A controversial Bill in India that offers citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from three neighbouring countries has moved closer to becoming law.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was passed by the Lower House of Parliament, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies command a majority.
The move set off violent protests in Assam and other north-eastern states which share a long riverine and land border with Bangladesh, one of the three countries named in the Bill. Locals have long protested against what they say is the influx of migrants from there, citing pressure on resources and a threat to their identity from the growing number of Bengali-speaking migrants, both Hindu and Muslim.
The Bill's passage on Tuesday prompted Asom Gana Parishad, an Assam party and ally of the BJP government, to withdraw its support.
The BJP has defended the move, arguing that India has the "moral obligation" to shelter persecuted refugees from neighbouring countries. It is seen as an attempt by the party to shore up support among its Hindu voters in the run-up to parliamentary elections this year.
The Bill proposes to open up Indian citizenship to non-Muslim illegal migrants from six minority communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who have been in India for at least six years. The communities are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians. It, however, excludes Muslim minorities such as the Ahmadiyyas from Pakistan or the Rohingya from Myanmar, a country that shares a border with India but which has been left out of the scope of this Bill.
Opposition parties walked out of Parliament in protest and criticised the Bill as a divisive move that links citizenship to religion. The BJP now faces the hurdle of clearing it through the Upper House of Parliament, where it is weaker.
The Bill also undercuts a major Supreme Court-monitored citizenship verification process under way in Assam to identify illegal migrants. The move seeks to update the 1951 version of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) with names of individuals (or their descendants) who are listed in the state's electoral rolls or hold other documents, issued up to March 24, 1971, proving they are citizens.
The Assam Accord, signed between Assamese protesting groups and the government in 1985, deems residents who entered the state after March 24, 1971 to be illegals and requires them to be "expelled in accordance with law".
The BJP has endorsed the NRC as a way to crack down on illegal migration. It has, however, struggled to square its opposition that is directed against Muslim migrants with that of local groups in Assam and other north-eastern states, who oppose migrants irrespective of their religion. The party sought to calm opposing groups last week by setting up a high-level committee to suggest ways to safeguard interests of ethnic Assamese, but this failed to soothe frayed nerves.
Now, about a million residents of Assam are closer to losing their citizenship rights after they failed to contest their exclusion from the NRC. A further three million, however, had filed fresh claims by the deadline of Dec 31 to be included as citizens of India.
Of the total 32.9 million residents who produced documents to prove they are Indian citizens, around 29 million made the cut. The claims filed by those excluded will now be verified along with around 265,000 objections filed against those already in the register. This process is expected to be concluded by the end of June.
If left out of the final version of the NRC, individuals have the option of seeking legal recourse, though this would be a daunting and costly exercise for many poor people. While deporting the "illegal migrants" has been mentioned unofficially, most believe this option is not on the table. Instead, media reports suggest that those deemed "illegal" will lose privileges such as the right to vote, own property or receive state welfare benefits. They may, however, be allowed to continue to live in India on a "work permit".
More than 92,000 individuals have so far been declared foreigners in Assam (through processes independent of the NRC) but only around a thousand of them are housed in detention centres meant for illegal migrants. The others continue to eke out a living on the margins of society.
"I don't think the government wants the large numbers who may be declared as foreigners under the updated NRC to be housed in detention centres or to deport them. Instead, they would like them to be stateless and stripped of their rights and remain in India as second-class citizens," said Mr Abdul Kalam Azad, a human rights researcher based in Assam.
In 1997, the election commission had identified 370,000 individuals as "doubtful voters" in the state and disenfranchised them. "Of these, 125,000 are yet to prove their citizenship. So, this process will go on for a long, long time and those excluded will have to fight a long battle to retain their Indian identity," he added.