REBUTTING the Opposition’s charge that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was anti-Muslim because it excluded Muslims, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said Wednesday that the Bill “does not harm” Muslims in India and is not about “snatching the citizenship of Muslims.”
“It is about granting citizenship to religious minorities from neighbouring countries…I don’t want any Muslim to be scared…This Bill does not harm Indian Muslims at all; what could their problem be (with the Bill) in giving citizenship to refugees from these countries, the persecuted minorities? …Indian Muslims are citizens of the country and will remain so…Muslims have no need to fear or worry,” he said.
Shah was replying to a nearly eight-hour-long fractious debate on the controversial Bill. Subsequently, it was passed by the Rajya Sabha after a division which saw 125 vote in favour and 99 against.
All Opposition amendments, including one to send the Bill to a select committee, were defeated. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill eases citizenship for Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists and Christians who seek refuge in India after facing religious persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Since the list does not include Muslims from these countries, the Opposition has alleged discrimination on the basis of religion in granting citizenship which, they argued, is against the fundamentals of the Constitution.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, absent in Lok Sabha on Monday when it was passed in the Lower House, was not present in Rajya Sabha on Wednesday as well. After the Bill was passed, Modi tweeted: “A landmark day for India and our nation’s ethos of compassion and brotherhood! Glad that the #CAB2019 has been passed in the #RajyaSabha. Gratitude to all the MPs who voted in favour of the Bill.”
In his 77-minute speech, Shah invoked history, the BJP manifesto and multiple references to Modi as he piloted the Bill all the way.
In the last lap of his speech, Shah said that on key issues, the Congress’s views and statements were similar to those coming out of Pakistan. “On issues like air strike, surgical strike, Article 370 and now CAB, the statements of Congress leaders are the same as the statements from Pakistani leaders. On CAB, the Congress leaders have said the same things as (Pakistan PM) Imran Khan said yesterday. Pakistan even quoted Congress leaders (on Article 370) in the United Nations,” Shah said.
A little later, as Congress benches continued their protests when he was narrating instances of religious persecution in Pakistan, Shah shot back: “Why does Congress get angry when anything about Pakistan is said?”
Attacking the Congress for “accepting Jinnah’s terms of Partition” on religious lines, Shah said that the Modi government was fulfilling the Nehru-Liaquat Pact of 1950, even though Pakistan never honoured the spirit of the pact.
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“There is no appreciation (from Opposition) that this Bill includes six religious sects which are minorities in those countries. How is this not secularism? Only when Muslims are included, will you accept it as secularism? Your definition of secularism is a narrow one, while ours is vast,” Shah said. At one point, responding to Samajwadi Party MP Javed Ali, Shah said: “Even if you want, India will never be free of Muslims,” he said.
Quoting from a book by historian Jagdish Saran Sharma, Shah said: “On 25th November, 1947, the Congress party resolved to protect non-Muslims who came to India then and in future also. Congress never abided by its own Resolution,” Shah said.
He quoted Gandhi from September 26, 1947 that Sikhs and Hindus in Pakistan should be accepted in India. Quoting Manmohan Singh when he was in the Opposition in Rajya Sabha during the first NDA government, Shah said Singh had said that India had a “moral responsibility” towards “unfortunate” minorities facing persecution in Bangladesh.
On the specific criticism by many that the Bill was in violation of Article 14 of the Constitution as it was discriminatory on religious lines, Shah said that the Bill was about giving something to “a class of people” and not to any religion.
“We are not giving it (citizenship) to one religion but a class of people who are facing religious persecution and danger to their lives,” he said, adding that there are several Supreme Court interpretations of Article 14 to support this. To P Chidambaram’s contention that the Bill may be struck down by the Supreme Court, Shah said anyone was free to go to court. “We should not be scared of that. If that happens, I think the Bill will be termed right in the court as well,” he said.
Responding to a clarification sought by party MP Swapan Dasgupta on NRC, he said, “it (NRC) will be implemented in the entire country, including West Bengal”.
On the exclusion of Muslims from these countries, Shah said the Modi government has so far granted citizenship to over 566 Muslims from these three neighbouring countries. “Since Islam is the state religion there, chances of Muslims facing religious persecution there is very less,” he said.
On why Sri Lanka and Myanmar are not part of the Bill, Shah said that Sri Lankans have been given citizenship and shelter whenever any “specific problem demanded solution”. “We have not included the Rohingyas because they don’t come directly to India as refugees. They first got to Bangladesh and then enter India as illegal immigrants,” he said, adding, “When Indira Gandhi accepted refugees from Bangladesh, why did no one question why Sri Lankans were not being given citizenship too? That’s because India has done this several times in history while addressing specific problems as and when they come up.” He said that the government was bringing this Bill to solve a specific problem.
On the Opposition jibe that the Bill was brought to distract the attention from the state of the economy, Shah said, “We practise electoral politics on our own strength and the popularity of our leader.”
On Leader of Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad’s contention that there is no authoritative data on minorities persecuted in these three countries, Shah said that the numbers were low because in absence of provisions to get citizenship, refugees were scared to come forward. “If the law doesn’t cover them and you ask if you’re a foreigner, who will say yes”. He said for 70 years, these refugees “had been forgotten” and they were “living in hell” and the new Bill would give them a new beginning.