By Bijay Kumar Minj
Widespread protests continue in northeast India after the government passed a controversial bill this week to grant citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from neighboring nations.
Critics have blasted the move as being politically motivated in an election year — the general election is due in the coming months as the ruling party’s term ends in May — and say it violates the country’s secular values.
The Lower House of parliament (Lok Sabha) passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 on Jan. 8 as an amendment of the Citizens Act of 1955. It aims to offer Indian citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who illegally moved to India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan prior to Dec. 31, 2014.
“The church does not promote nor endorse the bill because it goes against the sentiments of local people who are against it. This bill will adversely affect them,” said Archbishop John Moolachira of Guwahati in northeastern Assam state.
Thousands of people in seven northeastern states have been protesting the bill’s passage since Jan. 7 when it was tabled in parliament. Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the bill as a form of atonement for the wrongs committed during India’s partition in 1947, which led to the creation of Pakistan.
The protests turned violent in several areas on Jan. 8 as mobs targeted the offices of Modi’s pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). At least six people were injured in clashes, three of them critically, when police fired at a crowd in Agarthala, the capital of Tripura state, local media reported.
Despite the protests, the government passed the bill during the final session of parliament before the polls. Critics say it is a tool to appease Hindu voters ahead of the poll.
The bill satisfies a longstanding demand by pro-Hindu groups, who wanted it to check the growth of the Muslim population because of an influx of migrants from Bangladesh.
No reliable data is available on how many migrants have entered India but a statement made in parliament in 2004 shows that at least 12 million people from Bangladesh are now living in the country, at least half of whom are Muslims.
The decision to exclude Muslims violates a constitutional guarantee to not discriminate against people based on their religion, according to regional parties who are continuing their protests. Moreover, the new law would change the demography of the region, they say.
It “will set fire to Assam and the Northeast. There is no objection to [admitting] refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan, but make this a secular bill. Why mention only six religions? Don’t just limit it to three countries,” Saugata Ray, the Trinamool Congress Party’s MP for Dum Dum in West Bengal state, told the media during an address in New Delhi.
The party governs West Bengal. Archbishop Moolachira called the bill “a political stunt.”
The prelate said “local people are against it because it targets a particular community, which is not just. Our rules and regulations should treat all people equally irrespective of caste, creed and religion.”
Christians form a majority in Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland, three northeastern states where Hindus represent less than 10 percent of the population. Nearly a third of the population in Arunachal Pradesh are Christian while another third is Hindu, with the rest mostly following tribal religions.
Among the other states in the region, only in Tripura do Hindus hold a strong majority of more than 80 percent. They comprise 61 percent of the population in Assam and just 41 percent in Manipur. Assam Gana Parishad, the BJP’s coalition partner, parted ways with the ruling party when the bill was tabled.
Representatives of the party said they could not condone its passage as it works against the cultural and linguistic identity of the indigenous people of the state. All opposition parties including Congress opposed the idea of granting citizenship on the basis of religion.