Activists of Veer Lachit Sena stage a demonstration against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Guwahati in Assam state on Dec. 7. Opponents say the bill is unjust and a threat to India's secularism. (Photo: IANS)
Church leaders and activists are dismayed after the Indian parliament’s lower house passed a citizenship bill that they say is unjust and a threat to secularism.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, to make illegal immigrants who are Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian, but excluding Muslims, from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship. The bill relaxes the requirement of residence in India from 11 years to six years for these immigrants.
The government’s logic is that these minority groups have escaped persecution in Muslim-majority nations. However, the bill does not protect all religious minorities, nor does it apply to all neighbors.
The Ahmedia Muslim sect and even Shias face discrimination in Pakistan, Rohingya Muslims and Hindus face persecution in Burma, while Hindu and Christian Tamils face discrimination in Sri Lanka.
The government argues that Muslims can seek refuge in Islamic nations.
The Lok Sabha passed the bill by a vote of 311-80 on Dec. 9 after a six-hour debate.
“The entire northeastern Indian states were against this bill from the beginning. We Christians are also with the people because this will not only affect local people but also their rights will be lost, affected and divided,” Archbishop John Moolachira of Guwahati told ucanews.
“We are totally opposed to the bill. We as Indian citizens believe in secularism, and dividing people in the name of religion will lose that secularism.
“The northeastern states are already struggling with development issues, youth, health, migration and unemployment. The government should have focused on those issues instead of bringing this bill, which is anti-people.”
Archbishop Moolachira is president of the North East India Regional Bishops’ Council.
The bill effectively ring-fences Muslim identity by declaring India a welcome refuge for all other religious communities. It seeks to legally establish Muslims as second-class citizens by providing preferential treatment to other groups.
This violates Article 14 of the constitution, the fundamental right to equality to all persons. This basic structure of the constitution cannot be reshaped by parliament, yet the government maintains that it does not discriminate or violate the right to equality.
The 64-year-old Citizenship Act currently prohibits illegal immigrants from becoming Indian citizens.
It defines illegal immigrants as foreigners who enter India without a valid passport or travel documents, or stay beyond the permitted time. Illegal immigrants can be deported or jailed.
The new bill also amends a provision that a person must have lived in India or worked for the federal government for at least 11 years before they can apply for citizenship.
Arun Pannalal, president of Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, disagrees with the bill.
“Every religion has sects. Sectarian violence is not unknown. If Shias are killed and persecuted by Wahabis in Pakistan, or if Rohingya people seek asylum and Indian citizenship, will they be shot down or sent to jail? A nation is made up of humans, not fanatics,” he said.
“It seems like political posturing with no tenable results. Political benefits may or may not accrue.”
Muhammad Arif, chairman of the Center for Harmony and Peace, said the move “is totally against the Indian constitution and a violation of human rights because the bill targets only a particular community, which is unjust and uncalled for.”
He added: “This is the hidden agenda of the pro-Hindu party [Bharatiya Janata Party], which is trying to make India a Hindu nation targeting only Muslim communities.”
The Muslim leader said that by dividing immigrants into Muslims and non-Muslims, the bill "seeks to enshrine religious discrimination into law, contrary to our long-standing, secular constitutional ethos."