India’s Lower House Passes Citizenship Bill That Excludes Muslims

On Tuesday, January 8th, India’s lower house of congress approved a bill that would grant residency and citizenship to a number of currently illegal migrants. The bill seeks to gain rights for people who migrated illegally to India from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This bill amends the preexisting law in India that prohibits naturalization for illegal migrants. Though this bill will grant rights to these groups, the bill makes a point to exclude Muslim migrants from being eligible for the same rights. This incorporation of exclusionary ideology into the bill is likely the result of efforts from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to gain support from Hindu voters in the upcoming elections in May. The bill surfaced in the midst of enormous protests of nearly four million occurring in the northeastern state of Assam. The millions of people protesting were mostly those concerned with their own chances of attaining citizenship after they were excluded from the draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) published last year. Few were protesting the exclusion of Muslims from the bill.

As a result of the controversy surrounding the bill, it is not expected to find support in the upper house of parliament as the chamber is not controlled by the ruling party. Suhas Chakma, director of the New Delhi Based Rights and Risks Analysis Group, told Al Jazeera that the bill was “absolutely unconstitutional as it targets specific groups” and as a result would likely not come to fruition. Additionally, though the bill was meant to gather support for the BJP, critics are saying that it may have an opposite effect. Chakma added in the interview with Al Jazeera that the bill “is going to backfire on the BJP,” referring to the protests in Assam. Many protestors think that the bill is too accepting of illegal migrants, and this is why they reject it. In an interview with Al Jazeera, one protestor named Samujjal Bhattacharya, leader of the All Assam Students Union, suggested that the bill has made him weary of the BJP. Bhattacharya stated, “already, we have a whole lot of Muslim migrants from Bangladesh who entered Assam illegally over the years. Now, the government is trying to make a law seeking to confer citizenship to Hindus from Bangladesh. We want all illegal migrants to be detected and deported, irrespective of their religion.” The bill has caused negative reactions from larger government organizations in Assam as well. An alliance of BJP, the Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) or Assam People’s Party quit the coalition government on Tuesday to protest the new bill. The AGP president, Atul Bora explained why the organization was protesting the bill, stating how “we have always opposed the entry and presence of illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Our party was formed in 1985 with the promise of freeing Assam from illegal migrants from Bangladesh” and as a result of the BJP’s new bill “we, therefore, cannot remain an ally of the BJP.”

Despite the uproar regarding the new bill, immigration is not a new topic of controversy for India. For the past 15 years, Assam’s Muslim population has been on a steady increase, growing from about 31% to 34% between 2001 and 2011, according to the Washington Post. This increase in Muslim presence sparked political pushback from Assam locals. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2016, he made numerous claims that he would get rid of the Muslim population in Assam that had migrated from Bangladesh. In accordance with these claims, Modi developed an immigration policy that granted rights to migrants from Bangladesh who entered the country before 1971, 1971 being the year that Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan. After this date, all migrants from Bangladesh would be ineligible for naturalization. However, when the Indian government attempted to deport Muslim migrants back to Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi government would not recognize them as Bangladeshi citizens and thus blocked their entry. So where do these migrants go?

This is the question driving the creation of the bill introduced in this article. The bill seeks to allow certain migrants to be naturalized and live freely in India, but it also seeks to exclude other migrants, such as those with Muslim affiliation. To create a truly fair and just immigration system, more needs to be done to accept migrants of all backgrounds, especially those with Muslim background. India houses 10% of the world’s Muslim population according to the 2011 census. Additionally, it needs to be realized that most of these Muslim migrants emigrated from Bangladesh in order to flee the violence and oppression that was occurring as a result of the Bangladeshi fight for independence. More needs to be done in Bangladesh to improve opportunities and living conditions to allow people to return or remain there safely.

Isabel Slingerland