NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - India's Parliament approved a controversial bill that prevents illegal Muslim migrants from neighbouring countries from receiving citizenship after hours of heated debate among lawmakers and protests in some parts of the country.
The bill, which offers amnesty to non-Muslim illegal migrants from three neighbouring countries, was approved in the upper house of Parliament on Wednesday (Dec 11) after it secured more votes in favour of the legislation. The bill was passed in the lower house on Monday.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi doesn't command a majority in the upper house, but managed to cobble together the numbers needed to pass the legislation.
The bill amends existing citizenship norms to include religion as a criteria. That has raised concerns that it will erode the values laid out in the secular constitution of the world's second-most populous nation.
It has sparked fear among the country's Muslim minority. There have also been huge protests in the country's northeast, which borders Bangladesh and where locals fear the new law could mean an increased influx of migrants.
The legislation provides citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who illegally migrated to India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Muslims are excluded from this list.
"This bill is for the religious minorities who came here from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Muslims are not minorities there," Home Minister Amit Shah told Parliament as he argued that the legislation didn't discriminate against Muslims. "There is a difference between infiltrators and refugees."
This proposed law will go along with a contentious citizenship registration drive in eastern Assam that has put the citizenship of about 1.9 million people, with many Muslims at risk. Shah has said that a similar registration drive would be carried out throughout the country.
"Clearly, none of it has been thought through," said Neelanjan Sircar, assistant professor at the Ashoka University and visiting senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. "These moves are for some electoral or positional gains. This is going to be a massive mess."
The opposition has called the citizenship bill anti-constitutional because it makes religion the basic requirement for citizenship.
A US federal commission has called for sanctions against India's home minister should the legislation be passed.This was the second attempt by the Modi administration to amend citizenship laws. In January, the legislation was passed in the lower house of parliament but lapsed as the upper house didn't take it up.
Over the last two days, thousands of protesters in Assam have clashed with police, who have fired tear gas shells to control the crowds. Protests have also taken place in other northeastern states including Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Tripura.
The army has deployed two columns in Tripura and put two on standby in Assam in response to the protests, the Press Trust of India reported. Internet services in 10 districts of Assam will be suspended for 24 hours from 7 pm local time on Wednesday.
"The people in these states fear a change in demographics if outsiders are allowed in," said Lorho S. Pfoze, a member of Parliament from Manipur and an ally of Modi's coalition. People in his state are protesting in solidarity with their "brothers in the plains of Assam."