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December 11, 2019

Indian citizenship


December 11, 2019

The Indian Citizenship Act put into place some five years after Partition, has been amended several times. But never before has there been an amendment as controversial as The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 passed by the Lok Sabha. The Bill, opposed by the Congress and its allies, seeks to grant Indian nationality to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The logic of this has already been disputed by Indian constitutional experts who point out that Afghanistan has never been a part of India. Strengthening the idea of identity on the basis of religion, the Bill seeks to amend the definition of illegal immigrants for Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist and Christian immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who have lived in India without documentation. These persons will now be granted fast-track Indian citizenship in six years rather than the previous period of 12 years set for citizenship by naturalization.

Indian Home Minister Amit Shah has explained that the proposed legislation aimed at protecting those “compelled to seek shelter in India due to persecution on the ground of religion.” Those opposing the Bill say the exclusion of Muslims violates Article 14 of the Indian constitution which grants the right of equality to people of all beliefs. The BJP has argued that Muslims facing persecution can seek shelter in Muslim countries. Again, amidst the fierce debate triggered by this amendment, critics of the Bill argue that the founders of the country believed that the rights of all citizens needed to be upheld, and of course, even today India houses more Muslims than Pakistan.

There is also a question mark over the consistency of the Bill. It does not protect all religious minorities or apply to all neighbours. Sects that face discrimination in Pakistan receive no benefits under it. The same is true for Rohingya Muslims, and Hindus who face persecution in neighbouring Myanmar as well as Christian Tamils who have face persecution in Sri Lanka. The issue of the new citizenship act has already triggered a divide in India. Analysts have been pointing out that all the founders of India were committed to a secular state where all citizens would enjoy equal membership and equal rights. This discussion is likely to continue for some time. But it does highlight the strong desire by the BJP to convert India into a primarily Hindu nation.

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