Modi's bill to grant citizenship to undocumented Hindus causes stir in India

A protester in Guwahati, Assam, India prepares to set fire to a cardboard cut-out of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi’s political party also heads the state government of Assam. Photo by Shuriah Niazi.

A protester in Guwahati, Assam, India prepares to set fire to a cardboard cut-out of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi’s political party also heads the state government of Assam. Photo by Shuriah Niazi.

GUWAHATI, INDIA — Abhijeet Barman, 43, fled from Bangladesh to India in 2009, to the northeastern state of Assam. In Dhaka, he worked as a laborer in a factory and lived in a nearby slum with his wife and children.

“My wife was once attacked by local Muslims just because of having a different belief,” Barman, a Hindu, said. “Even my children had to face religious discrimination in schools. They were treated badly by other children.”

The last straw for the family was when their shanty burned to the ground. Barman accuses his Muslim neighbors of lighting the fire to drive them out.

A decade later, he hopes for the family to obtain Indian citizenship.

In recent years, India’s Narendra Modi-led Hindu nationalist government has sought methods to better regulate and crack down on immigration. In 2016, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) introduced a bill that would redefine illegal migrants, currently defined as anyone entering or remaining in India without a valid passport or visa.

The new bill, cleared Jan. 8 from India’s lower parliament for the upper house to review, would allow undocumented immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who are Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Parsi or Christian to apply for citizenship after staying six years in India, if they arrived before 2015. The bill excludes Muslims, even the persecuted Shia and Ahmadi Muslim minorities.

The bill would also contradict a National Register of Citizens (NRC) released over the summer, an updated (but not final) list under a 1955 law intended to identify genuine citizens and deport undocumented migrants, which has left out more than 4 million residents of the northeast—many of whom are Bangla-speaking Muslims who may have migrated shortly after India’s independence. Some of those left out have parents, children or siblings on the list, passports and other records that contradict the government’s count. Despite its name, the register is not national and attempts to identify only citizens in the northeast.  

With the upper house controlled by the opposition party called Congress, the citizenship bill is not likely to pass.

People from present-day Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan that broke off from India at its 1947 independence, have migrated into India for decades. Many were Hindus fleeing religiously-motivated violence, just as Muslims fled violence in India to present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh, regions separated from India with the aim to improve Hindu-Muslim relations. Some Bengali Hindus simply feel India is their true motherland since it’s seen as the birthplace and curator of their faith.

Sheltering Hindus from Muslim-inflicted religious violence was a signature BJP campaign promise in 2014. And ahead of the general election in April or May, it’s again a prime issue for Modi’s reelection to a second five-year term. Many of his supporters want the bill to pass, except, notably, the BJP’s recent base in the northeast.

Since the bill’s lower house clearance Jan. 8, protests in the northeast, particularly the BJP-led Assam, have not stopped. Those opposing the bill argue it will give legal status to too many migrants that will burden their state. Ethnic groups worry the new migrants will fade Assamese culture and traditions by outnumbering the indigenous tribes.

While some resentment of Muslims and Bangladeshis may motivate the protests—it’s not clear how the government would prevent undocumented Muslim migrants from claiming to be Hindus to obtain citizenship— the divide in Assam’s support for the BJP’s proposal is a disagreement about whether India should shelter persecuted Hindus and why Assam should pay for it.

To allay some of these fears, the central government said the burden would be shared by the entire country and they would provide assistance to the northeastern states to implement the bill. India’s Ministry of Home Affairs then said foreigners would not be granted Indian citizenship without the consent of state governments concerned.

Currently, the BJP heads governments in half of the eight northeastern states, with ruling alliances in two others. Some BJP representatives from the region have left the party or threatened to leave if the party doesn’t take back the citizenship bill, impeding the BJP’s goal to win most of the northeast’s 25 parliament seats.

In January, in a major setback to BJP, its coalition partner in Assam the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), withdrew from the BJP-led state government over long-standing differences with the party over its Citizenship Bill. Although the withdrawal has not affected the BJP government in Assam as it commands a comfortable majority in the state assembly, it is seen as a setback to the party ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled to be held later this year and is being seen as a symbol of growing bitterness with the saffron party's policies.

Chief ministers of two northeastern states, Meghalaya and Mizoram, met India’s home minister Rajnath Singh on Jan. 17 and urged him to reconsider not to go forward with the citizenship bill.

“We have urged the [federal government] to scrap the Citizenship Bill,” Conrad Sangma, who heads the National People’s Party (NPP)-led coalition government in Meghalaya with the BJP, said. “The Meghalaya cabinet has even passed a resolution opposing the bill.”

India’s domestic affairs minister Rajnath Singh said the bill was not against the tenets of the constitution as claimed by critics.

“The bill gives shelter to the persecuted minorities in three neighboring countries who have no place to go to except India,” Singh told the media.

Leaders of United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) have warned both the federal government and the Assam’s state government against playing with the sentiments of indigenous people over the citizenship bill.

“The youths would be forced to join an armed revolution if the bill became law,” ULFA general secretary Anup Chetia said.