Protests paralysed major cities in India’s northeast states yesterday as BJP-led ruling Hindu nationalist government won parliamentary approval for a far-reaching citizenship law that critics say undermines the country’s secular constitution.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill seeks to grant Indian nationality to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis and Sikhs, but not Muslims, who fled Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan before 2015.
The legislation was passed 125-105 by the upper house yesterday, after the lower house voted in support of it just after midnight on Tuesday. It will be sent to the president to be signed into law, with his approval seen as a formality.
“A landmark day for India and our nation’s ethos of compassion and brotherhood!,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted after the bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha yesterday.
Opponents of the legislation have threatened to challenge it in the Supreme Court, saying it violates the principles of equality and secularism enshrined in the constitution.
“Today marks a dark day in the constitutional history of India,” Congress Chairperson Sonia Gandhi said in a statement.
It is the third key election promise that Modi’s government has delivered since he was re-elected in August, re-energising his nationalist, Hindu support base and drawing attention away from a slackening economy.
For the opposition and rights groups, this is part of Modi’s Hindu-nationalist agenda to marginalise India’s 200 million Muslims -- something he denies.
The strongest reaction came from the India’s ethnically diverse and culturally unique northeastern states.
In a third day of protests in the far-flung region neighboring Bangladesh, several hundred troops, besides paramilitary forces, were deployed in Tripura state and in Guwahati, Assam’s biggest city, reported our New Delhi correspondent quoting a senior army official.
The violence also forced authorities to impose indefinite curfew in Guwahati. Internet services have been suspended in 10 districts of Assam, beginning 7:00 pm local time yesterday to prevent “misuse of social media”.
Internet services remained suspended for the entire state of Tripura since Tuesday noon. An order issued by the Tripura government also suspended SMS services of all mobile service providers. Gatherings of more than four people were banned for 24 hours.
Though no party or student body had called a shutdown in Assam, protesters, a majority of them students, fought pitched battles with security forces. Police fired tear gas shells and baton-charged protesters, who fought back with vandalizing and torching government properties and public vehicles.
Police opened fire in Assam capital Dispur to quell a protest by the agitators after water cannons, baton-charge and tear gas failed to rein them in. Police also fired at Ulubari, barely 500 meters from the state police headquarters.
Defying curfew, tens of thousands of protesters remained on the streets of Guwahati, the ground zero of protests, where most arterial roads were blocked, reported our correspondent.
According to unofficial accounts, hundreds of protesters have been detained in Guwahati and other places like Dibrugarh and Jorhat in Assam. Many protesters were injured, claimed student leaders on national television TV.
Similar incidents were reported from Tripura capital Agartala. The Congress party has, meanwhile, called a shutdown in BJP-ruled Tripura today.
Modi’s government said the Citizenship Bill sought to correct the wrong done by the partition of the country on religious lines.
The government -- re-elected in May and under pressure over a slowing economy -- says Muslims from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are excluded from the legislation because they do not face discrimination in those countries.
Also left out are other minorities fleeing political or religious persecution elsewhere in the region such as Tamils from Sri Lanka, Rohingyas from Myanmar and Tibetans from China.
Derek O’Brien, an opposition lawmaker in the upper house, said the legislation bore an “eerie similarity” to Nazi laws against Jews in 1930s Germany.
“In 1935 there were citizenship laws to protect people with German blood ... today we have a faulty bill that wants to define who true Indian citizens are,” he said.
Many Muslims in India say they have been made to feel like second-class citizens since Modi stormed to power in 2014. Several cities perceived to have Islamic-sounding names have been renamed, while some school textbooks have been altered to downplay Muslims’ contributions to India.
In August, Modi’s administration rescinded the partial autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, and split it into two.
A citizens’ register in Assam finalised this year left 1.9 million people, many of them Muslims, facing possible statelessness, detention camps and even deportation.
Modi’s government has said it intends to replicate the register nationwide with the aim of removing all “infiltrators” by 2024.
Amit Shah, Modi’s right-hand-man and home minister, has likened illegal immigrants to “termites”.
“The Indian government is creating legal grounds to strip millions of Muslims of the fundamental right of equal access to citizenship,” Human Rights Watch said yesterday.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom on Monday termed the bill as a “dangerous turn in the wrong direction”.
India’s foreign ministry retorted that the remarks were “neither accurate nor warranted” and “guided by their prejudices and biases”.