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India’s new citizenship law is not just against Muslims

It reflects a widespread fear among people in the northeast of being overrun by ‘outsiders’

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Published: December 20, 2019 05:44 AM GMT

Updated: December 24, 2019 05:16 PM GMT

India’s new citizenship law is not just against Muslims

Protesters shout slogans from a bus after being detained by police during a demonstration held against India's new citizenship law in Bangalore on Dec. 19. (Photo by Manjunath Kiran/AFP)

The uproar over the new citizenship law in India has two distinct dimensions. They are quite different but the dividing line, while crucial, is often misunderstood.

In the rest of India, including the national capital, the central belief is that the amended Citizenship Act (initially enacted in 1955) is discriminatory against Muslims, a charge naturally denied by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling BJP.

The bill amended citizenship bill allows illegal migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to become Indians, provided they are not Muslims. Protestors across India say the law discriminates people on the basis of religion.

The fear, however, is different in the far-flung northeastern states, a region that contains prominent Christian tribal communities such as the Nagas, Mizos, and Assamese (among an overwhelmingly Hindu population). They believe extending citizenship to migrants from Bangladesh will result in natives and tribal people being swamped by "outsiders."

The term "outsiders" in India's northeast does not necessarily refer to foreigners as another term used is "plain manu" (people from the plains or the rest of India)." The fear of being 'swamped' remains very strong, however, whatever the definition.

It is in this context that we must examine what a Naga Christian lawmaker, K.G. Kenye of the Naga People's Front party, said during the parliamentary debate on Dec. 11.

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