A little after midnight, on Tuesday, the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha after a lengthy debate. The debate saw much drama — Asaduddin Owaisi tearing up the Bill and Amit Shah thundering at the Congress, holding it responsible for why the Bill needed to be brought in.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 enables illegal migrants, or those who have overstayed their visas, who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from three countries — Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan — to apply for Indian citizenship. The Bill has exempted certain areas in the North-East from this provision — the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura. The applicant should have entered India on or before December 31, 2014, to be eligible for citizenship.
‘Why leave out Muslims?’
The Bill changes the way people can apply for citizenship and essentially adds religion as a criterion for eligibility.
The Bill has been criticised for granting citizenship based on religion and violating Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees equality to every person and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. This applies to people even if they are not citizens of India.
The opposition parties in India have called the Bill unconstitutional, adding that it goes against India’s secular identity and propagates the idea of alienation of Muslims, which could also in the future prove to be detrimental to the Muslims living in India as well.
What about those persecuted in other countries?
Union Home Minister Amit Shah argued in the Lok Sabha on Monday that these non-Muslim refugees from the three nations often face religious persecution in their countries and so India will provide them a safe haven to stay.
Critics have stated that in case the government wanted to protect minorities in countries around them, why does the Bill not include groups like Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, Ahmadi and Shia Muslims in Pakistan and Sri Lankan Muslim Tamils as well, when there have been several reports and studies that they too face religious persecution. It is not just non-Muslims who face persecution in these countries, but different sects of Muslims too.
The government also has been questioned as to why other countries neighbouring India have been left out, like Sri Lanka, Nepal and Myanmar.
‘Is it really reasonable classification?’
Home Minister Amit Shah cited ‘reasonable classification’ as the basis for excluding Muslims from these countries. He stated that since these three nations — Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh — were Islamic countries, Muslims are not likely to face religious persecution in these countries.
"The people of the six minority communities who migrated to India following religious persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan will be given Indian citizenship as per this Bill. They are being given citizenship on the basis of reasonable classification. The Bill does not violate Article 14 of the Indian Constitution," Shah said.
Former Union Minister P Chidambaram hinted that the battle over the bill may move to the Supreme Court as it may be passed in Rajya Sabha as well, since the opposition may not have the numbers to vote down the bill. Will the reasonable classification argument stand in court?
Former judges have opined that any classification that is based on religion cannot be reasonable. Justice Madan Lokur told NDTV, “I don’t think reasonable classification is valid as it must be a rational classification which has a nexus with the objects sought to be achieved.”
Speaking to Hindustan Times, former Chief Justice of India Justice RM Lodha opined that exclusion based on religion may not satisfy the touchstone of constitutional provisions.
Why northeastern states in India are protesting
Several citizens of northeast India have been staging massive protests over the bill. Their main concern is the influx of Hindu migrants from Bangladesh, which they say will threaten the identity of indigenous communities. The protesters have alleged that the seven north-eastern states have already faced a massive influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh.