At the stroke of midnight, the Lok Sabha passed the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, after over seven hours of heated debate during which Home Minister Amit Shah invoked the Partition and said that the BJP had to bring the Bill because the Congress had partitioned the country in 1947 on the basis of religion.
Responding to criticism from the main Opposition party that the proposed law was “divisive” and “communal”, Shah said while introducing the Bill: “Why did we have to come up with this Bill? If during Independence, this country was not partitioned by the Congress on the basis of religion, this Bill would not have been needed.”
The Bill was eventually passed at 12.02 am Tuesday by a division of votes with 311 in favour and 80 against. In his reply before voting, Shah responded to charges by AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi that the Bill was a precursor to implementing the National Register for Citizens (NRC) across the nation. “We don’t need to set a background for the NRC. We will bring the NRC across the country… Not a single infiltrator will be spared,” Shah said.
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Replying to criticism linking the Bill to the BJP’s idea of a “Hindu Rashtra”, Shah said that the population share of Hindus had decreased since Independence. “People are saying that the Indian Constitution is going to become a Hindu Rashtra. In 1951, there were 84 per cent Hindus, now it is 79 per cent. In 1951, Muslims were 9.8 per cent of the population, today they are 14.23 per cent. We have not done any discrimination on the basis of religion. And it will not happen,” Shah said.
The Home Minister said that the only intention of the proposed law was to give citizenship to illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who fled to India because of religious persecution and have been leading a “terrible” life.
Insisting that the provisions were not violative of the basic principles of the Constitution, the Home Minister pointed out that he had held consultations over the Bill with 140 delegations across 119 hours, and described it as a “rights giver, not a rights taker”.
Countering criticism that Muslims were being singled out for exclusion, Shah said that if a “sajjan” (well-meaning) Muslim from the three neighbouring countries applied for citizenship, it would be considered — but outside the purview of the Bill. Referring to Rohingya, however, he said they would not get citizenship because they came via Bangladesh.
Cleared last Wednesday by the Union Cabinet, the Bill seeks to provide Indian citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, Jains and Parsis — it leaves out Muslims — who entered the country from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan until December 31, 2014.
According to the Home Minister, the six communities mentioned are being persecuted in the three neighbouring countries and the Bill sought to grant “positive discrimination” to them. “In 1950, the Nehru-Liaqat agreement was signed for protecting minorities in India and Pakistan. They were protected in India but in Pakistan they were persecuted. Are you saying Muslims would be persecuted in Pakistan and Bangladesh? It will never happen,” Shah said.
Recounting instances of persecution of minorities in the three countries, Shah said, “There is a fundamental difference between a refugee and an infiltrator. This Bill is for refugees. If, because of votebank politics, your (Opposition’s) eyes and ears are shut, then open them. Lakhs and crores of people who have been living in hell, deprived of any basic facilities, staying on on railway tracks… Because of (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi, these people are going to see a golden dawn.”
Noting that Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are Islamic countries, Shah said: “Just because of this, the possibility of justice for minorities in these countries diminishes.”
Delighted that the Lok Sabha has passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 after a rich and extensive debate. I thank the various MPs and parties that supported the Bill. This Bill is in line with India’s centuries old ethos of assimilation and belief in humanitarian values.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) December 9, 2019
The Union Minister announced that like in the rest of the North East, Manipur would be exempted from the purview of the Bill as the government would approve the Inner Line Permit (ILP) regime for the state. Manipur has already passed a Bill in this regard, which is pending with the Centre. The Bill keeps out of its purview all ILP states — Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland — and the Sixth Schedule regions in Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya.
During the debate, Shah said that Article 14 (Right to Equality) was not absolute and that special provisions for certain communities have been adopted in the past based on the principle of “reasonable classification”.
“The Bill does not violate any article of the Constitution. Read Article 11 fully to know. People are talking about the right to equality. Under Article 14, through reasonable classification, legislation on citizenship can be brought,” Shah said. He said the Bill was also not violative of Article 14 as it was “not for any specific class, but for all minorities”. “If we were doing it just for Hindus or Parsis, then it would be a violation,” he said.
The Home Minister cited instances when illegal migrants suffering persecution in other countries were provided shelter and citizenship in India. He said citizenship was given to refugees during the Partition of 1947, the 1971 war in Bangladesh, the Sri Lanka conflict and from Uganda under the regime of Idi Amin.
“It was given under the idea of reasonable classification. In other countries, HNIs or those who can contribute positively are given citizenship. Does it not violate the Constitution? Does facilities and rights given to minorities and minority institutions violate Article 14 of the Constitution? It comes under reasonable classification,” Shah said.
Referring to Muslims, Shah said: “If from these three countries, a Muslim… a sajjan Muslim…applies for citizenship under the existing laws, it would be considered. But they cannot avail of provisions under this Bill as they have not been persecuted in these countries.”
Responding to Owaisi’s question on why he “hated Muslims”, Shah said: “We have no hatred towards Muslims. But you (Owaisi) don’t stoke it. This Bill has nothing to do with Indian Muslims.”
When MPs from south India criticised the Bill for not including refugees from Sri Lanka, Shah said, “At different times, different sections of people have been given citizenship. When Partition happened, all who came were given citizenship. Lankan Tamils were given citizenship when, in 1964, an agreement was signed… At that time, Bangladesh and Pakistani people were not given citizenship. Whenever there has been an intervention on citizenship, it has been specific to a problem. This time, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan refugees are getting it.”
Shah also issued an appeal to MPs, “especially from West Bengal”, to explain to people that there was nothing to fear about the Bill and that there was ample protection for those who entered the country illegally or overstayed.
“There are people who have come here and then bought houses, scooters, etc. Someone has got a job or has got married. When they apply for citizenship, they will be proven to be foreigners. But nothing will be held against them…Whether you have ration card or not, as Home Minister I tell you, you will get citizenship. Bengal MPs should tell people in the region,” he said.
A new provision in the Bill states that proceedings pending against any person for his or her inability to meet the citizenship criteria earlier, if eligible for citizenship under provisions of the new 2019 Bill, will be granted citizenship and the proceedings will abate.
Attacking the TMC, which has opposed the CAB and NRC, Shah said: “(TMC MP) Abhishek Banerjee… said NRC and CAB are traps. No. It is a simple Bill. But those who want to shelter infiltrators for their votebank may feel it as a trap. I want to tell them that lakhs of people who are going to get this citizenship are Bengalis. You don’t want them to become citizens?”