The lower house of the Indian parliament has passed a constitution amendment bill to grant citizenship to non-Muslims. The controversial bill aims to make Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan eligible for Indian citizenship. Leaving out Muslims and minorities from non-Muslim neighbouring countries from the bill, India has told the world it is only concerned about non-Muslims in its territory and not worried about the plight of minorities in bordering non-Muslim states.
The proposed law also lends credence to the general impression in India and the outside world that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is promoting hardline Hindu politics in a country, which is officially a secular state. Critics say the move is divisive and citizenship cannot be granted on the basis of religion. The bill also violates the constitution, as India is a secular country, they say. Protests against the proposed legislation started in India’s northeast, where resentment against illegal immigration from neighbouring Bangladesh runs high. The protesters burned tyres and damaged two BJP offices in the northeastern state of Assam and police said 700 were arrested. A third of Assam’s 32 million residents are Muslims, the second-highest number after Indian-administered Kashmir. Many of them are descendants of immigrants who settled under the British rule. India’s 1.3 billion people are about 80 percent Hindu and 14 percent Muslim, with the rest made up of Christians, Sikhs and other minorities. It is officially a secular nation, but the BJP has for years contested elections on a Hindu nationalist platform, with party members in the past being accused of making anti-Muslim statements to polarise Hindu voters.
With the new bill, the BJP government is trying to convince Assamese Hindus that their loyalty should lie not with the indigenous Muslim communities of their state, who speak their language, but with Bengali Hindus. For now, the majority of Assamese Hindus seem not convinced by Hindu nationalist arguments. The bill will not only cause division and conflict in the northeast of India but also significantly contribute to the ongoing Hinduisation of India, Aljazeera said in a report. Under the new bill, migrants belonging to six religious communities, who entered India without necessary documents before 2014, would not be imprisoned or deported and would gain permanent citizenship after six years of residency in India.
The government says the bill aims to provide succour to persons who have been persecuted in their homelands because of their religious identities and who have “nowhere else to go but India”. The proposal assumes persons who identify as Muslim cannot be persecuted in Muslim-dominated countries and, therefore, excludes all Muslim immigrants. Critics have questioned the reasons behind the government’s decision to limit the scope of the bill to migrants from Muslim-majority neighbours of India. Some have argued that the fact that the proposal excludes thousands of undocumented immigrants from Sri Lanka, Nepal and most importantly Myanmar implies that the Indian government is not at all concerned about the persecution of minorities if they are not living in Muslim-majority countries. Indeed, when members of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority sought refuge in India after being persecuted in their home country for their religious and ethnic identity, the Indian government did not attempt to provide any legal protection for them. On the contrary, the members of the government perceived the desperate refugees as a threat to India and made attempts to force them out of the country. In the context, the claim that the bill is a humanitarian gesture aiming to help people in need does not hold.
In fact, BJP’s main strategist for the northeast, Himanta Biswa Sarma, recently exposed the real purpose of the bill: protecting India’s so-called Hindu identity. Before the citizenship bill was put to a vote in the lower house of parliament, Sarma, who is also the finance minister of the state of Assam, said, “If the bill is not passed, then Hindus in Assam will become a minority in just next five years. That will be advantageous to those elements who want Assam to be another Kashmir and a part of the uncertain phase there.” And soon after the bill was passed, the minister argued that the decision might have prevented Muslims from taking control of Assam’s 17 assembly seats and the Muslim leader of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), Badruddin Ajmal, from becoming the chief minister. By using the potential electoral success of Muslim Indian citizens, who have every right to contest and hold public positions, as a way to legitimise the citizenship bill, Sarma clearly demonstrated that the purpose of the bill was not to “help” anyone, but to protect and promote Hindu supremacy in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also admitted that the bill was tied to his party’s desire to make India a Hindu nation that prioritises the rights of Hindus irrespective of their citizenship.
According to the Bloomberg, India’s government is not acting purely on humanitarian impulses. After all, at the moment the most persecuted minority on India’s borders are the Rohingyas who have fled Myanmar; being Muslim, they’re very obviously not welcome. The amendment could be summed up in one phrase: “No Muslims please, this is India,” it said in a report. The initiative is the latest in the BJP campaign led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of general elections set to take place early this year promoting India as a sanctuary for persecuted Hindus globally, the Washington Post noted.
The citizenship bill is being seen as a part of the BJP’s larger ideological and political agenda to transform India into a “Hindu homeland”. The party believes India belongs to Hindus and everyone else are invaders. It is clearly using the bill to send a message to the Hindus in other parts of India that under their rule, “Hindus will always come first”. It also fortifies Hindus’ quest to expel Muslims from the country and contributes to the ongoing Hinduisation of India.
Analysts say the Indian government has proved Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s “two-nation theory” right by passing the bill. It has made India’s 170 million Muslims to feel unwelcome in their own country. India has held together because the muddled secular liberalism that united most of its founding generation was enshrined in its laws. If India abandons the principles, it will become a darker and more dangerous place, most especially for the hapless Muslim minority.