CHANDIGARH: A controversial bill dealing with citizen and residency rights has triggered mass protests in northeastern India.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 proposed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was passed in the lower house of the Indian Parliament and will now be taken to the upper house.
The amendment relaxes eligibility rules for immigrants belonging to six minority (non-Muslim) religions from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan.
Various parties in the region have launched a strong protest in the northeastern state of Assam, questioning the bill which grants citizenship on the basis of religion.
Activists and political parties say the bill violates the “secular constitution” of the country.
– Illegal immigrants
The bill will be applicable to the entire country but the northeast is protesting as a large number of Bengali Hindus have illegally entered the region, experts say.
All Assam Students Union (AASU), one of the protesting bodies, term the bill as “damaging and unethical”.
“The bill not only will allow a section of illegal foreigners to become Indian citizens… this will completely change the demographic pattern of the region, and the indigenous people will become minority in their own motherland,” Dipanka Kumar Nath, a student leader told Anadolu Agency.
“It is our firm stand, whoever it may be, either Muslim, or Hindu, illegal foreigners are illegal. A bill to legalize illegal foreigners is really unfortunate, and that too in consideration of religious identity is really unconstitutional and unethical,” said Nath.
The move by BJP to bring the bill has also angered its allies in the northeast.
The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), a local party, recently broke alliance with the BJP saying the bill is unconstitutional. “You cannot define the citizen on the basis of religion. We have already resigned…if the government doesn’t listen to people, the situation will be more volatile,” AGP head Atul Bora told Anadolu Agency.
– Opposition cries foul
Rahul Gandhi, head of the main opposition party, Indian National Congress, said last week he was disturbed by the growing unrest.
“I am disturbed by the growing violence & unrest in the N East where religion & ethnicity are being used as weapons by the BJP to polarise the region for political gain. This type of politics, that pitches brother against brother & fans hatred, is evil & must be stopped,” he tweeted.
Maulana Maqsood ul Hasan Qasmi, head of India’s Imam Council, told Anadolu Agency that the bill is against the country’s constitution.
“The country already has a huge population. This bill is against the constitution and there is no need to give citizenship right to those people who are coming from outside and living illegally in the country,” he said.
Urmilesh, a senior Indian journalist and political commentator, believes the bill will hamper the political interest of BJP in the northeast.
“But they don’t bother so much about northeast for now because there are not many seats from that region [for the general elections]. The only interest they had was in state elections which are already over,” he said.
The BJP however maintains its has popular support in the region.
“Those who are agitating on the ground are being misguided by the people…other political opponents are trying to misguide the people…..If people are against us, then they would never vote for us,” local BJP leader Pabitra Margherita told Anadolu Agency.
Experts also say the amended citizenship bill will affect the update of National Register of Citizens (NRC).
The NRC list is unique to Assam, which was first tabulated in 1951, four years after India’s independence from British rule, to distinguish Indian citizens from illegal migrants from bordering Bangladesh.
After updating the list in 2015, the government last year left out 4 million people.
Some 3 million people have contested the claim and the Supreme Court in monitoring the process.
“The current update of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) will also be rendered meaningless if a section of illegal migrants who are left out of the list are granted citizenship based on religion,” said Wadud. (AA)