India’s Hindu nationalist government has passed a controversial law that grants citizenship to illegal immigrants from neighboring countries — as long as they aren’t Muslim.
The move has sparked fierce criticism, with opponents saying the bill diminishes the status of Muslims in India and undermines the country’s secular constitution. But the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi argues the bill will protect religious minorities fleeing persecution in their homelands.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which passed India’s upper house Wednesday and will become law once signed by the president, gives a path to citizenship for immigrants who illegally entered India from three neighboring Muslim-majority countries — Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. But immigrants will only be eligible for the amnesty if they're from non-Muslim religious minorities in those countries.
Critics have slammed the law as a dangerous assertion of Modi’s Hindu nationalist ideology, one that contravenes India’s secular constitution by awarding nationality on the grounds of an explicitly non-Muslim religious identity. A group representing India’s 200 million-strong Muslim minority — which already fears it is being marginalized by the BJP’s stridently Hindu nationalist policies — has launched a petition against the bill in the Supreme Court, arguing the legislation is unconstitutional.
“These are deeply worrying developments,” Champa Patel, head of the Asia-Pacific program at Chatham House think tank, told VICE News.
“It is not the first time the BJP has been accused of using their political power to advance anti-Muslim rhetoric and agenda, but these recent developments show how their majoritarian agenda risks fundamentally changing the nature of what it means to be an Indian.”
The BJP, which was re-elected in a landslide in May, espouses a nationalist ideology the diverse country of 1.3 billion people as, above all, a Hindu nation. In August, Modi’s government stripped Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, of its autonomy, and last month, India’s top court gave permission for Hindus to build a temple at Ayodhya, a disputed holy site where a 16th-century mosque was burned to the ground by Hindu extremists in 1992.
Meanwhile, fears that the legislation could usher in a flood of immigrants have triggered violent protests in the northeastern states of Assam and Tripura. In response, the government deployed troops, imposed a curfew and suspended internet services.
“For these local activists and communities, the issue is that they don’t want any people they perceive as foreigners, no matter what their religious background,” said Patel.
Senior BJP figures have defended the law by claiming it will provide sanctuary to minorities facing religious persecution in neighboring countries.
"It is well known that those minorities who chose to make Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan their home had to constantly live in the fear of extinction," India's Home Minister Amit Shah said on Twitter, adding that the bill would “allow India to extend them dignity and an opportunity to rebuild their lives."
But human rights groups have questioned that justification, saying the bill’s explicitly non-Muslim framing means it excludes persecuted Muslim minorities, such as Pakistan’s Ahmadiyya community or Myanmar’s Rohingya.
“The Indian government’s claim that the citizenship law aims to protect religious minorities rings hollow,” Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch’s South Asia director, said in a statement.
“The bill uses the language of refuge and sanctuary, but discriminates on religious grounds in violation of international law.”
Cover: Indian students and activists shout slogans during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in Gauhati, India, Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. More than 1,000 students marched Friday in India’s northeast against a bill approved by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to grant citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from India's three Muslim-majority neighbors. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)