India’s Citizenship Bill is faced with growing protests

  • Indian government is pushing to amend the Citizenship bill 2016.
  • New bill will allow illegal immigrants from specific religions to become citizens.
  • Assam is witnessing continuous protests as the bill enters Rajya Sabha for debate.
India’s Narendra Modi government is pushing for a bill which will make illegal migrants from six religions and three countries — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan — eligible for Indian citizenship.

Even allies like Conrad Sangma, the chief minister of Meghalaya whose party is part of the National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has opposed the amendments. Representatives of 11 political parties met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh on Sunday to lodge their protest.

Even the Manipur-based filmmaker and music composer Aribam Syam Sharma has decided to return his 2006 Padma Shri award in protest.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a BJP rally in Silchar, Assam on Jan 4, 2019.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was passed in lower house of the Parliament, Lok Sabha, on 8 January, 2019. However, the upper house of Parliament, Rajya Sabha, will debate this bill in its ongoing session.

Ahead of the debate, protests have broken out in the north eastern state of Assam, where citizens alleged that the new bill violates the Assam Accord, 1985 — which led to deportation of illegal immigrants in the state regardless of their religion.

Last week families of around 855 martyrs of the anti-foreigners Assam Agitation of 1979-1985 returned the citation that the government had given them in 2016.

Unrest over the issue has sparked violent protests in state for over a month now, and Assam police has reportedly grounded over 15 people. On Friday, two people stripped down while a third person was found naked outside the Assam Secretariat in Guwahati, Assam.

Three men stage a nude protest near the Assam Secretariat in protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Guwahati on Feb 1, 2019. The protesters were swiftly removed by security personnel.

“India is a democracy, though people have the right to voice their ideas and demands, such actions are not appreciated in society,” said Assam Chief Secretary Alok Kumar. The Bill makes illegal immigrants eligible for citizenship on the basis of religion. This may violate Article 14 of the Constitution which guarantees right to equality, according to public policy research organisation PRS.

This includes amendments to permit cancellations of Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) — which permits foreign citizens of Indian origin to stay and work in India. “This is a wide ground that may cover a range of violations, including minor offences (eg. parking in a no parking zone),” PRS said.

Violence in other parts of the country

Not just Assam, the bill faced protests from around the world — students from different universities in Assam gathered at Jantar Mantar in Delhi going against the central government holding placards that said ‘No to Citizenship Amendment Bill’, ‘Down with Citizenship Amendment Bill’ seeking the government to rollback the amendments.

Activists of All Assam Students Union (AASU) block National Highway 37 as they stage a demonstration against Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, in Guwahati on Jan 29, 2019.

The growing unrest will be a challenge for the BJP ahead of Lok Sabha polls. The party has recently emerged as a political alternative in north east India. The party has managed to form the government in three out of the seven states in the region in recent years. However, the ongoing agitations may polarise the voters ahead of the next pan-India elections, and divide the votes.

Defending the amendments proposed in the bill, BJP President Amit Shah reportedly said that “There are some decisions that are acceptable to some, not acceptable to others. The BJP has thought deeply about the Citizenship Amendment Bill before bringing it. We cannot leave a large swathe of people fleeing persecution hanging in mid-air. We believe that the Bill is necessary for the country,” he said.
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