would have a limited impact in Assam but will benefit more than 1.5 crore people across the country, including over 72 lakh in West Bengal itself.
The RSS and BJP leaders said the persecuted Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists who have been staying in India for a decade will benefit and asserted that that they are “natural citizens” of the country.
After getting the bill passed in Lok Sabha on Monday, Home Minister Amit Shah made a strong pitch for its passage in Rajya Sabha while rejecting a strong opposition by several parties and sought to return the criticism towards the Congress saying this legislation got necessitated because of partition at the time of independence.
He also said the government wants to assure people of Assam that it was committed to preserving language and culture of the state.
Leading the charge from Congress, senior leader Anand Sharma termed the bill anti-constitutional and said manifesto of any political party cannot override the Constitution.
Terming it “divisive and discriminatory”, Sharma said the bill is against the preamble of the Constitution which talks about “liberty, equality and secularism”.
his party colleague Ghulam Nabi Azad asked the BJP if the entire country was happy with the proposed legislation, why protests were taking place in Assam, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland.
Kapil Sibal said, “Those who have no idea of India cannot protect the idea of India. Don’t convert Indian republic into jurassic of republic where there are two dinosaurs.”
Shah, however, hit back and alleged that the statements made by the Congress leaders on this bill are similar to those from Pakistan. He said the bill was about giving citizenship and not about taking it away from any Indian citizen including Muslims.
At a BJP parliamentary party meeting, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also said some parties spoke Pakistan’s language without “changing a comma or full stop”, and asserted that the proposed law will be written in “golden letters” in history.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi called the bill’s passage a victory of “bigoted forces” over India’s pluralism.
In Assam, the state government officials said internet services were being suspended in ten districts to prevent misuse of social media in disturbing peace and tranquillity, and to maintain law and order.
According to student leaders who went live on national TV, many agitators were injured in police action in front of the secretariat.
All senior civil and police officials were incommunicado but, according to unofficial accounts, hundreds of protesters have been detained in Guwahati, Dibrugarh and Jorhat.
Several universities had to postpone examinations scheduled for Wednesday in Assam.