The Lok Sabha passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which seeks to provide Indian citizenship to non-Muslim refugees coming from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan after facing religious persecution there, a little past midnight on Monday after a heated debate that lasted over seven hours.
The Bill, which was passed in the Lok Sabha with 311 members favouring it and 80 voting against it, will now be tabled in the Rajya Sabha for its nod.
Several amendments brought by opposition members, including one by a Shiv Sena MP, were defeated either by voice vote or division.
According to the proposed legislation, members of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities, who have come from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, till December 31, 2014 facing religious persecution there, will not be treated as illegal immigrants but given Indian citizenship.
Amit Shah defends the bill
In a reply to the debate on the proposed legislation, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said people belonging to any religion should not have any fear under the Modi government as he asserted that the bill will give relief to those minorities who have been living a painful life after facing persecution in neighbouring countries.
Shah also said the Modi government will definitely implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC) across the country and when it will be done, not a single illegal immigrant will remain in the country.
Shah said there is a difference between illegal immigrants and those who have come after facing religious persecution in the three neighbouring countries.
“No one should have any fear of being persecuted under the Narendra Modi government,” he said after nearly seven-hour-long debate which was marked by fiery speeches by MPs belonging to both the opposition and the ruling alliance.
The home minister said had India not been divided on religious lines in 1947, there was no need for the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.
“Muslim population in India has increased from 9.8 per cent in 1951 to 14.8 per cent in 2011 while the Hindu population has decreased from 84 per cent in 1951 to 79 per cent in 2011.
“Whereas, the minority population in Pakistan has decreased from 23 per cent in 1947 to 3.7 per cent in 2011. Similarly, minority population in Bangladesh has decreased from 22 per cent in 1947 to 7 per cent in 2011,” he said, adding India does not discriminate against anyone on the basis of religion.
The home minister said the Citizenship Bill will give relief and constitutional respect to those who have been living a painful life after facing persecution in neighbouring countries.
Shah dismissed the suggestions that the Bill is violative of Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees equality for everyone, as it aims to give citizenship to persecuted people only.
“This Bill is not unconstitutional and not in violation of Article 14 and has nothing to do with Muslims in India,” he said but made it clear that Rohingya Muslims, coming from Myanmar, will not be given Indian citizenship.
The home minister countered the Congress charges that the bill is communal in nature, by taking a dig at the opposition party, saying “Congress is such a secular party which partners Muslim League in Kerala and Shiv Sena in Maharashtra”.
“Modi government’s only religion is the Constitution,” he asserted.
He also said India doesn’t need a refugee policy as the country has enough laws for the protection of refugees.
Earlier, initiating the debate, Shah said the bill has the endorsement of India’s 130 crore citizens as it was part of the BJPs’ election manifestoes in 2014 and 2019.
Opposition leaders Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Saugata Roy, N K Premchandran, Gaurav Gogoi, Shashi Tharoor and Asaduddin Owaisi opposed the introduction of the bill, saying it was violative of various provisions of the Constitution, including move to grant citizenship on the basis of religion.
The tabling of the emotive bill through division of votes came in the wake of protests and incidents of violence in Northeastern states with most of the student unions and regional political parties opposing it, saying it will nullify the provisions of the Assam Accord of 1985, which fixed March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date for deportation of all illegal immigrants irrespective of religion.
“We will have to differentiate between intruders and refugees. Citizenship amendment bill does not discriminate against anyone and does not snatch anyone’s rights,” Shah said while initiating the debate on the contentious bill.
Trying to allay apprehensions of people of the Northeast, Shah said the Narendra Modi Government is committed to protect the customs and culture of people of the region and informed that Manipur will be brought under Inner Line Permit regime, where the proposed law will not be applicable.
The home minister said under the proposed legislation, citizenship will be granted to refugees coming from the three countries after facing religious persecution there even without documents, including ration cards.
Noting that India has given similar rights to people in the past, Shah said Manmohan Singh and L K Advani could become prime minister and deputy prime minister respectively due to this after they came from present-day Pakistan.
“This bill is not even .001 per cent against Muslims. It is against infiltrators,” he said earlier while introducing the bill.
Owaisi tears up the bill
During the debate, which was marked by heated arguments, AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi also tore the bill, saying it was aimed at making Muslims “stateless” and will lead to another partition.
“Please save this country from this law and save the home minister,” Owaisi told the Parliament.
Opposing the bill, Congress MP Manish Tewari said the bill is “unconstitutional” and “contrary to the spirit of the Constitution which is secular”.
“Equals cannot be treated as unequal. When a person comes to India, he is a refugee. You cannot discriminate against him on the basis of religion,” he said during the debate.
“The bill is against the Constitution, against the spirit of Constitution and against the ideology propounded by Babasaheb Ambedkar,” Tewari said.
Discrimination on the basis of religion, he further said, was not in tune with the Preamble of the Constitution which specifically mentions the word ‘secularism’.
“Secularism is embedded in the Constitution,” he said.
While NDA allies the JD(U) and the LJP extended support to the bill, fence sitters, including the BJD and the YSRCP also supported the bill while suggesting that Muslims should also be included in the bill.
Meanwhile, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said the NRC and the CAB will never be allowed in Bengal as long as the TMC is in power.
“It’s a divisive bill and shall be opposed at any cost,” she said in Kharagpur while claiming that at least 30 people have committed suicide in the state due to panic over the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha, said the government was trying to create the impression that by opposing the legislation, the party was anti-Hindu.
“We are opposing the bill because it is discriminatory in nature. It wreaks havoc on the very foundations of the Constitution. This is a step towards Hindu rashtra. India should maintain the essence of humanity,” Chowdhury said.
Surpriya Sule (NCP) said the perception is that every Muslim is feeling insecure and the largest minority community should not be felt left out.
Referring to DMK MP K Kanimozhi, Sule also asked, “What happens to those who practise atheism?“
As per the bill, “on and from the date of commencement of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, any proceeding pending against a person under this section in respect of illegal migration or citizenship shall stand abated on conferment of citizenship to him.”
“Provided that such person shall not be disqualified for making application for citizenship under this section on the ground that the proceeding pending against him and the central government or authority specified by it in this behalf shall not reject his application on that ground if he is otherwise found qualified for grant of citizenship under section.“
Protests in Assam
Protesters returned to the streets in Assam and blocked roads, burnt tires and painted walls with slogans against the bill.
Student groups called for dawn-to-dusk shutdown in four districts of the state. Shops, businesses, educational and financial institutions remained shut and public transport stayed off the roads.
“We will fight and oppose the bill till the last drop of our blood,” All Assam Students’ Union advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya told Reuters, underlining the region’s resistance against migrants amid fears that tens of thousands of settlers from neighbouring Bangladesh would gain citizenship.
In Gujarat and in Kolkata, hundreds of people staged protests and marched against the proposed law.
(With inputs from PTI and Reuters)