NEW DELHI: India’s parliament Wednesday passed a contentious citizenship bill amid violent protests and claims that it discriminates against Muslims as part of the Hindu-nationalist government´s agenda.
The bill will let New Delhi grant citizenship to illegal immigrants who entered India from three neighbouring countries before 2015 — but not if they are Muslim.
The legislation was passed 125-105 by the upper house, after the lower house voted in support of it on Monday. It will be sent to the president to be signed into law, with his approval seen as a formality.
The bill sailed through the lower house with 311 votes in favour and 80 against shortly after midnight on Monday.
It was strongly condemned by Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Foreign Office on Tuesday. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom said it will propose sanctions against senior members of the Indian political leadership if the bill is enacted as law.
The citizenship bill also sparked protests in India’s northeastern states, where residents were unhappy about an influx of Hindus from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Protesters burned tires and blocked highways and rail tracks in India’s remote northeast for a second day on Wednesday as the upper house of parliament began debating the legislation.
The Press Trust of India reported that police fired rubber bullets and used batons and tear gas to disperse protesters in Dibrugarh district in Assam state on Wednesday. Street protests were also reported in Gauhati, the state capital.
The protesters organised an 11-hour shutdown on Tuesday saying they oppose the bill out of concern that more migrants who came to the country illegally will move to the border region and dilute the culture and political sway of indigenous tribal people.
Introducing the bill in the upper house, Home Minister Amit Shah said the bill was not anti-Muslim as it did not affect the existing path to citizenship available to all communities.
“It seeks to address the difficulties of Hindus and other minorities who suffered persecution in Muslim-majority Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan,” he said.
Anand Sharma, a leader of the main opposition Congress party, said the bill was “discriminatory because India’s constitution provides equal opportunities to all communities”. Some opposition members complained the the bill excluded Tamil Hindus who fled Sri Lanka during the civil war.
Meanwhile, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom criticised the bill as going in a wrong direction, against India’s rich history of secular pluralism and the Indian constitution, and sought American sanctions against Home Minister Shah if the bill is passed by both houses of Parliament.