New Delhi — India's Hindu nationalist government is seeking changes in the country's citizenship laws that critics call unconstitutional and anti-Muslim. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government on Monday introduced the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which would extend citizenship rights to only non-Muslim illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
The government says the new law will give refuge and rights to people fleeing religious persecution in the three neighboring countries. But critics have railed against the legislation as unconstitutional for singling out Muslims, precluding them from having the same rights as people of other religions.
Existing Indian law does not allow illegal immigrants to become Indian citizens. The new bill seeks to change that for refugees from the three countries in question, provided they adhere to one of six religions other than Islam.
India's secular constitution, which was partly adopted from the U.S. Constitution, guarantees everyone equal rights regardless of their religion.
During a heated discussion in parliament on Monday, opposition leaders said the bill proposed by the government violated the fundamental right of equality in the constitution.
"What we are objecting to is precisely what they intend," said leader of the Indian National Congress, Shashi Tharoor. "It's not as if they don't know what they're doing."
India's Home Minister, Amit Shah, argued that the bill is "not even 0.001% against India's minorities," and senior leader of Modi's ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), Ram Madhav, insisted it, "is not about excluding anybody; it is about INCLUDING refugees from Pak-Af n B'desh, victims of religious persecution or fear of it."
Critics say the legislation is really aimed at driving out or detaining hundreds of thousands of Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh who have lived in northeast Indian states for decades. It would also likely impact Rohingya Muslims who have poured into India from Myanmar in more recent years. While the Rohingya people have lived in Myanmar for generations, that country's government often refers to them as Bangladeshi immigrants. India's government has asked the country's Supreme Court for permission to deport them.
Politician and activist Yogendra Yadav said the proposed legislation was "against the very idea of India."
Several people were arrested at protests that sprung up against the bill in Delhi and other cities. In the northeast state of Assam, student groups have threatened to stage major, disruptive protests if the bill is passed.
Parties loyal to the government have a majority the lower house of India's parliament, and while it may face some hiccups in the upper house where the numbers are much closer, the bill is likely to become law.
If the government does manage to get the legislation through both houses of parliament, it will likely be challenged in the country's Supreme Court, which does have the power to strike down legislation deemed unconstitutional.
"Pincer movement against India's Muslims"
The Modi government has also promised to extend a citizenship registration scheme across the whole country. In Assam, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was recently rolled out, which requires all state residents to show proof of family residency going back decades. The process in Assam alone excluded about 1.9 million people, mostly Muslims, who under the proposed legislation would face possible detention.
India's detention centers for illegal immigrants in Assam, which critics say are similar in many ways to the infamous detention centers for Uighur Muslims in China, have drawn scrutiny recently.
Critics see both the citizenship bill and the vow to extend the NRC nationwide as part of a wider plan by Modi's government to marginalize Muslims.
"Together, the NRC and the CAB constitute a pincer movement against India's Muslims," lawyer and commentator Gautam Bhatia wrote in the Indian Express. "Their combined effect is to deny to Muslims equal moral membership in the polity. In the history of the 20th century, such legally-sanctioned regimes of discrimination have been seen before: In fascist states, the epitomes of morally and ethically bankrupt regimes."